In Praise of Spiders
An Old Maine Kitchen Tool
Spanish tortilla with Maine potatoes, onions, and eggs: a Mediterranean lagniappe in Maine’s black-iron spider
"Fetch me down that black-iron spider," my mother said whenever she was ready to start on one of her famous dishes--American chopped suey, for instance, which owed a lot more to Italian ancestry than to Chinese, made as it was with ground meat, tomato sauce, and elbow macaroni; or tuna casserole, a mix of canned tuna, Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, maybe some frozen
My mother’s tuna casserole with baking powder biscuits (biscuit recipe at www.kingarthurbaking.com/recipes)
peas, chopped scallions, diced green peppers, and a dollop of sour cream, topped not with potato chips but with baking powder biscuits. Or cornbread--no cornbread ever tasted right, she declared, that wasn’t baked in the deep, wide, cast-iron skillet she called her black iron spider.
Clearly that skillet was one of the most useful implements in her kitchen. But why was it called a spider?
A Spider’s Origin
The term is purely American, and some say it's purely southern, which is patently ridiculous because my mother never went south of Delaware until late in life when my father had enough money to pay for winters in Florida. The three earliest American cookbooks from the South (The Virginia Housewife, 1824; The Kentucky Housewife, 1839; The Carolina Housewife, 1847) don’t refer to spiders at all; in those books, housewives, or the women who cooked for them, fry in frying pans, not spiders.
You might think, given its ancestry, that “spider” is a British term, but that doesn't bear out either. None of the 18th century cookbooks, including the venerable Hannah Glasse‘s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747), mentions spiders. Nor does Amelia Simmons, who wrote what is likely the first ever American cookbook (American Cookery by “an American orphan”) in Connecticut in 1796. In fact, one of the earliest references to a spider that I’ve found is in Lydia Maria Child's Frugal Housewife (1829). Child refers to a spider as a skillet: “In broiling chickens, it is . . . a good plan to parboil them about ten minutes in a spider or skillet, covered close to keep the steam in,” or as a bake-kettle for what she calls Indian cake or bannock, meaning what we would call cornbread: "Spider or bake-kettle well greased; cake poured in, covered up, baked . . . according to the thickness of the cake.” If a spider can also be a bake-kettle, it sounds close to that skillet my mother used, which was a good three inches deep.
I've given a little thought to the origins of my mother’s spider. I think the term is one of those words that we encounter every so often in the kitchen, a word that lingers on, long after it’s lost its original meaning—sort of like ricotta in modern American cooking, a term that has lost all relationship to its Italian origins. Just so, the original spider, it seems, was a pan that sat on three legs so it would perch comfortably on the hearth above a bed of coals. It didn't really look like an eight-legged spider at all but may have reminded hearth cooks of a peculiarly truncated arachnid. And the name stuck. And much later, as flat-topped stoves became common and hearth cooking went the way of sulphur matches, the earlier vessels, no longer useful, evolved into skillets or frying pans or. . . spiders.
In any case, a black iron spider or skillet, whatever you want to call it, is indeed useful, and a whole series of them, such as I have in my kitchen, even more so. I have the original deep kettle, like my mother’s, with a lid that fits snugly on top; skillets in different sizes, including one foraged in an antiques shop that just
holds a single fried egg for breakfast; a square pan with long ridges that’s meant for searing steaks and chops; and a flat, low-sided griddle that’s perfect for pancakes and is also great for searing asparagus, a fine treatment for that herald of spring.
Fresh spring asparagus: delicious seared in extra-virgin olive oil on the black-iron griddle until just tender.
The great advantage of iron is that it’s virtually indestructible and easily takes high heat. Professional cooks, like my daughter the chef, will sear over very high heat then move the pan to a lower temperature to finish off a dish, sometimes adding liquid in the form of wine, broth, or even water. It's a good technique with meat or fish, giving a nicely browned, often crisp exterior. In my family, we also make what we call "burnt vegetables”--strips or slices of vegetables like zucchini, eggplant, carrots, onions--vegetables that don't have a lot of juice to ooze out. Slice them, dip the slices in a little extra-virgin olive oil, then sear them on a black iron surface like the griddle I mentioned, turn once, and dribble with lemon juice and a little fresh oil before serving. And spider cake or skillet bread or Johnny cake, a quick bread made in the black-iron skillet with yellow or white cornmeal, is an American classic. John Thorne, the food writer, produced just such a corn cake for me one Maine morning when I dropped into his kitchen unannounced. He heated a spider almost red hot, added the batter and transferred the skillet to a very hot oven—500 degrees, he said—for just 20 minutes or so.
