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The Great Tall Tale

The Great Tall Tale

In true Southern fashion, it’s a good story, but cast iron was not actually born in the South.

 

It almost seems like common knowledge: Cast iron is a thing of the South, as much a part of the region’s sense of place as the fried chicken or corn bread it cooks. Maybe it’s a cliché, but when we think of the pan’s past, we conjure up images of old Appalachian homesteads with fat black skillets pulling biscuits out of the oven or boiling a heap of collards on a rusted-out stove.

But the thing is, cast iron is not a Southern invention. To be technical, the medium tracks back to sixth-century China. But for our purposes, on this continent, it was born in the North, where the colonies’ first foundry, Saugus Iron Works, was founded in Lynn, Massachusetts, in the 1640s, where our first cast-iron pot was poured.

Photo: The Saugus Pot

Before long, other ironworks would speckle the rest of New England and dot the Atlantic Coast, with even our own Maryland being a one-time vital hub—the Old Line State’s Southern status is still up for debate—before seeping out in western and southern directions. As one would imagine, manufacturers of cast-iron cookware weren’t far from the nexus of foundries, if not actually a part of them. Most of these companies began production in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as the advent of the modern kitchen pulled our cooking surfaces out of the hearth and onto early cast-iron stovetops, often accompanied by matching pots or pans of the same medium and brand.

In 1865, what would become Griswold Manufacturing was founded in Erie, Pennsylvania, casting stoves and hardware before venturing into cooking vessels, a market it would lead for nearly a century. It was later sold to Wagner Manufacturing in the 1950s, another popular pan company founded in Sidney, Ohio, in 1891, a few years after the Buckeye State’s other great Favorite Stove & Range Company, circa 1887.

Photo: Favorite Stove and Range Company - Piqua, Ohio

The South’s first cast-iron company was not the beloved Lodge Manufacturing we think of today, whose initial foundry was established in 1896 in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, which was fittingly named after the Pennsylvania city in hopes of becoming a great ironworks epicenter, too. Instead, that pioneering accolade goes to the Atlanta Stove Works of Georgia, founded in 1889, which later opened the Birmingham Stove & Range foundry in Alabama for the production of its popular cookware. They lasted until 1989, longer than much of the other national competition, with most manufacturers closing throughout the 20th century. Still thriving today, Lodge does remain the last true relic of cast iron’s heyday, though new companies are now popping up from New York to Los Angeles. And, of course, Butter Pat is here on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

So why, despite cast iron’s roving roots, the deep Southern connection? It could be said it was born out of urbanization, during and following the Industrial Revolution. Masses of migrants moved to metropolitan areas in search of work, furthering dichotomizing city and country, and in many ways North and South, with southern cities slower to grow than their northern neighbors. “Many of the places that we think of now as urban environments in the South, like Atlanta or Houston, didn’t develop into the densities they reflect today until the 20th century,” says Liz Williams, founder of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. Atlanta’s population in 1850, for instance, was less than 10,000, compared to Baltimore’s then-nearly-170,000 or Philadelphia’s 500,000-plus.

During these years, cast-iron cookware was ubiquitous, but as residents of urban areas gained access to larger, modernized markets, shiny new products became more readily available, including lighter cookware options such as aluminum and stainless steel, inspiring many to ditch their heavy cast-iron skillets. (Those fifth-floor walk-ups didn’t help either.) Urban residents also had more access to trades, such as tinkers, who could repair their new, more malleable cookware, says Williams, “and as lighter cookware became less and less expensive, it just became easier to throw away.”

In rural, more impoverished pockets, however, people held onto their old equipment, likely for economic reasons. At the time, cast iron was relatively cheap, with a 1930s Griswold pan starting around $15 in today’s money, and these sturdy, one-pot vessels offered a lot of versatility, being used for a variety of recipes and over a range of heat sources, both indoors and out. “They were affordable and accessible and they probably found their way into southern kitchens out of necessity,” says Sean Brock, the James Beard Award-winning chef who founded the likes of McGrady’s and Husk in Charleston. 

