News | Butter Pat Industries

Blog - News

Numbers Game

Numbers Game

What’s in a number? It’s a question commonly asked when it comes to cast iron, as these symbols—6s, 8s, 10s, and so on—were often inscribed onto the handle or bottom of many an antique pan.

For decades, numbers were staples of these skillets, so much so that new pan companies have started to numerically mark their own, paying tribute to the old practice. Which is one, it turns out, to be as useless today as our most recent Alma. (No offence to either.)

#1 Favorite

#0 Griswold

But like any good question, the answer is shrouded in its fair share of myth and controversy, though we do know that its origins date back just over two centuries, when the Age of Enlightenment would bring about many a pivotal innovation and invention, especially pertaining to our kitchens.

For our purposes, perhaps the most important development arrived on the eve of the 1800s with the process of standardization. Sure, we used measurements back in those days, but we still hadn’t figured out how much easier life would be if we just developed some standards, aka models to which we could compare things. In other words, through the 1700s, even as we created the influential likes of the lightning rod, the piano, the smallpox vaccination, we still had yet to make two nails—let alone skillets—that were exactly the same.

Standardization arose out of the Industrial Revolution, with standards implemented to both improve and increase production. Many say it all started with Eli Whitney, the New England inventor of the cotton gin, who in 1797 proposed the manufacture of flint-powered firearms with interchangeable parts. Up until that moment, each gun was made one by one, piece by piece, bit by bit, by the hands of a single gunsmith. But credit is due across the pond, too, to two Englishmen, Marc Brunel and Henry Maudslay, who were also then crafting identical pulleys and precision tools for shipbuilding, as well as an early production line.

#0 Griswold

#1 Favorite

With the invention of identical, interchangeable parts and products, manufacturers were able to make large runs of the same item for the very first time, while consumers could also now easily replace their worn-out goods. Standardization enhanced product uniformity and effectively quality, and as manufacturing advanced, so, in many cases, did the standard of living.

Exhibit A is the early cookstove, invented in the first half of the 1800s. A dramatic upgrade from open hearths in terms of cleanliness and safety, not to mention the overall experience of cooking, these enclosed stoves, eventually made out of cast iron, quickly became a fixture for middle-class homes.

Unsurprisingly, foundries got in on that craze, and with it, the making of cast-iron cookware as an easy add-on. These stoves had a variety of openings on their cooking surfaces, known as eyes, which ranged in size and effectively number, atop which sat different pots and pans. Thus, a cast-iron company’s number 3 stove eye paired with their number 3 skillet—an early standard! Sounds simple, right, but of course, it isn’t.

Contrary to popular belief, more often than not, these numbers did not equate to exact or even actual measurements, such as the diameter of the eye or pan, as proven by the Favorite 1, or better yet, the Griswold 0. On top of that, a Lodge 10 was not the same as the 10 of a Wagner, or any of the other guys, making for standardization within brand but missing the industry-wide memo.

Even as some companies shifted away from stoves, the numbers still stuck as the original pan patterns continued to be used for decades. Others closed, their records lost to history, only further intensifying the great debate over these numeric systems that has carried well into the 21st century.

Butter Pat Aunt Alma

Today, to make matters even more confusing, we’ve decided to use letters.

Where the handle’s base meets the pan’s rounded edge, you’ll find a small loopy squiggle—in fact, an initial—with each pan named in honor of a woman who has influenced us in some seminal way. They are mothers, wives, grandmothers, great aunts; maybe one day, sons and fathers.

We figured, since the numbers are antiquated with our modern stoves anyways, we might as well use a design element that means something, if only to us, and that tells a story, if only one just slightly less complicated. 

It is in indeed an homage to the past, to the tradition of numbering cast irons, to all of the practice’s legend and lore. But at the core, these letters, literally hand-drawn by our founder and located at the grip of our own fingertips, are meant to remind us about people.

About the former foundrymen who also inscribed early cast irons, using a simple stylus to carve those numbers right into the pattern’s clay. About Estee and Heather, Joan and Lili. Even little old useless Alma.

That they were here, and we were, too, before the measurements or mass production or machines took over. That hopefully we will be long after.

Little did we realize in the beginning, but with these names, the pans themselves would become personified—an unintended consequence but welcome embodiment, through the meals they make and the community they create in the kitchen, of what makes us human. Which, of course, is anything but standard.

Though, for that, in a way, we could call them standard bearers, too.

 

Legs And All

Legs And All

When the calendar flips and the mercury climbs, the brief season of spring brings forward a thousand fleeting treasures of the Chesapeake Bay. It is a time of emergence, then abundance, and before we know it, the ephemeral.

Blink, and you miss it. Warm days, a cool breeze. The arrival of the osprey, blooms on the dogwood tree, that first flush of wildflowers and the rippling whiff of honeysuckle, all before we’re overwhelmed by the plentitude and potency of summer. And by the eve of June, when winter already feels like another lifetime, this fruitful feeling reaches its greatest zenith on the Chesapeake with the flight of the soft-shell crab. 

