By Laura Hill
What do a high-end gourmet kitchen shop, a sporting goods store, your local hardware emporium, a big-box discounter in Georgia and an upscale Manhattan department store have in common? A Tennessee product that is both an American icon and one of the hottest trends in the food world: Lodge Cast Iron cookware.
Popularity Grows With Rise of Cooking Shows
Manufactured as it has been for more than 112 years in tiny South Pittsburg, Tenn. (population 3,300), the company’s skillets, Dutch ovens, grills, griddles, kettles and more have been fixtures in family kitchens for generations, much-loved and passed along from one cook to another. And, once relegated to the shadows created by non-stick aluminum and stainless steel pots and pans, it has once again emerged into the culinary limelight, thanks to smart thinking and an unexpected boost from television cooking shows. [Find cast iron recipes by clicking here.]
“We’re doing extremely well in today’s marketplace,” says Mark Kelly, public relations and advertising manager for Lodge. “More people are cooking at home than traditionally have. And the emergence of the Food Network, where people see great chefs cooking a wide variety of foods in cast iron has really helped. It’s hilarious, but people come into our factory stores and say ‘I saw so-and-so on the Food Network – where’s that pan?’ It’s like that all over the country.”
Key Ingredients Include Quality, Affordability
What keeps cooks coming back for more, Kelly says, is a combination of manageable prices, ease of use and extreme durability. Cast iron cookware heats evenly, retains heat beautifully, and is virtually indestructible. He himself uses his grandmother’s skillet and Dutch oven, not an uncommon story. Many Lodge items produced 100 years ago are still in daily use by enthusiastic cooks.
“I can pick up a cast iron skillet or a Dutch oven, and I know that I hold in my hands a quality instrument that, barring great clumsiness on my part, will certainly outlast me,” says collector Rick Mansfield on his website. “Cast iron is solid, and its weight when I hold it in my hand says to me that it will still be with me when I come to the end of my days, waiting to be passed on to the next generation.”
Cast iron enthusiasts like Mansfield, a professor and doctoral candidate in Kentucky, are legion, and growing. Websites abound, collectors trade information and cookware online, and traditional scrounging for cast iron cookware at garage sales and flea markets has gotten tighter and tighter.
Mansfield admits to a passion for cast iron, praising its versatility and perfect low-tech reliability. His 40-piece collection, including a wok and his grandmother’s treasured skillet, holds pride of place in a baker’s rack in his kitchen. But his emphasis is on actually using his collection every day.
“If you enjoy cooking, you want great tools to cook with, and that naturally leads to cast iron,” he says.
The American Foundry
As one of the last cast-iron cookware foundries left in the United States, Lodge is especially proud of its history and commitment to quality. The company was founded by Joseph Lodge, an Englishman who came to this country in the late 19th century and worked for various foundries in the South before starting Blacklock Foundries in South Pittsburg. In 1910, when that foundry burned, he moved his business down the road to its current location and reincorporated as Lodge Cast Iron.
The company is still family-owned and -operated – a great-grandson, Bob Kellerman, is chairman and CEO, Henry Lodge is president and COO, and a fifth-generation family member is special projects manager. The family tradition also extends to employees, some of whom are third- and fourth-generation workers.
Making, Seasoning Cast Iron
Changes have certainly been made over 112 years – Lodge today also sells two highly successful lines of colorful enameled cookware, has improved the melting process, and pursues a vigorous pro-environment policy. But the basics behind Lodge’s cast iron cookware remain much the same.
Pig iron and stamped steel are melted down at 2,800 degrees and poured into specially crafted sand molds, tooled to create the impressions of individual pieces. The iron cools in the molds as they go down the production line, molds split open and the red-hot cookware cools and is cleaned and seasoned before packaging. Total time elapsed from melting to packaging: 90 minutes.
On an average day the foundry produces 800 pieces an hour. “If all the cast iron gods are aligned,” says Kelly, the foundry can turn out 1,600 pieces an hour.
Factory seasoning has been particularly critical to Lodge’s success. An unseasoned gray iron pan, as many cooks can attest, takes a long time to become that trusty blackened heirloom, the result of much cooking, gentle cleaning and a lot of oil. Eight years ago the company decided to give customers a head start on the process by spraying its cookware with a soy-based vegetable oil and then baking it. The result was a much more user-friendly product that appealed to contemporary cooks. [Learn how to clean your cast iron skillet by clicking here.]
“Between that and the Food Network, it rocked our world,” says Kelly. “We got a lot of instant press. We had a huge article about seasoning in the Washington Post, and a Good Housekeeping Good Buy award, and we’ve been on a roll ever since. We had been primarily a regional brand, but now we’re a national brand. If I go to Seattle or New York or wherever, people in the food business know exactly who we are.”
Lodge offers tours of the foundry during the National Cornbread Festival each spring. Click the link for more information, contact them at www.lodgemfg.com, or download the Lodge Cast Iron Catalog (PDF).