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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.

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.