There were few things as synonymous with grandma’s house in the coalfields of Mingo County, West Virginia, as the cast iron skillets that were never too far from her stove… or her hands for that matter.
Whether it was cornbread, gravy or beans, if it came from her kitchen, you could rest well assured that it was created with the help of a heavy piece of cast iron cookware she simply referred to as her “irrren skillet”.
“There just ain’t no other way to cook food,” I once heard her say, criticizing one of her daughter-in-laws who had opted to commit the unpardonable sin of frying eggs on one of those newfangled teflon-coated aluminum non-stick pans.
“I ain’t gonna eat it,” she stated resolutely, unwavering in her loyalty to the millennia old cookware.
For my feisty grandmother, the iron skillets in her kitchen represented something more than a piece of cookware, for her, it was a way of life and a source of mountain pride – a tradition that would not die so long as she had breath in her lungs.
On another occasion, I remember her being dogmatic in her argument that cooking with a cast iron skillet was far more healthy than those new pans – “All these people who have quit cooking with a real skillet are going to realize one day that their bodies needed that ‘irrren.'”
And as it turns out, she just might have been on to something!
According to multiple studies, cooking with cast iron cookware may provide incredible health benefits, especially to individuals who suffer from anemia.
An American Dietetic Association study found that cast iron cookware can leach significant amounts of dietary iron into food. The amounts of iron absorbed varied greatly depending on the food, its acidity, its water content, how long it was cooked, and how old the cookware is. The iron in spaghetti sauce increased 2,109 percent, while other foods increased less dramatically; for example, the iron in cornbread increased by only 28 percent.
It is critical, however, to state that what may be health benefits to some can just as easily be health detriments to others: People suffering from hemochromatosis (iron overload, bronze disease) should avoid using cast iron cookware for this same reason, as iron leaching into food will have adverse effects upon their health.
In 2003, Professor B. J. Brabin of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in Liverpool, England, wrote the following conclusion in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics:
“The introduction of iron pots or improving their use in communities in developing countries for the preparation of food maybe a promising innovative intervention for reducing iron deficiency and iron deficiency anaemia. Further research is required to monitor the use and effectiveness of this intervention.”
Imagine that, all this time, the knowledge to save the third world may have been tucked away in the mind of a little old granny in West Virginia! Here’s to you grandma!
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