DUELING FRY PANS
Analogous to Dueling Banjos, this story tells about dueling cast iron fry pans and those who gripped their sizzling hot handles.
My father Swisher Wilson, and Uncle Spud, as I affectionately called my dad’s best friend, initiated me as a teenager into a ritual of 6am breakfasts at least once a month on weekends. The early hour was agonizing painful to a teen staying up late and enjoying sleeping in. I used to think that in some perverse way the two of them took pleasure in routing me out of the sack.
The breakfast venues would alternate between their two kitchens and backyards. Over the years, the breakfasts progressed into a right of passage. They had a profound influence on my choice of a career, a bride, and family values.
I’ll tell you more about the hearty breakfast menus later and why a mid-day nap was often a consequence. To understand the ritual of the dueling fry pans, let’s begin with the principals.
My Dad was born on a farm in Cherokee, Iowa, not too far from Spirit Lake. The last Sioux Indian massacre in Iowa occurred in nearby Spirit Lake. Theirs was an act of retribution for a series of failed promises from the U.S. government. Years later, his mother told stories of itinerant Indians politely knocking on the farm door for any food that could be spared.
Swish loved agriculture and animal husbandry. But, he lacked mechanical aptitude so necessary to function on a farm. Had he remained there, he would have fractured a lot of fingers and toes.
Instead, Swish wisely joined John Deere following a degree in journalism at the University of Iowa. He was a gifted and extroverted communicator who was one of the few at Deere to survive the Great Depression years of the 1930’s. As a young copywriter, he extolled the virtues of Deere’s expanding product line. As the company grew and prospered, so did his career. He rose to creative director, overseeing a large in-house ad agency.
Swish used to pride himself as the copywriter who made the first horse and then tractor drawn mechanical manure spreader famous. When among other first generation off the farm Deere employees, he would unabashedly recite a poem he had written and do a little dance jig to convey the game changing abilities of this contraption. In later years, his antics would embarrass my mother and sister. But, it would elicit roars of laughter from my farmer relatives and I who always appreciated a well-spread “bull” story.
Once Swish became suspicious of the quality of color that appeared in Deere advertising. To confirm that the department had a problem, he contracted to have everyone take a mandatory color blindness test. He was the only who didn’t pass!
Uncle Spud grew up on a farm near Champaign, Illinois. After attaining a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois, he joined John Deere and eventually became Chief Engineer for the Harvester Plant, which manufactured combines that today sell for as much as a half a million dollars or more. He and Swish first met on a photo shoot farm site near Moline, Illinois. It was one fall morning when the ad man asked to meet the engineer to learn about the features and benefits of a first generation combine.
From the get go, the two shared a common sense of humor, values, and purpose. They believe that an informed American farmer could feed a growing and hungry global community for the foreseeable future. These beliefs spawned the Furrow, a Deere publication that farmers looked forward to receiving as much as the Saturday Evening Post.
So these two fresh off the farm young men fused a lifelong friendship. They complemented each other. Uncle Spud was a man of few words and Swish many. Anything in need of repair around the house, Uncle Spud knew how to fix. Both were global thinkers, perhaps as a result of WW2 and working for a company that became an international force during their employment. Both believed in a bright future for the next generation. Both liked to cook and fish. And both learned from their mothers to prepare meals seared in mounds of lard or butter on well-seasoned cast iron fry pans. Amazingly, in spite of what we know about heart disease today, Swish lived into his late 80’s and Uncle Spud into his early 90’s with no signs of dementia.
So what did these champions of a hearty breakfast cook? Uncle Spud loved cast iron fried potatoes and eggs. Thus, my Dad started calling him “Spud”. To provide his spuds suitable companions, Uncle Spud would fire up slabs of uncured bacon and Tennessee smoked ham sourced on field trips to the South. These meats were simmered and flamed over a charcoal grill.
Being an engineer, Uncle Spud was an early adapter and proponent of the virtues of the Weber Grill. Rather small in stature, he was fearless of the flame. Often his only visible feature on a windy breakfast morning was a pork pie hat and an unrecognizable silhouette emerging from a billowing blanket of smoke as fat drizzled and spat on over-fueled red-hot coals. No need to worry about carcinogens: the word didn’t exist in Uncle Spud or Dad’s vocabulary.
Like clockwork Uncle Spud’s wife, Katherine would appear in her bathrobe to remind him not to cremate the meat. A descendant of President Thomas Jefferson, with an antique family heirloom to prove it, she was more refined than her brilliant country-boy engineer of a husband. Nursing a strong cup of coffee, she would uncomplainingly cook up a batch of eggs or buckwheat pancakes. Oddly, she never seemed to have much of an appetite for the “boy’s” traditional breakfast.
Uncle Spud nicknamed Swish “Fussy” for his cooking demeanor and drive for perfection at work.
In response to Uncle Spud’s breakfast repertoire, Swish’s handiwork with the heirloom cast iron fry pan featured homemade heavily seasoned sage pork sausage patties. Alternatively, he would fry up a batch of crispy pan fish (usually blue gills or crappie) including a delicacy of yellow fish eggs if the fish were caught during the spawning season. Salvaging the pan drippings, he would make old-fashioned creamed gravy to ladle over his version of onion fried potatoes and scrambled eggs. If potatoes weren’t on his menu du jour, he’d fry mush and serve with Wisconsin made maple syrup. But his pride and joy were home grown tomatoes unmatched in flavor anywhere else I have ever lived. He claimed the secret to their succulent flavor was the chicken manure that he methodically weaved into the soil every spring like a baker kneading dough.
