Cornbread in a cast-iron skillet

Skillet Diaries: A Cast-Iron Legacy

How family skillets and recipes helped pass down treasured memories for Black families leaving the South during the Great Migration—and to this day.

This article is part of our series, Migration Meals: How African American Food Transformed the Taste of America. During the Great Migration, millions of African Americans left the South and settled in the rest of the United States, bringing rich culinary traditions with them—sweet potato pie, black-eyed peas, mac and cheese, barbecue and so much more.  

During America's Great Migration, more than 6 million Black people living in the South courageously waved goodbye to loved ones, homes and familiar land in search of a better life. Among clothing, tools and family records, oral history passed down from these migrating families also reveals a relatively heavy addition for many of these trips north. The family cast-iron skillet often made the cut as an invaluable cooking tool, offering a trusted approach for reproducing family dishes far away from home.

This weighty addition to the trip took the place of many other pots and pans for a variety of recipes. It offered evenly distributed heat and the ability to transfer from stovetop to oven. It also offered a physical reminder about cooks and cooking from a generation before. For many migrating families moving far away from home, the cast-iron skillet had become a treasured family heirloom.

As a first-generation child of the Great Migration and the oldest granddaughter of a family cook, I describe my grandmother as a Creole-Soul recipe storyteller. I only recall Granny losing patience in the kitchen with her biggest fan once. I was in the second grade, visiting Mobile, Alabama, when I referred to the huge lump of a black cast-iron skillet on top of her stove as "ugly."

Granny didn't say a word. But I'll never forget that morning's glare. This kitchen incident prompted a serious conversation about the value of cast-iron skillets. And my first lesson, which included the first time I heard Granny describe the big ugly black cast-iron skillet as a "well-seasoned and treasured heirloom" wouldn't be my last. This was the beginning of what would become a lifetime of learning and respect for what Granny described as the centerpiece of kitchen tools and the equipment needed to make the most of our family recipes.

"Well-seasoned … that means salt and pepper?" I asked Granny after my skillet lessons began. Instead of using words to answer, she demonstrated rubbing the inside of her skillet with a vegetable-oil-soaked paper towel to keep a smooth cooking surface. "This is what I call seasoning," she said, explaining how smoothing with oil reinforces the nonstick cooking surface built up by decades of fat.

"Just one more part to our first skillet lesson," Granny added that day. "Since we're not going to use soapy water to clean a skillet we've protected with oil, we're going to scrub dirty skillets with the seasoning you mentioned earlier, minus the pepper."

"How do you clean with salt?" I remember asking. Granny smiled as she sprinkled the black insides of the skillet with salt and used a kitchen rag to scrub, before rinsing and leaving the oiled surface in place.

Later, I would learn about cleaning skillets with stiff brushes and even using a chain to scour what was becoming my favorite kitchen cookware without disturbing the oiled coating. I would learn to use a towel to dry completely the new skillet I purchased in a hardware store before storing it until the next use. Like most new skillets, it was described as pre-seasoned but I used Granny's oiling tips to season it even more.

Cornbread in a cast-iron skillet

Get Donna Battle Pierce's Creole Skillet Cornbread recipe.

Credit: Jerrelle Guy

When Granny passed away more than three decades ago, she left a beautiful well-seasoned skillet to me with these written instructions: "It's yours to season and enjoy as much as you like, but when the time comes, it will be your duty to pass it on to the right person with careful instructions."

With the very well-seasoned skillet on my stovetop, I'm never alone in the kitchen. At different times I've felt the sudden reminder of dearly departed grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, old friends and long-ago neighbors when I prepare shrimp Creole, shrimp scampi, pizza and homemade rolls.

The skillet is essential for preparing my grandmother's Creole cornbread recipe, flavored with a spicy Creole seasoning and lightly sweetened with sugar. As a regional issue, cornbread seems to add to the debate when it comes to the difference between white and Black Southern cornbread recipes. Most white Southerners turn a thumbs-down for adding sugar. Northern whites enjoy sweet cornbread. With few exceptions, Black cooks in the North and South prefer the sweetness of the sugar stir-in. Like many recipe choices, I say since preferences depend on flavors served by your grandmother, add more or less sugar to taste.

Yesterday, while rubbing an oil-lined cloth over my heirloom skillet's polished cooking surface, I suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of Granny's approval with a reminder. Yes, it's time to finalize skillet lessons with the two family finalists in line to be the next generation's skillet caretaker. Coarse salt or table salt for scrubbing? I'll recommend sea salt.

Donna Battle Pierce is a journalist and columnist. The former test kitchen director and assistant food editor for the Chicago Tribune, she is currently writing a book about Freda De Knight while revealing previously excluded culinary contributions from Black family cooks, chefs and writers at SkilletDiaries.com and BlackAmericaCooks.com. Her nonprofit Skillet Project bridges generations to help elders pass down family recipes.

Photographs by Jerrelle Guy. Follow Guy on Instagram @chocolateforbasil.