In many ways, cast iron became a valuable asset to Southern dishes, and its strengths, such as heat retention, became used to a recipe’s advantage. “Like cornbread,” says Williams, “because you could only get that crispy outside crust with cast iron.”

“Likewise, real Southern fried chicken,” says Appalachian food expert Ronni Lundy, “[which] requires a single skillet that can reach high heat to initially crisp [the skin], and then be turned low, but maintain a steady temperature.”

Perhaps it’s that simple: Southern folk held onto their cast iron longer, out of need over nostalgia, and in turn, they used it to perfect some of the most iconic dishes in America. “When you are known for a few things, like cornbread and fried chicken, and the best versions of those are made in cast iron, then you almost assume the pan’s a Southern thing,” says Brock.

Of course, maybe also, it could have something to do with another Southern thing: storytelling. Because as the great raconteurs have taught us, sometimes pure fact isn’t as fun without a little touch of fiction. Northern by design, but Southern by soul.

“Southern food is the most story-driven, folklore-driven, tradition-driven of any American cuisine,” says North Carolina food writer Sheri Castle. “I don’t know another kind of cookware that has such strong recipe associations, or that people have passed down as heirlooms. I don’t know anyone who tells such tales about Teflon, and none of us have our grandmother’s Revere Ware. But we do have those cast-iron skillets.”

After all, the past is the past, no matter if it’s 5, 50, or 100 years. And there’s a sense of pride in carrying that on, in having a pot or pan that’s been passed down through generations, much like the cast-iron pan that started it all for us, which belonged to our South Carolina grandmother, Estee. “Maybe the energy of remembered great cooks is still somehow in the metal,” says Lundy.

We like to think that, too.

The Science of Cast Iron

We chat with Southern chef Sean Brock about the thermodynamic properties behind the pan.

Okay, so we’ll tell you up front, this issue of the Standard Edition is going to be the Sean Brock Special. In part, because we love the guy, for his food, for his restaurants, and perhaps most importantly of all, for his big brain.

All photos courtesy of Peter Frank Edwards

Brock has been called many things—visionary chef, farm-to-table hero, Southern culinary revivalist, agricultural anthropologist—and we’ll add one more, which anyone who has eaten at his renowned McCrady’s in Charleston already knows: mad scientist.

For more than a decade, the James Beard Award-winning Chef’s Table star has been combining downhome fare with a forward-thinking philosophy, looking to the past to inform the future. “We are so young as a country,” says Brock. “There are so many traditions ahead of us that we haven’t even dreamt up yet.”

In the same way he’s dug into the roots of beloved Southern recipes, he has delved into the science of his kitchens with unbridled curiosity. And in few places has this been applied more than his cookware, and particularly cast iron, harkening back to his influential grandmother, whose home was littered with pots, pans, and farm equipment made out of the medium.

“When I was about 12, she bought me my first cast-iron wok and taught me how to take care of it,” says Brock. “It’s tricky if you’ve never cooked with it before. Now that I understand it from a scientific standpoint, I cook just about everything in cast iron.”

He likens it to a fast car, but vows that the more you use it, the more versatile it becomes. “Of course, the quality of the pan has to do with it,” says Brock.

Butter Pat: Tell us more about this fast car analogy, which we love.

Sean Brock: Just like a fast car, it can get away from you. It’s not as responsive as other pans—it’s slow to heat up, and if it gets too hot, it’s hard to cool down, which I think scares a lot of people. And it can be super dangerous when it gets out of hand. [Laughs.] But you need to be aware of that fact, and if you can respect it, you’ll ultimately have more control and better performance. You have to be patient. And the more you use it, the more you realize how versatile it is.

What are some of the qualities that make cast iron so versatile?

How it holds heat, once you get it to where you want it to be, for starters. It can stay at that temperature and evenly for a long, long time, which is good for cooking. That slow responsiveness can be used to its greatest advantage.

