Cast Iron cookware.
About 6 months ago I decided to buy my Wife a new pan. We enjoy cooking quite a bit ( However, she's considerably better at it than I am), but for years we had what most Americans have: Old ratty non-stick Teflon pans. Of course Teflon is great in many ways, but over the last few years there has been a number of vague warnings that suggest Teflon isn't great for you and can cause health problems. I'd rather not wait for these warnings to become more refined. Thus I decided to look into alternatives.
The first pan I bought her was a very nice All-Clad pan. These are made ( interestingly enough) in Pottstown,PA. If you watch Food Network or any professional Chef, chances are they have a set of these. They're great, cook food evenly, and if used correctly don't have a problem with food burning or sticking to them. The only issue is that they're EXPENSIVE. The pan I got cost $130. Not exactly chump change, but I figured it will last a lifetime.
But more recently, I re-discovered an old tradition used by both of my Grandmothers: cast iron cookware. When I was growing up, I recall my Grandmother's kitchen having a number of ancient cast iron pans and pots. They had thick layers of "crust" accumulated on their outside edges from decades of use. I was told to NEVER clean them. I found that out after using one to make hot chocolate. On Thanksgiving and other occasions, Grandmother would use one to make cornbread. Thus when my Wife and I took a trip to Wal-Mart a few months back, I noticed in the corner was a selection of cast iron cookware. So we bought a smallish skillet and have since bought a few more.
The great thing about cast iron is that the stuff is cheap. The smallest skillet we bought was $10. The largest- a huge 14" pan was $17. Thus the prices are incredibly reasonable, which in this economy is a good thing. Secondly, unlike the vast bulk of cheap throwaway pans made in China, the most predominant producer is a company in Tennessee called Lodge. They sell to Wal-Mart, Cracker Barrel, and even fancy stores that sell the expensive stuff ( even though they tend to mark them way up). Lodge has been around since 1896 and is still family owned.
Additionally, what's great about cast iron is for one, it heats evenely and over time develops a non-stick surface called "seasoning". I'd always thought seasong was just the accumulation of grease and oil from years of use. But its a bit more scientific then that. What actually happens is that over time and with continual heating, iron produces a black oxide which forms a layer of magnetite. The more magnetite forms, the more slick and non-stick the surface becomes. The only thing is that this layer is fairly fragile and thus in order to prevent it from becoming damaged from rust, a thin layer of oil must be wiped onto the surface after each use. Thus every time I get through using it, I wipe it down with vegetable oil.
To me, cast iron brings an old tradition back to the kitchen with the added bonus that it doesn't cost a small fortune to do so. That and pans such as these can be used forever and be handed down generation after generation.