Backroads: Cast Iron Cookware

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Lynn’s collection of cast iron cookware. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

As a young girl I watched my mother cook everything from sweet rolls to cornbread and fried potatoes in her old cast iron skillet. She had only the one that I remember, and it was handed down to me when she could no longer lift the heavy pan easily. The skillet was never washed with soap and water after use; just wiped out with a paper towel and re-oiled with butter or some type of cooking oil. If for some reason something stuck on the bottom, she sprinkled in a bit of salt and scrubbed it smooth. Everything cooked or baked in the skillet always seemed to taste better and cleanup was a lot easier. 

I’ve had my share of different types of frying pans over the years but my favorites and the ones I use most are my trusty cast iron skillets. My skillets, Dutch oven, griddle and cornbread pans are made by the Wagner and Lodge companies but last year a neighbor gave me two old skillets she salvaged from a relative who had no more use for them.  

Both skillets have a thick crust of burnt on material on the sides and bottom with no markings other than a faint imprint of “Loth’s” on the bottom of the big one. I wondered if the pans were used to cook over the coals of an open fireplace because of the crusty buildup. One year I worked as an interpreter at Humpback Farm on the Blue Ridge Parkway and as their “1890s woman” I cooked over an open fire in the cabin with cast iron cookware. Visitors were always amazed that fresh apple dumplings could be baked in a cast iron pot over hot coals in the same amount of time it takes to bake them in a conventional oven. One man stuck around for an hour just to see if I was pulling his leg. When the lid of the Dutch oven came off and he saw the golden apples bubbling in thick syrup, he couldn’t believe it.

A pan of sweet rolls baked in a skillet. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

While doing research for this article, I found information on many of the early companies who manufactured cast ironware: Griswold, Wagner, Martin, Birmingham Stove, and of course, Lodge.  Much of the cookware from these vintage companies commands a high price because they are no longer readily available and harder to find.

Going back to the two pans my neighbor gave me, my curiosity was piqued about the larger skillet with the Loth insignia so I went to the garage and dug out a scraper and a wire brush.  With a lot of elbow grease, I uncovered quite a treasure. After all the crust was removed there was more writing on the bottom. Across the top, “CAST IRON SKILLET” was printed with a number 10 stamped underneath.  

I measured the inside and found it was 10 inches in width. Under the center circle with “LOTH’S” imprinted on it was written, “THE W. J. LOTH STOVE CO., WAYNESBORO, VIRGINIA.”  There was also a #5 printed under, and to the right of center LOTH’S circle.  All that hidden under years of crusted-on material!  

The W. J. Loth Stove Co. skillet. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

I went back in the kitchen and retrieved the little pan and began working on it, too. There was no apparent company name, just a raised small “2” at the top, a larger #5 underneath and a 2D at the bottom, which may have stood for 2-inches deep, which it was. The inside cooking surfaces of these two pans have a much smoother finish than my later Lodge skillets and resist stuck-on food more readily. I confess, if a particular dish does stick, I fill the skillet with hot water and let it sit for a while before scrubbing it clean. After wiping it dry, I put it on low heat on the stove for a minute before re-oiling the surface.

Cast iron cookware is still relevant today but there is always someone adding their own spin on a newer version of an old favorite. Dennis Powell started his “Butter Pat” brand of cast iron skillets back in 2015 after he dropped his grandmother’s vintage skillet and the break was impossible to repair. He began experimenting with different molds for the casting process and came up with a pan that is lighter in weight than the traditional ones. Dennis has crafted four Butter Pat skillets, all named after influential  women in his life: the Lili has a 12-inch cooking surface,  Joan has a 10-inch surface, Heather measures an 8-inch cooking surface, and the Estee, named after Dennis’s grandmother, Estee Hilton Rudd, has a 6-inch cooking surface. Each skillet is marked with an initial on the handle instead of a number and do not have to be “seasoned” like most other cast iron skillets before use.

Old or new, cast iron cookware continues to be the perfect kitchen companion, a generational heirloom, ready to serve you as well as your descendants in the years ahead. 

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