COVIDSelf Care

How Cast Iron Skillets Taught Me About Loneliness And Community

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Cast iron skillet.

Cast iron skillets can teach us many things. (David B Townsend)


I spent quarantine capturing and rehabilitating street corner cast iron. 

I live in a part of Oakland where the curbside economy is thriving. Between freegans, moving dumps, and shops unloading inventory, there’s an understanding that what shows up on the corner is for grabs and, when you’re done with it, back to the corner it goes. 

I was non-essential throughout Covid lockdowns, a term that sounds like an insult until you look at the fine print detailing how lucky you are. It was something I considered while I was confined to my apartment and on long walks alone. Like a lot of non-essential people without kids, I filled my alone time with new personalities. I was a runner, briefly. I became convinced I would love to start a Youtube channel. (That horse didn’t even get out of the barn before it was abandoned.) I rolled through hobbies just to keep the panic at bay. 

But to the cast iron, I became devoted. It started with a skillet the color of a sunset sitting in front of a single family home in one of the more residential parts of Mosswood. It was next to a Bartlett pear tree that had the fragrance Bartlett pears are known for — farts and wet dog. I didn’t have any cast iron at my apartment. I didn’t know how to wash it or cook with it or experience it outside of a Country Kitchen logo. But I picked it up, figuring at the very least it would make a good defensive weapon, and set it on my counter amongst the dirty dishes. 

The first time I hosted a friend at my house post-quarantine, we’re editing his book. He works in the food service industry, specifically wine, and we are in several, ongoing fights that I hope we never stop having. One of them is about Riesling. I do not like Riesling. He thinks I am wrong. And he is trying to change my mind by bringing over Rieslings he greased the palms of fortune tellers and winos to get, possibly even actual German monks. He brings them over to my house to lubricate further arguments about writing and poetry. I tell him the Riesling is very good, because despite myself I like it, and he says “eh, it’s alright.” 

He drinks the Riesling from a jam jar I’ve saved and washed and his wife says to me, “He must really like you if he didn’t mention it.” 

The next day, I found a wine glass with fancy silver-tone etchings on a street corner. I call it the Riesling cup. Only the street corner’s finest for my friends. 

The cast iron skillet sat on my counter for several days as I Googled what the hell to do with it. Craft Youtube was my replacement for social interaction, and I thought about the potential of what leaving quarantine could bring. Maybe if I restore this cast iron, I can learn how to cook with it. Maybe if I learn how to cook with it, I will someday have people to cook for. If I have people to cook for, maybe we won’t all have died and have forgotten each other. 

I start with a diluted vinegar soak overnight. I’m the granddaughter of an alternative medicine enthusiast who swore by the importance of vinegar and four thieves oil. I watch the solution lift whole sections of the rust off like snake skin. I skim the film off the top and toss in the trash. 

Oakland street corners are as abundant as they are photogenic. (Howie Mapson)

I’m from the Rust Belt originally, the expanse of states that is considered Flyover Country, that used to be places like Rubber City and Motor City but now are crime statistics and warnings. Cultural wastelands. I’m descended from immigrants who came to farm and cut timber, and there’s something that feels ancestral about taking steel wool and buffing out the patina of orange lichen attached to the black pan. I watch the way the reaction of iron to moisture cracks and rivets like the lines on my palm. I learned the formula for rust is Fe2O3. I learn I am healing corrosion, adding oil to sooth what I imagine is blushing hurts rather than just a mineral reacting to another mineral. 

I have no idea what I’m doing, I think. Or what I am going to do once I finish. 

A third of my friendships didn’t survive quarantine and I had a full changeover of people I consider close. 

One of my new, dear— because they only come in new, dear, and old, dear— friends texts me on the new moon and asks what I want to have happen. I tell them, I want us to trust each other enough to cook together. 

After oiling the skillet, I couldn’t stop finding cast iron. Lodge pots with lids, small palm-sized pans that someone got for a gift that are perfectly sized for a single egg, and I just kept taking it home. Adopting strays and trying to love them in the hopes I will become the sort of cook who is officious about cast iron pans. 

By the time the “non-essential” became “mandatory hybrid return to offices,” I have collected and cured five pieces of cast iron, oiling and gingerly loving them back to a semblance of what I consider “health.” The rates of Covid hospitalization are rising, but our sick time has been cut, our benefits are over, and Covid news is shouted out by louder news updates. 

My great aunt died in a hospital alone from Covid, and I had to tell my coworker what it was like to attend a Zoom funeral so that he would get the vaccine. We now are four cubicles from each other. 

I finally attempted to bake in my cast iron after hearing from my company’s CEO regretfully tell us employees that we were expected to be back in offices four days a week. I immediately found a skillet cake recipe. It will be plain; that’s okay. It’s June, berry season, and I replace the calls for vegetable oil with butter. 

I do not know if it’s not a good cake or if I am not good at this. I imagine it’s a combination. Cast iron is notoriously uneven, and because the oven’s temperature in my apartment is guesswork, I assume the number on the dial is the number in the oven. It appears that this is not the case. But once the fire alarms all get taken down and shoved into a plastic bin to make them stop screaming, I scrape the cake out of the pan. 

I know how to remove the rusted hurt, but the next great adventure is learning how to make something of it. The cake is not good enough for company, but I ate the whole thing.

Lauren Parker is a writer and mixed media artist in Oakland, CA. She’s the author of the chapbook We Are Now the Thing in the Woods with Bottlecap Press, and has written for the Toast, Strange Horizons, The Racket, Xtra Magazine, Catapult, and Autostraddle. Find her on Instagram @fuckyeahlaurenparker. 

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