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UnCommonwealth: Scott County man knows everything, and then some, about cast iron cookware

Jim Nance showed some of his inventory of restored cast iron skillets at his home near Georgetown, Ky., on Dec. 10, 2015. Nance collects and restores the skillets, dutch ovens and other cast iron cooking items.
Jim Nance showed some of his inventory of restored cast iron skillets at his home near Georgetown, Ky., on Dec. 10, 2015. Nance collects and restores the skillets, dutch ovens and other cast iron cooking items. palcala@herald-leader.com

Jim Nance’s living room and kitchen are filled with cast iron cooking pieces that are between 70 and 140 years old, and are priced from less than $100 to more than $900.

Nance, who taught kinesiology at the University of Kentucky for 35 years, started using cast iron when he cooked outdoors with one of his colleagues as part of an outdoor life program. He first used a chuck wagon Dutch oven. The big pot, which is the official Texas state cooking implement, can be used to cook a big variety of dishes, and coals can be placed both on the top and below. The chuck wagon Dutch oven is great for beans and stews and even for treats such as pineapple upside-down cake and sourdough rolls, Nance said.

Nance, 77, buys, restores and sells cast iron cookware. He restores older pieces by giving them a thorough cleaning with his process that involves lye, electrolysis and delicate wire brushes.

Nance is so devoted to cookware that, he said, he’s the kind of person who watches the Rachael Ray show and wonders what brand of pan the TV personality and celebrity cook is using.

Cast iron cookware is a mystery to many. Some of Nance’s customers think that older cast iron should have layers of dark carbon/grease buildup around it to look vintage. Nance disagrees. The cast iron he sells has an incredible layer of detail in its design, from its labels, which can reveal when pieces were made, to intricate designs, such as a bunny cake pan that is so detailed it has tiny hair indentations for the animal’s fur.

Many of Nance’s pieces were produced by the Griswold company of Erie, Pa., which began operating shortly after the Civil War. The company lasted through various incarnations, but the Erie plant closed in 1957. General Housewares made products under the Griswold and Wagner brands until 1999.

It’s the older pieces that are prized by collectors for their level of detail and their distinctive branding.

“They were way ahead of their time in labeling stuff,” Nance said. “That’s what makes it collectable.”

You may have a cast iron skillet or two, maybe even a waffle iron. But chances are you don’t have the pieces that Nance does, such as stick bread molds in both corn and wheat patterns.

Nance takes cast iron pieces such as skillets and waffle irons with him when he goes on vacation. They cook well, he says, and given the proper care, can last a lifetime or longer.

At the antique and cooking shows Nance attends, people ask him esoteric questions and some not-so-esoteric ones, such as whether he knows how to clean cast iron (which he of course does) and why he ruins old pieces by cleaning them, which puzzles him.

Nance plucked a skillet from a pot rack for a lesson about cleaning cast-iron: Do not let your skillet sit around dirty and do not put it in the dishwasher. Wash it immediately, heat it slightly to dry (in the oven or on the stove) and give the interior a light rub with oil.

People love to share stories with Nance about how their parents and grandparents used cast iron cooking implements.

“It’s a history lesson,” Nance said.

A customer in Washington state stands out.

“He wants everything. He has over 10,000 pieces,” Nance said. “I don’t know if he even knows how to cook.”

Although Georgetown’s aggressive growth has nearly caught up with the Nance’s formerly country home, Nance and his wife Jan are still able to get by in a pinch with their woodstove for heat and cast iron cooking implements for cooking on it. . The pair once did not have power for eight days, putting Nance’s cooking expertise to a real-life test.

Some of the pieces Nance shows have “heat rings,” a sort of platform that allows them to be set right into the woodstove. Smaller pieces that Nance displays are intriguing remnants of an earlier era. A wax ladle was used to seal canning jars. A small tool with chain attached, called a kettle scraper, filled the role of a scouring pad before items such as Brillo pads were widely available.

Nance’s daughter Heather Priest, a chef in Connecticut, uses cast iron skillets, and won on the TV cooking show Chopped episode titled “Get It Together” in 2011, her proud father said.

Nance was asked about the $975 item, a six-slot muffin: Is it worth it?

“These have sold for as much as $1,500,” Nance said. “It’s a real good product.”

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman

Do not let your skillet sit around dirty and do not put it in the dishwasher. Wash it immediately, heat it slightly to dry (in the oven or on the stove) and give the interior a light rub with oil.

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