From May through September (if we’re lucky), the blue crab—callinectes sapidus, or “beautiful, savory swimmer”—emerges from its wintry slumber and make its way along the bottom of this brackish bay. Before they can become those whales we covet come October, crabs must shed their hard, outer shells in order to grow, and in their molt, a new, delicate inner shell is revealed.

The entire process takes just a few hours, with the new exoskeleton fully hardening within a matter of days. But in this moment, the iconic crustaceans have transformed into the colloquial “soft crab,” “soft-shell,” “paper,” “buster,” or, at the exact right time, according to certain watermen, “velvet,” all one in the same—a coveted seafood delicacy sought out for centuries along the Atlantic Ocean and its inland waterways. To eat them as hard shells is hard work, with many a pricked finger picking its way through those intricate innards for that prized lump of luscious meat. Meanwhile, these plump, flavorful, yet fragile beauties indulged our most primal instincts and are devoured eaten whole.

That ancient molt typically takes place in grassy shallows and sandbars, but over the last hundred-plus years, watermen have also taken to shedding the crabs on land—a long-held (and still difficult) form of aquaculture in which they must intently watch the colors of the “peelers” to know precisely when they’ll shift their shape. As soon as the shells drop, the crabs are pulled from tank’s waters, forever preserved in that pliable state.

As one might expect, the appetite for these aquatic delights dates back to the estuary’s earliest settlers, with accounts by 17th century Europeans documenting the hard crab feasts and soft-shell harvests of Native Americans. James Michener speaks to such culinary customs in Chesapeake—a masterpiece tome of fiction, though based on heavy reporting and research—when his Susquehannock protagonist Pentaquod discovers the soft-shell’s edibility after watching Great Blue Herons toss them down their gullets. Later, he eats them for the first time roasted in bear fat over a live fire.

“Do I eat legs and all?” he asks Nativan, a woman of the Choptank tribe whom he would eventually marry, before inhaling four. “Now you are one of us,” she beams with pride.

In the decades that followed, the soft-shell crab would only grow in popularity, with the first soft-shell nursery built in South Carolina in 1885 by an African-American named Charles Leslie. The practice would eventually take over the entire East Coast, from New Orleans to New York City, and by the early 1900s, cookbooks carried recipes for them boiled, fried, broiled, steamed, and even curried, with one Cajun iteration declaring, “The soft-shell crab is greatly affected by epicures, and is a dainty dish that graces the most aristocratic tables.”

Somewhere along the way, Maryland’s Smith Island—the remote archipelago just west of the southern Eastern Shore and perhaps most famous for its namesake nine-layer chocolate cake—became the soft crab capital of the world, and today, watermen still troll this disappearing spit of land, wading knee-deep and net-in-hand into the shoreline grasses, the docks lined with manmade beds urging the plucked peelers to release their shells.

Only a handful of Smith Island eateries still hawk them the way they should be eaten, especially in an era of fancy appropriations such as soft-crab-studded sushi, eggs Benedicts, and bánh mìs. We’d eat those versions, too, of course, but they’ll never compare to the fried platters and white-bread sandwiches served with ripple-cut potato chips at the waterfront Bayside Inn in Smith Island. Or the fat po’boys, somehow unsacrilegously stuffed with just the meaty bodies, slung at the nearby Drum Point Market. Or any other crab shack, church cookout, or Sunday kitchen along the Chesapeake. Just simple, savory sustenance. Ambrosia by the sea.

“A crab provides little food, so he is not easy to eat. But the little he does offer is the best food under the sky,” Navitan told Pentaquod in Chesapeake. “To eat crab, you must work, which makes you appreciate him more. He is the blessing, the remembrance. And no man or woman ever ate enough.” Like the softness of spring, and even the glow of early summer, life is too short; never, ever just eat one.

For cooking them on your own, there is no right or wrong way to go about it—sautéed, grilled, or fried—but there are a few tips to save you time and trouble. Whatever you’ve been taught, know that size doesn’t matter. Just always buy them live, preferably cleaned (trust us: the process is easy, but not pretty), and keep them on ice until it’s time.

When you’re ready, pull out your cast-iron pan, place it on the stove on medium-high heat or over a live fire. Throw in a half-dozen pads of butter while you lightly dredge the crabs in flour mixed with J. O. Spice—the seasoning typically used at local seafood houses over the better-known Old Bay. Fill the pan with their flimsy bodies, fry until golden brown, add more butter, flip, repeat.

Serve them as the locals do: stacked on white bread with a thick smear of mayonnaise, ice-cold lettuce, and the equally ephemeral summer tomato. Or simply eat them on their own.

Just know that we won’t judge if you have a slice of Smith Island cake, too.

 

 

Must Love Dogs

Must Love Dogs

Lessons learned in life with man’s best friend.

There’s a bit of an unofficial motto around here at the Butter Pat offices. Three simple words that sum up who we are as people, and as a company, and the kind we like to keep. It might say more about our ethos than any marketing team could make up. And we have a feeling, if you’re cooking on cast iron, you might abide by the maxim, too.

Must. Love. Dogs.

