About 20 years ago I bought a set of three cast iron fry pans from Chinatown, one – the least useful size-wise – I gave away to a friend who was undersupplied kitchen-wise. The other two I used for some time, cultivating on each a seasoned surface. At one point I gave the smaller pan to one of my brothers, for some reason I am not quite clear on. I knew it had the makings of a great pan, but I was prepared to share. The pan I kept, by diligent application of oil, avoidance of soap, hundreds of tempering with delicious things, cleaning with hot water and nylon scourers, the pan acquired a patina, intrinsically black, that developed into a very decent non-stick surface. No Teflon, just patina.
Once, sadly, an overzealous friend, scoured off all the black with steel wool, but I started again and gradually the surface regained its equanimity. Perhaps it was even better for the polishing back. The pan builds up patina till it starts to become blackly nacreous, like a bad oyster. The surface starts to acquire too much topography. When the pan starts to leave itself on the food, then the relationship between cooker and cookee has broken down, inexorably. Steel wool, wiry scourers, even, even, paring knifes (only for the underside) might be, or must be, put too. The pan de cycle has come around, and once again, the fry pan must be taken back to metal.