News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 22, 2014

HISTORICAL TREASURE: A tribute to cast iron cookware

Marsha Ladd
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The featured item this week is a sturdy, well-used piece of cookware called a “spider” due to it having three legs on the bottom. It was donated to the Vigo County Historical Museum by D.J. Blanton, who used it to cook meals over a campfire. It is a great example of a once popular type of cookware made of cast iron.

Cast iron cookware has been around for a long time. In China they first started making and using this cookware around 513 B.C. It came into use in England around 1100 A.D. From these beginnings the manufacture and use of cast iron cookware spread throughout Europe and eventually to North America.

This type of cookware was simple to make. Iron ore was heated until it became a liquid, then it was poured into a mold. After the metal cooled down the pot was removed from the mold and any surface irregularities were ground off. The pot was then polished and/or an additional finish was applied. The last step was to season the pot as cast iron is somewhat porous. (There are too many ways to season cast iron cookware to be listed here.)

By the 1800s cast iron cookware was extremely popular. Almost every American cook had a least one set of this type of cookware. And as for the generations of pioneers who traveled west, they made sure their durable cast iron skillets, Dutch ovens, and spiders traveled with them. Even the cowboys on the open prairie would always have a skillet to cook their beans. (The skillet had to be small enough to fit into a saddle bag.)

There were many companies in America that made cast iron cookware. Three of the better known ones are Wagner Ware, Griswold and Lodge. Sadly, only the Lodge Company is still making cast iron cookware today, mostly for camping gear.

Beginning in the 1900s, cast iron cookware was slowly replaced by stainless steel, aluminum and Teflon-coated cookware. Yet, because of the many good qualities of cast iron cookware, it is still used by many cooks. So don’t just store those old pans; if they are in good shape, use them and bring back old memories.