The pan doesn't have to be searingly hot to be useful, though. In my smallest spider, just six inches across, I fry or scramble an egg or two over gentle heat and because the skillet is so well seasoned, it's like using a nonstick pan. If anything does stick, a soak in the sink will usually dislodge stubborn bits. And a little soap to remove grease is okay as long as it’s a brief encounter.
A deep skillet, like my 12-incher, is great for deep frying. Southern cooks traditionally use this for batter-fried chicken but it's just as good for battered fish or whole young spring-run smelts, lightly rolled in cornmeal before frying. .
Restoring a cast-iron find
One of the best things about black-iron cookware is that it's so darned cheap. I'm not talking about enameled cast iron like the French Creuset line, which --although gorgeous--can set you back so far you may never get up again, but rather plain, home-grown Lodge cast iron, or an old cast iron spider you might find in a yard sale or antiques shop. A 10-inch new Lodge skillet costs just $27.95 at williams-sonoma.com, while a yard-sale purchase is anyone's guess. Genuine antique skillets can be very expensive: Those made by Griswold, a venerable Pennsylvania company that lasted nearly a century, closing down in 1957, are highly collectible, costing thousands of dollars in good condition.
Often, when you're buying used cookware, it doesn't look at all promising, but it can be fairly easy to restore even the most grotty looking iron pans. I found one in the galley of a boat we bought a few years ago and worked on it over a couple of days, scrubbing it gently with a Brillo pad inside and out, then rinsing it and setting it aside to dry. It still didn't look like much but most of the rust had come off. I tossed in a small handful of coarse salt and about a quarter cup of some old olive oil that had lost its punch and continued scrubbing with the salt and oil combination until the skillet was starting to look like what I wanted. Again, I rinsed it and dried it. Finally, I heated the oven to 400º, covered the bottom of the spider with a good film of olive oil, set it in the preheated oven and simply left it for about 40 minutes, then turned the oven off and let the pan cool down. I wiped out the excess oil with paper towels and it was ready to go. I tested it with a cornbread recipe and it was as good as anything that comes out of my Creuset skillets and at least $180 cheaper.
Cornbread right out of the oven
This is my interpretation of the cornbread John Thorne made for me one morning in Maine. Be sure to use a good corny cornmeal, as fresh as possible. I like Liberation Farms stone-milled cornmeal from corn grown and processed by a group of Somali Bantu farmers in Auburn, Maine. The corn these New Mainers grow is a very tasty heritage grain they brought with them from their African homeland. You can find it at www.mainegrains.com.
Cornbread: A Very Simple Recipe
First set your oven on 450º. While the oven is heating, cut a thick slice of slab bacon (or salt pork or pancetta if you wish), about 2 ounces, into small dice. Toss the dice in an eight-inch spider and set over medium heat to brown and sizzle. While that’s cooking, mix together about ¾ cup of good cornmeal (scant 4 ounces, 100 grams) with ¼ cup of unbleached all-purpose flour, a half teaspoon of baking soda and a good pinch of salt. In another bowl combine a cup of buttermilk with an egg and whisk together. When the porky bits in the spider are crackling, crispy, and edged with brown, remove them from the heat and let them cool down a bit, then whisk them into the buttermilk, leaving just enough fat in the spider to lightly coat the bottom. Set the spider back over medium heat while you stir the buttermilk into the dry ingredients, mixing just enough so there aren’t any big, dry lumps in the batter. It should be pourable, but not runny, sort of the consistency of thick cream. Add some more buttermilk if you think it’s too thick.
By now the fat in the pan should be smoking hot and the oven very hot. Pour the batter into the spider, tilting to run it out to the edges, being very very careful because it should be really hot. Immediately set it in the hot oven. and bake for about 15 minutes or until it's golden on top and the center is firm when the pan is gently shaken. Invert the whole cake onto a plate or cutting board and serve with the brown crust on top.
Quick cornbread with Maine-grown cornmeal from Liberation Farms
Eat it smeared with butter if you wish, but it is delicious as is. It's even better with a dollop of fruity jam or marmalade, home-made preferred. This should make enough for four to six people, depending on what else is served.