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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Cast Iron

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Cast Iron

How our humble medium had a hand in shaping the United States.

We know we might be a little biased, but we’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, especially coming out of the historic month of July that holds our great nation’s Independence Day: the cast-iron skillet should be on the American flag. 

That’s right—a cast iron. And that’s because the age-old medium played a vital role in the very creation of this nation.

A pot cast at the Saugus Iron Works in Massachusetts and carbon dated to about 1647; the oldest iron casting in the New World. A shareholder in the foundry wrote March 15 of that year “we have cast some tuns of pots, likewise mortars, stoves, skillets”.

By the late 17th century, the colonies were riddled with iron foundries, particularly in Maryland and Pennsylvania, where we are headquartered and make our pans, respectively, today. But back then, inside these rustic structures, iron ore was melted down into a form that could later be turned into finished goods, be it by cast or wrought methods, giving birth to the dawn of American manufacturing. Pots, pans, skillets, as well as hardware, tools, and implements, up to shot, cannon, and ship ballasts were all made using American iron, with techniques evolving as colonists became better acquainted with the natural resources of the New World.

By the late 1700s, America had become the main supplier of iron to Great Britain, and bigger yet, the third largest producer in the world, which naturally started to make the monarchy nervous. With commercial trade growing stiffly competitive with other countries, like the Dutch, British Parliament decided to instate a series of acts that would limit colonial independence and growth—perhaps the most important and impactful being the Iron Act of 1750.

Thos. Jefferson in describing cast iron from one of Virginia’s many ironworks operating in the late 1700s “The toughness of the cast iron of Ross's and Zane's furnaces is very remarkable. Pots and other utensils, cast thinner than usual, of this iron, may be safely thrown into, or out of the wagons in which they are transported.”

This policy restricted the construction of new furnaces and forges, as well as the manufacture of finished goods, ultimately keeping the colonies dependent upon their motherland. Suddenly, colonial iron could only be exported to England, where it would be turned into an array of products and then sent back across the Atlantic and sold around the world.

Of course, in true patriotic fashion, the colonists decided to ignore these restrictions, which some say ignited the first spark of resentment toward the British Empire that would lead to the American Revolution.

“The iron we dig from our mountains, we have just the liberty to make into bars, but farther we must not go,” complained one Philadelphia merchant in a letter to Benjamin Franklin in 1765, nearly a decade before he would lead the first Continental Congress. “We must neither slit it nor plate it, nor must we convert it to steel, though ’tis a truth well known, that we cannot have steel from England fit for use. Nay, though England admits of steel being imported from Germany, she will not suffer it to be made in her Colonies.”

Nassawango Iron Furnace erected by the Maryland Iron Company. One of the first blast furnaces in the US near Snow Hill on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Recognized as a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark. Photo courtesy of furnacetown.org

On July 4, 1776, more than 10 percent of the signatures on the Declaration of Independence came from metal casters, and throughout the Revolutionary War, those same colonial foundries would go on to supply cannons and ammunition to the Continental Army. Later, too, cast-iron artillery would be used to protect Fort McHenry from British invasion in the War of 1812—a battle that would Francis Scott Key to pen our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It would appear in the Mexican and Civil Wars, as well, and, eventually, in the Industrial Age of the mid to late 1800s, it would play a pivotal part in the establishment of U.S. railroads and westward expansion.

Many foundries thrived in latter half of the 19th century—a time when some of those same workers would also transition into America’s next great metal industry, steel, and the Industrial Revolution—and a few even lived on well into the 20th century. Though a relative youngster, our own foundry dates back to the 1950s.

Looking back, looking ahead, we like to think they carry the torch.

Or better yet, the flag.

 

 

The Standard Edition Vol. 1, No. 4

The Standard Edition Vol. 1, No. 4

 

 

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.

 

Texas chef John Tesar shares the secret to cooking a perfect steak. 

John Tesar got his first taste of perfectly-cooked steak at the age of 10 in an old-school American chophouse by the name of Part I in Key Gardens, Queens.

Growing up in New York, his dad was a banker, and according to John, one of his clients was the mob.

“It was a weird, Goodfellas time,” he says today. “Dad knew everybody, and this was like the he-man place to hang out. One Friday night, he took the family out to dinner there, and to this day, I’ll never forget the taste of a steak done under a broiler like that."

 

 

John Tesar's Cast Iron Skillet Steak

I don't know when cooking a steak became so complicated. When I was growing up -- and this is probably true for you, too -- we didn't need to have charcoal or wood chunks or lighter fluid or a hibachi or a Big Green Egg to cook a steak, much less a sous vide machine and a water circulator. You didn't have to own a backyard or blacken your hands or dispose of dusty ashes. All you needed was a big steel pan, some oil, salt, and a piece of good meat. Some of the best steaks I ever ate were cooked this way -- where the beefiest flavor and the deepest crust depended mainly on a good pan, a strong burner, and an honest piece of meat. I like to call this method Back to the Pan because it encourages people to not get too fussy about steak.

Pick up Chef John Tesar's Cookbook, Knife: Texas Steakhouse Meals At Home.

The Standard Edition Vol.1, No. 3

The Standard Edition Vol.1, No. 3

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.

Louisianna chef David Guas tells us why a cast iron skillet is essential equipment to make the essential ingredient in gumbo.

First, you make a roux...

That’s the way the recipe begins for our Chesapeake Crab Gumbo, and every other gumbo.

Well damn, I’m not making it then, is what you must be thinking...

  

 

Maryland Blue Crab Filé (Okra Gumbo)

  • ½ cup flour
  • ½ cup cooking oil
  • 2 cups chopped okra (1 16-ounce can)
  • 1 tablespoon black pepper
  • 4 tablespoons file powder
  • 3 cups lump crab meat
  • ½ cup chopped celery
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • ½ cup chopped green pepper
  • ½ cup chopped green onion

Combine cooking oil and flour in heavy skillet over medium flame, stirring constantly until flour is dark brown in color. Set aside.

Sauté slowly 2 cups okra, bell peppers, green onions, celery and crab meat. Combine these ingredients and browned flour into large 4 to 6 quart pot. Add 2 quarts water, salt, pepper and file. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 20 minutes. Serve immediately.

Recipe credit from the folks at The Crab Place in Crisfield, Maryland.

Also, if you're looking for good Filé Powder, here's our favorite: Zatarain's® Gumbo Filé