That said, a lot of people think cast iron is a good conductor of heat, but it’s actually the opposite, meaning that the pan does not easily give away its heat, especially compared to other mediums such as copper and aluminum.

Yes, and that’s definitely a myth that needs to be busted. I think a lot of people have that misunderstanding, myself included in the early days, based off the fact that cast iron can get really hot. That doesn’t mean it’s a good conductor of heat, that just means it can get really hot. And anything can get really hot with a fire underneath it. But a pan also isn’t judged based on its heat conductivity. It’s judged on how well it performs, and that performance is based off multiple properties.

For cast iron, that’s low conductivity, slow responsiveness, plus high reactivity, as well as density and thickness—how all of these things interact and impact each other. 

If you put all those factors down on a piece of paper and made a chart, you’d find that cast iron is actually the most balanced medium, much more so than any other cooking surface, and therefore, it’s the easiest to use, and the most useful, once you understand it.

What are some chef workarounds for some of cast iron’s thermal properties? 

In terms of being slow to heat up and slow to cool down, it’s patience and time. It’s like building a fire. And the key is getting to know your pan in the oven and on top of the stove. They’re different kinds of heat—you can obviously turn a flame on your stove up and down much faster than you can an oven—and the pan is going to react differently. Practice both and take notes. But you can also use the two in tandem. I keep my oven loaded with cast iron, all the time so they’re hot and ready to go. At the restaurant, we keep stacks near the fire so they’re the exact temperature we need them to be. Because of how they retain heat, they’ll sit there forever, perfectly happy and ready to use.

So you utilize your heat sources to mediate some of those thermal properties, which you discuss further in our Good Reasons piece on cornbread.

With cast iron, you have to think ahead about every step of the cooking process. Where the pan is going and what the movement of the pan is going to be. Moving from the oven to the stovetop is a variable that can throw off an entire recipe if you’re not paying attention. In some recipes, like cornbread, the pan goes in the oven first, then it goes on the stove with a burner on beneath it, because you’re about to be adding ice-cold batter and you don’t want the temperature to drop. This way, you’re creating an insurance plan in terms of maintaining temperature. And you can’t do that with any other pan, because they’re so quick to heat up and cool down. It just gets all over the place. 

On the other hand, iron is highly reactive, meaning it is more likely to chemically interact with other substances, like food or water, which is why cast iron is prone to rusting if left wet and can sometimes affect the color or flavor of a dish. Is this where seasoning comes in?

Seasoning basically acts as a barrier, a skin, an added layer of protection that slows down any potential reactions. If you season cast iron properly, you heat the oil so that it oxidizes and then polymerizes, filling the pores of the iron and make it less penetrable. Water inhibits a lot of things and slows everything down, so your goal is to get rid of it as fast as possible, especially when you’re trying to get crust or sear on breads or proteins or even vegetables. If there’s too much moisture, if you have too much steam, you don’t get the same textures, and you’re also diluting flavor instead of concentrating it. The beauty of a polymerized seasoning on a pan is that the built-up oil actually repels water and helps evaporate it as fast as possible.

How does the pan’s density come into play?

The density, and the thickness of the pan, is just as important as seasoning. It’s actually way, way more important than most people realize. This comes into play in how the pan actually transfers heat into the food. The density of the iron keeps the heat at a constant, with a density of thermal energy being transferred into the food. It’s like a slow, even flow that the low density of aluminum wouldn’t allow to happen. The thickness also makes it more reliable, because you know there aren’t going to be some spots that are hot while others are warm or cold. For me, that’s one of the most important advantages of Butter Pat pans. The thick bottom creates the most even caramelization of a crust that is humanly possible.

We’ve cast our pans to have thinner sides but a thicker bottom heat plate to better conduct and distribute heat. How does this compare to other cast-iron pans, like the beloved vintage ones we are passed down or pick up at antique stores?

