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From A Frying Pan Into The Fire |

From A Frying Pan Into The Fire

Most of us can find one or more pieces of cast iron cookware in our kitchen cabinet, and these have become precious possessions to those who have them. Many people inherit these items from family members, are given them by friends or neighbors, or buy them at yard sales or antique shops. Having this type of cookware gives its owner a feeling of being linked to the past, and to one’s ancestors.

According to historical information, cast iron cookware has been used for cooking for hundreds of years because of its durability and special way of retaining heat. During the 1700’s, a large cast iron pot was the most important item of cooking equipment. Since the fireplace was the only heat source during that era, the cooking vessels were designed to be suspended on, or in, that hearth. Cookware had handles for hanging over the fire, or legs for standing up in the coals and ashes of the fire. A pan called a “spider” had three legs and a handle, and was designed for standing directly in the fire. The large pot which was hung over the fire was the first of the one pot meals; the cook of that day did not realize that she was pioneering the first crock pot! Then, in the mid 1800’s, the first cast iron cook stove was introduced, making food preparation faster, but requiring the learning of different cooking techniques. Of course, the only cookware which could “take the heat” of a direct fire was cast iron; therefore, it was the choice of housewives until the mid twentieth century. And even today, many homemakers are still using iron skillets for cooking. From “The Complete Home” by Mrs. Julia McNair Wright, published in 1879, information was given relating to new kettles. The author stated that to remove the iron taste from new kettles, boil a handful of hay in them, and repeat the process, if necessary. Wright stated that hay water is a great sweetener of tin, wooden and iron ware. Also, from a cookbook, “Mountain Makin’s in the Smokies, published by The Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association in 1957, it is stated that a person should use an iron skillet for the best cornbread; and that the skillet should be hot before putting in the batter. Then, the bread should be cooked in a hot oven, 475-500 degrees. The cookbook further specifies that the “quicker you cook it, the better it is.” And under a recipe for Cornmeal Pancakes, there is a drawing with an explanation which tells that a spider is an iron skillet on legs.

From information found, most of the major cast iron cookware manufacturers began producing their product in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s. The roll call of cast iron producers begins with the Selden and Griswold Manufacturing Company, which was founded in 1865, by the marriage of those two families. Originally, the Erie, Pennsylvania company made door hinges, and then branched out into cast iron products, producing mostly cookware. In 1957 the company, known only as Griswold by that time, filed for bankruptcy, and was acquired by the Randall Corporation. This corporation had bought Wagner Ware in 1952; then sold both Griswold and Wagner to Textron in 1959, with General Housewares Corporation buying Textron in 1969.

The second major producer of cast iron was the Vollrath Company, which was begun in 1874 in Sheboygan, Wisconsin by Jacob J. Vollrath. Vollrath only made military products during World Wars I and II, and produced a Polio-Pak during the Polio epidemic. Also, it was among the first manufacturing companies in America to become involved with computer technology; it is still in business today.

Next, is the Wagner Manufacturing Company of Sidney, Ohio, which was founded in 1881 by two brothers, Bernard and Milton Wagner. The foundry closed in 1999, and was bought by the Randall Corporation in 1952. Randall Corporation also had purchased Griswold Manufacturing; items produced by Randall were then manufactured in the Ohio location of Wagner. Wagner Ware continued to be made through the 1990’s, and in 2000, the American Culinary Corporation bought both the Griswold and Wagner brands.

Another company is Lodge Manufacturing, which was founded by Joseph Lodge in 1896, and is one of our country’s oldest cookware companies in continuous operation. Today, most of the cast iron sold by the company is produced in the foundry in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, and it is still owned and managed by descendents of the original Lodge family.

Even though cast iron cookware was primarily developed for the extremely hot and open flame method of cooking, it is not indestructible! A piece of cookware will break if placed on a cold surface or in cold water while still hot, and it could also break if dropped. Cast iron should be hand washed and immediately dried, then rubbed with a small amount of vegetable oil or bacon grease before putting the cookware away. “Seasoning” is a process by which animal fat or vegetable oil is rubbed on the cookware, then “cooked” onto the cast iron in an oven. This layer of fat or oil is protection to keep the cookware from rusting, to keep food from sticking to the pan, and to prevent reaction of the food with the iron of the cookware. The Lodge Manufacturing website has instructions for cleaning, seasoning, and refurbishing the finish of cast iron for anyone needing this information.

This type of cookware can also be beneficial to one’s health. According to a study which was done by the American Dietetic Association, cast iron cookware can filter important amounts of dietary iron into food. Naturally the amounts of iron absorbed varied, due to the type of food, its acidity, water content, length of cooking time, and age of the cookware.

I am fortunate to have some cast iron skillets that belonged to my great grandmother, Ella Darwin Thomison. Those skillets have been used so much that they are now almost slick on the surface from seasoning, but the best cornbread is to be had from using her recipe and those skillets. Even though our ancestors used cast iron cookware because of necessity, they knew what they were doing! A cast iron skillet or dutch oven cooked the best tasting food anyone could want to eat. And using these cooking utensils gives a person a connection with the past and a feel for their family history. Therefore, I am reminding you to learn from the past in order to live in the present and prepare for the future.

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