Now, let us start by saying, if you’re into cats, that’s okay, too, but boy, do we love our dogs. By now, especially if you follow us on the internet, you’ve likely seen our three-year-old American water spaniel, beloved bird dog, and unofficial mascot of Butter Pat Industries—Trix. She goes with us everywhere, from the foundry to the food festivals. She sleeps at our feet in the shop (and she’s taken over the bed at home). She gets the pan drippings for dinner if she’s been especially good. And sometimes just because.

Of course, as with most relationships, it hasn’t always been simple. Strong willed and hard headed, as is typical of her breed, she’s frustrated the hell out of us over the years, and we know for a fact we’ve pissed her off, too. Three years and thousands of training hours in, she’s still a work in progress, much like us.

And for everything we’ve taught her, she—observant, intuitive, clever—has gifted us a few of her own invaluable lessons, too. Like diligence, humility, and maybe most of all, patience. That special bond between dog and owner doesn’t just happen the moment they come home. It’s an ever-evolving process of getting to know each other. One that takes time—often years. You have to find out who the dog is. What they like, what they don’t. How they think and feel, which is a lot. How far to push them, and how far they can push you.

All of these nuances matter. After all, it’s a dog’s individuality, and their endless idiosyncrasies, that gives them their humanity, and that makes us choose them as our life partners. We see ourselves in their imperfection, in their striving to be better. Our job is to embrace all of it, and not give up.

Being who we are, we also can’t help but find parallels here between our pups and our cast irons. Like with dogs, you have to learn your pan’s limits. Its heat, its speed, its thin spots, its thicknesses, its warps and all—as well as your own. You have to try and fail and find small successes, like fried eggs, before the big ones, like buttery filets of fish. Because, like we touched on in our last story, where’s the fun in instant reward anyways? We welcome a little resistance, or in Trix’s case, rebellion. 

These lines converge in our friend and famed chef David Guas of Bayou Bakery in Arlington, Virginia. Before he lived within the beltway, this multi-generation Louisianan was born in Cajun country—coming up on a cuisine that usually begins with a seemingly simple recipe of flour, fat, and heat. Used to start such nominal dishes as gumbo, béchamel, and étouffée, “roux is a staple of Louisiana cooking,” says David. It also just so happens to be one of the most common dog names in the state, alongside the likes of Boudin and Beignet.

Under the tutelage of his larger-than-life Aunt Boo, David first learned to cook the stuff when he was 14 years old. “At that age, being told you have to sit there and stir something for an hour, you’re like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’,” he says with a laugh. Eventually Boo bought him his first cast iron and he slowly perfected his own roux recipe until it looked the way she taught him—like the color of the Bayou after heavy rain.

But slowly is the key word. There was a lot of trial and error, with lessons still learned today. “I always tell people to buy a five-pound bag of flour and a gallon of oil because it might take you a few tries,” he says. “You can’t even do the laundry. You have to commit fully. 

And David has. His gumbo is now hunted down by hungry foodies and heralded by the likes of The Local Palate. Just last week, he toted 15 gallons of the good stuff, made with duck fat roux and smoked duck sausage, to the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Georgia. Roux is the vanity plate on his Harley. And the name of his four-year-old yellow Lab. 

“It’s about commitment and consistency—that’s what we strive for at the restaurant every day—and dog training is the same.”

“It’s about knowing your animal and its personality. It’s about not sending mixed messages. And commands coming from one individual who they share a special bond with. And like with the roux, you can’t get emotional or too far ahead of yourself. If you increase the heat because you want to speed things up, you’ll burn it. It’s about putting in the time. You can’t expect certain results if you don’t.”

Training his Roux, like training our Trix, hasn’t always been, well, duck soup. She, too, was destined for a waterfowl blind on the Chesapeake Bay—a landscape and way of life that in many ways parallels the Louisiana marsh where he and his Aunt Boo were raised. From the get-go, she loved the water, ready to work as soon as her vest came out and her collar went on. But four years in, she’s still far from perfect, even stumping a few of the fanciest trainers. Some days, defiance takes over. Other times, she’s a star.

“She’s taught me patience, that’s for sure,” says David. “Just like the roux.”

It took us a while to appreciate this, but there will probably never be a hunt when Trix flawlessly executes every retrieve. When she suddenly stops proudly gallivanting around the field after a good one instead of pointedly bringing back the bird to hand. When she decides to hang on our every command and hand signal from there on out. When she’s a perfect dog.

And that’s okay. We’re both far from perfect, and she’s taught us that.

After all, as a dog owner, all we can really hope for is that one day, if we’re lucky, we will come to an understanding. That neither of us is the boss. That we are extensions of each other. That we both have a lot to teach and learn. Just give it time.

But okay, okay, that being said, even patience does have its limits. And one thing we still can’t figure out for the life of us South Carolinians turned Marylanders is why you’d cook something so goddamn sensitive as roux in the mercurial medium of a cast iron.

It’s got to be more than virtue. It might just be pure insanity.

“The idea is slower and lower,” says David. “Cast iron holds heat and keeps it consistent.”

But really, he says, “I’ve just never been shown any other way.”

Sometimes, that’s good enough.