The Great Tall Tale | Butter Pat Industries
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.