The devotees of the pseudoepigraphical corpus of Hermes Trismegistus and the Winter King and Queen and the attendees of the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and the other Protestant weirdos of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries carried forth manufacturing midnight puffs of smoke and alchemical incantations principally on the nostalgic and optimistic belief that God had long ago revealed the Transformative Opus to a series of ancient prophets by way of a lot of buried golden plates, receivething of visions in pajamas, and automatic writing sessions, and that those prophets thereafter generally mismanaged their prophecies by obfuscating them in secret handshakes, toga party sex positions, partial illuminated manuscripts, and fragmentary artifact burials whose locations were recorded on enriddled pirates’ maps that were then promptly lost, partially burned, or thrice-again enriddled, and that—even so—a polymath with a good chemistry set and an understanding of the movement of the stars could realistically reassemble the Transformative Opus and thereby unmoor the lost city of Atlantis and trigger a rapturous fireworks program that would illuminate the surface of this dim amniotic minor sea we currently float upon by cooking sulfur past its two boiling points as Venus transects Mars and while the dew is still on the grass, or whatever it was God had whispered in the pajamad prophets’ ears so long ago.
Alas, the sixteenth century party pooper Issac Casauban discovered the Hermetica to be linguistically appropriate to the second century, instead of to the more profound era of Moses, as had been previously assumed, and the alchemical practice deflated into history and was replaced by stark rationalism and the ruination of the eyes on theological movable type.
Until it was reawakened again recently by Brooklyn-based pocketknife curators and lifestyle magazines in the form of investigations into the seasoning of cast iron cookware. No sooner had grandma’s cast iron pan been rescued from the cultural basement than a strange mythology began manifesting everywhere that cast iron pans were objets parfaits that could be candied with unimpeachable non-stick finishes given the application of various oils and precisely-conducted candying techniques. You may have read the recent ballyhoo about the discovery of linseed oil as a superior cast iron seasoning agent, for example, given its flash point and hardening properties. And you may soon after have read about the revival tent full of crestfallen home cooks holding up gummied pans with plow-handle-flavored trouts glued to them.
Accompanying this alchemical desire to train iron pans to reflect the night sky and be slippery rinks for fried eggs is a suddenly voluminous apocrypha about the keep and care of cast iron cookware including various dish soap prohibitions, complicated drying procedures, and stern warnings about metal utensils, acidic foods, and dishwater temperatures, all of which is delivered in a way suggesting that these potions and procedures are the entrustments of olden folklore and family heritage, which they aren’t. My grandma had very nice cast iron pans that reflected the night sky just fine, but they got that way because she cooked a thousand fried trouts and pans of cornbread in them over a period of fifty years. She washed her pans in warm soapy water and came near to them with metal spatulas all the time. She saw to it that they didn’t rust, naturally, and she didn’t bang on them with an aluminum meat hammer, but she didn’t pamper them and worry over them and weigh in about the seasoning of her friends’ pans.
It shouldn’t amaze us I suppose that the cast iron pan has become a symbol du jour, given its heft and old-fashioned connotations: a bona fide monolith to stub one’s toe on along the existentially-empty container-ship spice route. However, I’m not sure how we hypnotized ourselves into believing our forebears were aclutter with this sort of dogma about the absolute secret best ways to do everything. As it turns out, grandma’s magnificent pickled green bean recipe was not so much secretly inscribed inside an ancient pilgrim’s hat band as it was unceremoniously copied from the label of a bottle of Heinz distilled vinegar. Just as the Hermitica was falsehearted, so there is no perfect pan-ointment buried by God a long time ago in a dirt hill, nor is there a God at all.
Even so, the emptiness of everything can be somewhat batted-in by frying Spanish peanuts in your frying pan to bottle up and give as Christmas gifts, which—as it happens—has the accidental affect of seasoning your cast iron pans perfectly, although so does accidentally frying five hundred trouts and cornbreads over a span of many years. This technique—the Spanish Peanut Technique—was passed down to me from my mom, although not in a wizardly way, and works simply because the frying oil is accidentally kept at the smoking point for a long period of time without getting too hot. It doesn’t get too hot because of the peanuts, which absorb the heat and take up the excess oil and also donate microscopic detritus that is welded into the pan in a not-very secret or noteworthy way, making it shine to high heaven, were there a high heaven, which there isn’t.
My mom’s Christmas peanut recipe, which is rigged with extraordinarily spicy chiles and chile powders is an ancient family secret that I cannot share here. Instead, I will take you a little ways into the recipe—through the pan roasting part—and then veer into an altogether different kind of peanut recipe.
To begin with, we’re talking about raw Spanish peanuts with their skins on. Fill your cast pan pretty deep with peanuts on a medium-hot flame and then pour a glug of cooking oil in along with maybe a tablespoon of salt. You need to stir them more or less constantly for fifteen or twenty minutes, keeping them from charring too deeply and so that they retain a little of their rawness. If you want to know about the absolute secret best way to eat peanuts it’s eating them after they’ve been roasted and salted in their shells for awhile but not so long that they don’t still have a rawness inside them in the sunshine at a day game at Wrigley Field.
When the peanuts are roasted put them aside and work on putting together your caramel. Put a cup of sugar, a tablespoon of butter, a teaspoon of Thai fried chile paste, and a 1/4 cup of water together in your saucepan and cook over a medium-high flame with lots of stirring until it begins to reduce and caramelize and vigorously boil.
You may not be the kind of person that likes their candied peanuts to taste sort of fishy, but I am and so I like to add a tablespoon of fish sauce to the boiling caramel. A little soy sauce might also give you some salty deepness, but it will not make you think of the impenetrably weird ocean and storm battered palm trees like fish sauce will.
When the caramel is boiling and looking blonde and bubbly, pour your panful of peanuts in there and stir them for a little bit until things start to dry out and seize up. Sort of like sulfur, which has two boiling points as I mentioned before, your caramel will go from being soft and liquid to sandy and hard all of a sudden and it will be difficult to stir.
The caramel has re-crystalized according to the movement of the stars and you need to just keep vigil and continue to stir until the second melting point is reached and things begin to loosen up again, which will happen in three or four minutes. At this moment, which is loaded with significance, take the pan off the flame and stir in a 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda, which will put something of a spell on the caramel, lightening and leavening it.
Then pour the peanuts out onto some parchment paper or silicon baking mats to harden. After an hour you can bust them up and put them into jars and give them to your friends for Christmas instead of having to buy them seasons of TV on DVD.
3 cups peanuts
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon Thai fried chile paste
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon baking soda