Back to the fry pan, Swish would brag about the special care he’d taken over many years to properly cure and preserve his cast iron fry pan. He believed the veneer of grease imbued into the metal made his a superior cooking surface. He felt it a sin to wash such a beloved instrument with soap. While the pan held its temperature, he would rinse it in running water and then boil off the residue. The hot surface and residual grease set off a symphony of steam and exploding water drops. In a misty cloud, Swish would momentarily disappear from view! The cleanup became ceremonial, a form of entertainment…all to the chagrin of my poor mother left to remove the residue off her stovetop.
Now what about that right of passage? Until now, I failed to mention that Spud and Swish first-kick started their weekend breakfasts with one stiff shot of what they called “pig whiskey”. They’d throw it down and then sort of shiver head to toe like they were shaking off a cold day. Why “pig” I don’t know, other than it wasn’t a premium whiskey. Neither felt that a gourmet version was worth the price for the effect they needed. They weren’t alcoholics and didn’t consume throughout the day. Nor would either have a shot of whiskey to begin any other day of the week. Furthermore, I have no idea how or why they established such a ritual unless it was a throwback to their military or early farm days. When I turned 21, they introduced me to the ceremony and I confess I have not perpetuated it nor do I particularly like whiskey.
There are wonderful and crazy stories about their fishing trips. One of my favorites occurred when my dad and a colleague picked up Uncle Spud before dawn to go fishing. When they arrived at his front door, all the lights were off and no movement could be detected. Clearly Uncle Spud still slept.
To roust him out of bed, Swish and his pal pried off a screen and climbed through an open window to the small bedroom only to discover they were practically in the sheets with Uncle Spud and Katherine. Legend has it that she good naturedly said “hellos boys, going somewhere?” Her demeanor suggests nothing much surprised her when her husband and Fussy got together.
My junior year at Monmouth College, I would occasionally drive Kathy Lepard, a lovely young sophomore woman home on weekends to see her parents who lived in Bettendorf, Iowa. Her folks and mine, who lived on the Illinois side, could see each other’s homes across the Mississippi River. Neither family knew the other. She was dating a pre-med student and I half-heartedly a hometown girl.
One cold and snowy late Sunday afternoon, I said goodbye to my folks and Uncle Spud and Katherine who had just devoured one of Swish’s scrumptious crispy heavily-seasoned fried chicken dinners that even Colonel Sanders might covet. I picked Kathy up for a return trip to campus. I told her I had forgotten an item and needed to delay our return momentarily. I pulled into our driveway and left the heater running for her. I didn’t invite her into the house because I didn’t want Uncle Spud and Swish’s curious nature meddling in this platonic relationship.
Upon returning from my upstairs bedroom, there in the living room sat Kathy with Uncle Spud and Swish. They were not to be denied a chance to meet this young lady and were fawning all over her. I can’t imagine how startled she must have been when two elderly strangers knocked on the car door as the sun set and thickly accumulating snow swirled all around the vehicle blocking outward visibility. Afterwards, I apologized to her and she took the episode good-naturedly. Clearly Uncle Spud and Swish, who still had eyes for a pretty gal, much approved of her. Over the coming months, they unceasingly badgered me with awkward questions.
Despite their annoying prying, eventually a romance began to blossom. The occasional weekend trips in my little black VW Beatle, sporting painted red hubcaps, became more interesting than our respective dates.
Uncle Spud, who never had children, did his best to nurture the romance between Kathy and me. Whenever Monmouth College had a social event, he would offer me his baby blue1963 Thunderbird for a date. This was one of a succession of Thunderbirds he’d buy every other year. It sticks out in my mind because his car keys ended up at the bottom of a 15-foot swimming hole, only to be successfully retrieved by my best friend, a big Swede with great lung capacity. I am glad to this day I never had to tell Uncle Spud that his keys went for a dive.
Fifty plus years later, the marriage remains sound. The two Cupids prided themselves in the match making.
I am forever grateful Uncle Spud and Dad’s roles in helping me find summer jobs at John Deere. Uncle Spud also owned a John Deere dealership. I learned a lot from him about the important role dealerships play between customers and the manufacturer. The knowledge I accumulated led to a 42 year-career working for Caterpillar related companies followed by consulting in top-tier distribution practices. Most of that career involved interfacing with dealer networks around the world.
And now that I am retired, I think back about how these two gentlemen handled theirs. They remained active in their communities and cultivated new friends to supplement those who passed away. Famously, Uncle Spud, still believing in the future at age 87, built a new home on a Sarasota, Florida canal. He was tired of being surrounded by old people dwelling in condos. He proudly explained how he and Katherine decorated with furniture acquired at plentiful estate sales. This frugalness paid dividends. When he passed away, he donated several million dollars to the Mayo Clinic for helping him live long and well into his 90’s.
There are many other stories to share about these two first off the farm generation that some call the Greatest Generation. But what stays with me was the value they placed on family and friends. Their interest in young people and subtle career guidance still impresses me. Their steady presence was there whenever I needed it and no question was too much to ask. In spite of our age differences, they were simply fun to be around, whether they wore bib overalls or snazzy three-piece suits.
One final note. We eventually inherited the priceless sixty plus year old cast iron fry pan from Swish when he passed away. Not knowing much about the importance of leaving the crust on the pan’s surface, I aggressively tried to remove the accumulation, sadly splintering it into two pieces. Amazingly, the inner core looked as new as the day it was cast! I am certain that in the after life there will be a day of reckoning with Dad for such a foolish endeavor!
DUELING FRY PANS