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Cast-Iron Chefs: Hunting season heralds black pot cooking

Don't ask someone for a recipe when it comes to cooking in a cast iron pot.

You're likely to get general directions that include "just put some (fill in the blank) in there and stir it for a while."

Cooking in a black pot is more of an art than a science. Much of it is knowing what looks right.

Now that fall is officially here, and hunting season is just around the corner, people all over the south are trading out the cast-iron fish fryer for the cast-iron jambalaya pots and cornbread skillets.

The black pot is an icon of southern cooking -- especially south Louisiana and Cajun cooking -- but, it risks falling into the generation gap if today's 20- and 30-somethings don't pick up where their parents and grandparents left off.

"It's like Cajun French," said Shelley Jinks Johnson of Alexandria.

"My mom's family was Cajun. They spoke French, but it wasn't something they taught, because it was looked down on. Instead, it was something they used to talk over the kids. It was kind of the same way with cooking."

In the past few years Johnson, 37, has become more interested in cooking -- and in maintaining the kitchen traditions with which she grew up.

"My grandfather was originally from Marksville, and the only way he ever cooked jambalaya was in a (cast iron pot) that he hung in the fireplace over an open fire," she said.

She's inherited several of her mom's cast iron skillets and a pot that may have belonged to her grandfather. For black pot cooking, the older the pot the better.

"With cast iron, you'd rather have one that's old and used than to go buy a new one," Johnson said.

The newest member of the Johnsons' cast iron clan is a large stew pot Shelley bought her husband, Calvin, a little over a year ago.

Calvin Johnson is originally from Bayou Chicot in Evangeline Parish.

"That's just how you cook, especially with rice and gravy," he said. "My mother cooked with a cast iron pot every day."

Cast iron is unlike any other store-bought cookware in that you can't (or shouldn't) just pull it out of a box and prepare a meal with it.

The tradition of cast iron includes the ritual of burning out and seasoning the pot.

While techniques differ, the main component of seasoning a black pot is fat.

"I just basically built a fire in my fire pit outside, and I let (the pot) sit on top of the coals," Calvin Johnson said.

"I kept pouring oil on it -- I just used vegetable oil -- and I kept pouring oil, and pouring oil. You're really never (finished seasoning). The more you cook in a pot the better it gets."

It's easy to tell how old a cast iron skillet is. Look at the bottom. If it's slick, it's probably been used for many years.

Marksville resident and grocery store owner Lonis Kelone has his mother's 9-quart cast iron pot.

"Throughout the whole time I was coming up, my mother always cooked in a cast iron pot," he said. "It's the only pot she ever had. I'll bring it out every now and then and cook something in it."

Kelone has several black pots at his house -- one for every occasion -- and even more at his store, where he both cooks with them and sells them new (and seasoned).

Kelone seasons his pots a bit differently than Calvin Johnson seasoned his.

"First I take a scouring pad and soap and get it real clean," Kelone said. "Then I take hog lard and wipe the inside and outside of the pot with the lard. After that, I put it in the oven at 400 degrees for an hour and a half.

"Then, I take it out of the oven and put it in a vat that all of the hog lard is in, I just dump that hot pot in the hog lard.

"When the pot cools, it draws in some of that hog lard. I let it soak in the lard for two or three days. I wash it again, and after that I soak the pot in hot cracklin' grease for two or three days."

Kelone understands that not everybody who buys a new cast iron pot will want to go through the trouble of soaking it in hog lard.

"My suggestion to anybody who buys a pot is cook something fattening in it," he said. "But, don't fry fish in it when you first buy it. The pot will absorb that fish flavor."

The simple act of preparing the pot for cooking is enough to make health fanatics run the other way.

Black pots aren't meant to cook health food. They're all about comfort food.

"There is nothing that makes a gravy as good as a cast iron pot," Calvin Johnson said.

"It's ultimately a gravy machine. The secret to getting a good gravy -- you start browning your meat, and you brown it until it almost gets burned, and then you brown it some more. Put a little splash of water to deglaze the pot. Then, you put all the onions and bell peppers and all that in there. It does takes some time."

A well-worn cast iron pot becomes non-stick, which, along with the iron itself, helps it make a dark brown gravy without burning.

"A black pot has no hot spots in it," Kelone said. "The heat is evenly distributed. Meat usually sticks on hot spots."

Preparing the pot for its first meal is one ritual, and cleaning it after use is another.

"You never wash a black pot in soapy water -- and you really never put it in a dish washer," Kelone said. "You rinse it out with hot water and wipe it down. Store it with the lid off it, because it'll rust if you put the cover on it."

Kelone said his favorite black pot meal is pork stew with turnips, while Calvin Johnson prefers pot roast.

Shelley Johnson uses her skillets for cornbread and biscuits, two things she said should never be cooked in anything but cast iron.

"It's hard to explain what cast iron does for flavor," Kelone said.

"It adds character to your gravy. Every time you cook with it, you're getting flavor from everything else you've cooked in it."


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