The pans that we romanticize from the 19th and early 20th centuries were thin all the way around, which can cause hot spots, which is not good for cooking. But the Butter Pats are thick where they need to be, a detail that was closely paid attention to that often gets overlooked. How do you improve upon something that was already pretty amazing? Well, it’s those tiny little obsessive details that aren’t obvious to the eye that improve the whole thing slightly, in the same way that I try to approach food. We have these beautiful, wonderful, romantic traditions. But everything can always be better.

Even the physics.

You say “modern technology” and it freaks people out. But it’s this modern knowledge, and modern wisdom, that allows us to make small improvements on the past. Just like in cooking, and cooking Southern food, it’s enhancing tradition by moving it forward, and moving it forward by enhancing it.

Our thanks to Sean Brock for his time over the past two months as we put together this interview. 

The Incredible Egg

The Incredible Egg

Maybe you knew it as “eggs in toast.” “Eggs in a hole,” or “eggs in a frame.” Or perhaps the more common but still curious “toad in a hole,” or “frog in a pond.” But whatever your family called it, at some point in your life, you ate this egg dish of many names.

And wherever you grew up, be it on the Chesapeake Bay or Bayou, it was always the same simple recipe: butter in a pan, a slice of white bread, its center cut out, and an egg, any egg, cracked and fried inside.

But after all the generations it’s been passed down, after all the kitchens in which it’s been cooked, and all the tables and countertops and laps on which it’s been eaten, the question remains: which came first?

Though, with most of these colloquialisms spread by word-of-mouth, and with very little about them saved to history, it looks like we might never know 

A few things we do, predominantly from pop culture: the lesser-known “gashouse eggs” was likely derived from the German word gasthaus, for an inn or country home, and it was mentioned the 1941 Betty Gable film, Moon Over Miami. A few years earlier, the even-lesser-known “Guy Kibbee Egg” was dubbed for the early actor of the same name, who ate said eggs in the 1935 Mary Jane’s Pa, before going on to star in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

Of course, if we had our druthers, the Oscar would go to a cameo in the 1987 cult classic, Moonstruck, starring Cher and Olympia Dukakis, who fries up a delectable-looking version with roasted red peppers and olive oil. Known as uova fritte nel pane in Italy, it graced many an Italian-American plate in the first half of the 20th century.

Still, we may never know the nativity of, let alone namesake behind, “one-eyed Jack,” or “one-eyed Pete,” or exactly why it would ever be called a “cowboy egg.” And whether “Rocky Mountain Toast” was dubbed in Colorado, Montana, or Wyoming.

To make matters even more confusing, “egg-in-a-basket” and “egg-in-a-nest” are also common names for those baked egg-hash brown breakfast cups that consume the pages of Pinterest. And the aforementioned amphibian appellations are actually more truly a British dish of sausages cooked in Yorkshire pudding.

“Egg-with-a-hat,” which appeared in Fannie Farmer’s lauded Boston Cooking School Cookbook, starting in the 1890s? Now you’re just being ridiculous.

Maybe, in lieu of any legendary origin stories, the better question is: what’s in a name, anyways?

Perhaps—whether it’s served with white or wheat or sourdough, with its middle cut out by a cookie cutter or biscuit cutter or whatever you have on hand, with yolks as bright as a canary or dark as an oriole, topped with just salt and pepper or hot sauce or Worcestershire or pimento cheese, as done by those readers in the comment section of The New York Times’ recipe—this pan-toasted-bread-with-a-fried-egg-inside should simply be known as the great unifier.

Even with dozens of names, these mystery eggs continue to comfort us across centuries and cultures, and whether they’re eaten in a city walkup or over a country sink or outside in the mountain air, they always taste like wherever we came from—and like that first time we had them, all those years ago.

They might simply need no language, as all that’s really required is a hot cast iron, some bread, and fresh eggs. A spatula doesn’t hurt either.

After all, for most cooks, silence—albeit a few oohs and ahhs—is the greatest form of flattery, anyways.