Feeding the mind and body

The city of Ocala’s Cast Iron Cooking class at Fort King provided valuable information and a delicious meal.

Home » Arts & Entertainment
Posted February 1, 2023 | By Susan Smiley-Height
Photos by Bruce Ackerman

The Fort King National Historic Landmark is not only an iconic destination in Ocala, it also serves as place of learning through hands-on classes such as Cast Iron Cooking and Historic Homesteading.

On the evening of Jan. 28, a group of eager participants gathered behind the park’s visitor center to prepare meals outside using cast iron Dutch ovens and a cauldron, heated by charcoal briquettes and a wood fire. They then enjoyed the repast under a cool evening sky, punctuated by the song of a barred owl nearby.

There will be three more sessions of the Cast Iron Cooking class, on March 18, Sept. 16 and Oct. 21, each with a different menu. The class is just one of the many offered through the city of Ocala’s Recreation and Parks Department.

On Saturday, Robert Wilson, a noted gunsmith and avid Florida history re-enactor, who often can be seen demonstrating and discussing pioneer and native crafts during such events as the annual Ocali Country Days, brought a trailer full of his own cast iron utensils, and his expertise, to the class.

Wilson, along with Kathleen Ramirez, the city’s Outdoor/Historical Resource Program Coordinator, kept up a fast pace as the students prepared a menu that included vegetable stew, lasagna, biscuits and gravy, and chocolate/cherry lava cake.

The pavilion behind the visitor center has a wood-fired oven, around which is an expansive counter, which served as one work/prep area for the class. From his trailer, Wilson brought out three long metal tables and an array of cast iron vessels, leather gloves, tongs and metal lid lifters. He kept three charcoal “chimneys” filled with briquettes in various stages of burning, sometimes stacking one on top of another to stoke the flames. Off to one side was a small wood fire over which was suspended a cast iron cauldron, hanging from a sturdy chain.

As he welcomed the students, Wilson offered explanations about varieties of cast iron, cleaning, seasoning, and more.

“This is just scratching the surface,” he said, motioning to about a dozen different cast iron cooking pieces, especially noting the variants in the lids, handles and bottom surfaces.

“Dutch ovens were probably the most used items back in the 1700s. The one with the flanged lid came about in the 1770s. Paul Revere, the midnight rider, was a silversmith by trade but he also knew how to do foundry work. With all the influx of people coming in from Europe to the United States, many didn’t have chimneys or fireplaces or ovens to cook out of, so they needed something they could bake in. It was his idea to put this flange on the lid,” Wilson said.

A Dutch oven would typically have coals heating the bottom. With a flanged lid, which has a raised edge around the perimeter, the cook could also put coals on the top to create radiant heat.

“These are good for baking biscuits and bread, stews, roasts… You could cook about anything in the Dutch oven. It’s very versatile,” Wilson explained.

He pointed out a number of styles of cookware and told the students how they best could be used, including turning a lid upside down and using that surface area to cook pancakes or eggs.

“Just figure out what you’re going to cook and then you’ll know what you need, and then you’ll go crazy like me and have more than you need … I’ve probably got 100 pieces of cast iron,” he said jovially.

Wilson advised class members to buy “good quality” cast iron to avoid disappointment. He said collectible pieces can fetch “thousands of dollars” and that good places to get cast iron are yard sales and thrift stores. He also said to inspect the pieces for consistency in the casting, which will keep the heat even, and to pay attention to such things as ill-fitting lids.

If you have a piece of cast iron that needs to be cleaned, there are a number of methods for doing so, he shared.

“And you can get in more arguments about how you work with cast iron,” Wilson said with a grin. “You have two main methods, one is mechanical, which is elbow grease and some type of abrasive, so you can either remove the carbon or remove the rust. You can use heat, but when you use heat to remove the carbon, you can warp the cast iron and get it out of shape, and it won’t cook properly. Chemically, you can do lye or acids. Tannic acid comes from trees and bark; it’s concentrated enough to remove rust. You can use lye, which comes from ashes, and it removes carbon.”

Wilson also talked about using wood briquettes versus charcoal. He said different types of wood burn at varying temperatures, which most people learn how to cook with through trial error. He recommends that those just starting to cook outside with cast iron stick to charcoal for the best consistency.

With that, Wilson and Ramirez asked the students to break into groups by recipe.

Annette Brinton and her husband, Danny, were the first to go to work as the chocolate/cherry lava cake would need the most cooking time. Danny put eight burning charcoal briquettes on a metal table and put a large Dutch oven on top of them. They lined the oven with tin foil for easier cleanup. Annette poured a can of cherry pie filling on the bottom of the pot, then sprinkled dry chocolate cake mix over that. She poured 12 ounces of Sprite over those layers and then he sprinkled a bag of mini semi-sweet chocolate chips over the top. They put the flanged lid on, and he put 16 burning briquettes on the top and set his cellphone for one hour.

Annette said she decided to take the class as “something different to do for my birthday.”

She said at home, they prepare eggs every morning in a small cast iron skillet on a gas stove.

“I have a giant piece of cast iron I got from my dad, that I have used a lot. It’s more like a wok. I’ve done everything in it, like a stir fry; it works really well for that,” she added.

Another group browned bits of Italian sausage in a large Dutch oven, which sizzled nicely in the crisp evening air. They removed the sausage and began to layer jarred spaghetti sauce, oven-ready noodles, ricotta cheese, grated cheese and sausage, then repeated that until the pot was full. They also had briquettes on the bottom and top of their vessel.

One student placed frozen biscuits in a Dutch oven and got them to baking while the sausage cream gravy simmered in another oven nearby.

The most active team had to chop up the vegetables for the stew – onions, carrots, celery, mushrooms and potatoes. They added a small amount of cooking oil to the hot cauldron and dropped in the veggies, which immediately began to pop and sizzle. As one man stirred the pot, others added tomato paste, vegetable stock and seasonings. It wasn’t long before the stew was bubbling nicely over the open flame. Later, the team raised the cauldron so as not to burn their creation.

The biscuits were done first, so everyone quickly split them open and slathered on the creamy gravy. The “oohs” and “aahs” were loud and abundant.

“Everything just tastes better cooked outside,” said Steve Alexander.

Before long, all the dishes were ready for taste testing, and the students happily obliged.

Ramirez said the cast iron cooking classes initially were part of the Historic Homesteading series but were so popular they pulled them out into their own series. The skill also is sometimes showcased during various Fort King events.

“On April 15, we will have an all-day free school of the soldier event where people can come learn about 1830 soldiering. We’ll have wooden rifle drills for kids, hard tack cooking, how to put up canvas tents and take them down, cannon and musket firing demonstrations, re-enactors, maybe even some cast iron cooking,” she said.

Ramirez, who has two degrees in history and wrote her master’s thesis about a Marion County pioneer, also teaches the Historic Homesteading series, which offers instruction in rug, candle, atlatl (spear throwing lever) and broom making.

The landmark is located at 3925 E. Fort King St. The visitor center and archaeological resource center are open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

To learn more about all of the classes offered through the city, including at the fort, go to ocalafl.org/government/city-departments-i-z/recreation-parks/ and click on the “Spring 2023 Activity Guide.”

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