Cast-iron skillets, muffin pans and griddles hang on the walls of Sharry Nail's Buckingham kitchen like an arsenal of weapons ready for the call of duty at a moment's notice.
They make attractively rustic accents against the room's clean, white walls, but they're not merely decorative. Collected over the last 43 years, her cast-iron cookware produces crusty corn bread, crispy fried okra, jambalaya, biscuits, corn sticks and much more. These heavy-duty pans also carry the weight of family history. Nail's great-grandmother and her grandmothers cooked with some of them. Someday, she will pass them on to her children.
"It's the way I was brought up," says the 61-year-old Alabama native affectionately known as "Ma Roux." "Good food, good memories. That's what it's all about. There is no better way to keep family and friends close than a good meal cooked in cast iron."
Especially in the South, cast-iron cookware is an essential, versatile, even beloved culinary tool. The country cousin of fancy stainless steel-clad, it holds heat well, sears effectively, cooks evenly and costs far less than the shiny pots and pans celebrity chefs wield on Food Network. A starter skillet will set you back less than $20 at a hardware or discount store, and you can use it for searing (steaks), frying (chicken) or baking (cobbler).
"It's a must-have," says Rebecca Lang, a contributing editor for Southern Living magazine and author of the recently published "Quick-Fix Southern" and other cookbooks. "I don't know what I would do without them. The longer you use them, the better they get."
Why do they age so well? If properly seasoned and carefully maintained, cast iron achieves a slick surface over time without the chemicals that go into coating most nonstick cookware.
"With cast iron you can get an incredible sear on something like a steak that is nearly impossible with a nonstick pan," Lang says. "I haven't run into anything I can't cook in it."
Her Athens, Ga., kitchen is home to a still-growing collection of cast-iron cookware from family members as well as flea markets. The most precious piece was handed down, of course
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