“They could sell doorstops when they couldn't sell skillets”
March 8, 2016 7:18 AM   Subscribe

Among the most prized objects owned by Southern families are the cast-iron skillets passed down from generation to generation. The ones in your kitchen probably came from Lodge Manufacturing Co., in the tiny eastern Tennessee town of South Pittsburg. Most of us know well the memories contained in those old skillets, but we know very little about the integrity of the people who make them. A visit to the Lodge foundry certainly has lessons to teach us about the South and its culture. But more importantly, Lodge also exemplifies something remarkably rare in today’s business world: a family-run company that has built a booming, global business without selling out its hometown.Chuck Reese of the Bitter Southerner with a surprisingly touching piece of corporate portraiture.
posted by Maaik (57 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
My cast-iron kitchenware is Lodge. I ♥ them.
I wish I had heirloom cast-iron but I don't come from a Southern cooking tradition.
posted by djeo at 7:29 AM on March 8, 2016

"Surprisingly touching" is right. I didn't expect all this dust in here while reading about a corporation, for goodness' sake.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 7:39 AM on March 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

a family-run company that has built a booming, global business without selling out its hometown

Which is, of course, why their enameled cookware is made in China.
posted by entropicamericana at 7:42 AM on March 8, 2016 [9 favorites]

I wish I had heirloom cast-iron but I don't come from a Southern cooking tradition.

I do, but I've got no heirloom cast-iron,* because that "tradition" was my mother's 70s casseroles, my grandmother's spam and canned pineapple, and my great-grandmother's boiled Thanksgiving turkey. The tradition I've created for myself is much more "authentic" than the one I was given, not that any of that food was bad (except the turkey, which was by all accounts just god awful).

*Actually I have some cast-iron corn stick molds from my Yankee wife's side of the family, but lets ignore that for now
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:45 AM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

This is so timely... Just this past weekend, I found a small, obviously old, lodge in my basement while doing a big purge. No idea where it came from. And my daughter has several well loved ones coming to her from grandmothers who still use them every day! Can't wait to dig into to this! Love Bitter Southerner....get asked about my "BS" car sticker all the time. :-)
posted by pearlybob at 7:45 AM on March 8, 2016

You'll pry my Lodge from my greasy, blackened fingers.
posted by No Robots at 7:46 AM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

That was partly a story about Lodge but mostly a story about one writer's personal journey as he undertook to write a story about Lodge.
posted by headnsouth at 7:48 AM on March 8, 2016

Also.... Someone on mefi is a lodge expert.... I will have to dig through the backlogs later today but I've gotten some advice about some old lodge cookware.... Arrrrgh!! Killing me I can't remember and don't have time to search right now.
posted by pearlybob at 7:49 AM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Frying pans! Who knew, right?
posted by wabbittwax at 7:53 AM on March 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

With the exception of two cast-iron pans, the ones I have were handed down to me by my grandmother, who in turn got them from her mother. So I do own some very firmly entrenched in the Southern cooking tradition!
posted by Kitteh at 7:53 AM on March 8, 2016

I asked this question about seasoning cast-iron a few years ago. Some of the experts might be among those answering ....
posted by wabbittwax at 7:55 AM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Kellermann talks about the difficulties Wal-Mart suppliers typically face. “They now have 4,000 stores here in the states. Typically, they outgrow their suppliers and then they have to go to secondary suppliers. Then it gets to be a price war between the suppliers.”

But because, under Kellermann’s leadership, the company has been able to expand its production capacity fast enough over the years to keep up with the giant retailer’s growth, Lodge has never fallen victim to such price wars.

posted by Rock Steady at 7:56 AM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

The cast iron guru mefite was featured in a best-of
posted by k5.user at 7:57 AM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Also.... Someone on mefi is a lodge expert....

It's mudpuppie! Her Ask answers on cast iron are always a good read, even if in practice we just use my partner's ancient cast-iron skillet passed down from their grandma.

(Of course, they're Canadian, so this is not precisely authentic Southern cooking either.)
posted by sciatrix at 7:58 AM on March 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have three Lodge skillets: a 6" (for cornbread and small jobs), a 10", 2" deep (general purpose), and my 10", 4" deep "Cajun Wok." I do everything but crepes in them: stir frys, Pabellón criollo, deep frying, and pretty much anything else. Love them all. Seasoned to the point of being, as Alton Brown put it, "jet black and slick as a mambo band." I swear: the more I abuse them, the better they cook.

I've already told my daughter (11) I'm getting her one for her first apartment. Actually, I'll probably give her the short 10", and either backfill it, or just use my "Wok."
posted by MrGuilt at 8:05 AM on March 8, 2016

I use one or the other of my personally-seasoned Lodge pans just about every week, and I love them.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:19 AM on March 8, 2016

I have quite a bit of heirloom cast iron skilletry (Griswold and Wagner for the most part) that goes back to my great-grandparents in the early 20th century. For my father's entire Texas childhood in the 30s and 40s, his mother used one of those pans to bake fresh biscuits for breakfast and fresh cornbread for dinner every single day. Before she went off to a full day of work as a schoolteacher, I might add. For the most part, the older stuff has the advantage of a smaller grain size and finishing to a much smoother surface, whereas the modern stuff has the advantage of being thicker and heavier.

I do use mine from time to time, but mostly just for cornbread. In my experience, heavy carbon steel is better than cast iron at just about everything cast iron does well.
posted by slkinsey at 8:31 AM on March 8, 2016

I made sear-and-bake steak for my stepfather's birthday this past weekend, using my mom's cast-iron skillet, which was her mom's and maybe even her gradmother's. I have to admit it was fantastic to cook on - nothing stuck at all!
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:32 AM on March 8, 2016

Cast iron posts are the best.
posted by infinitewindow at 8:35 AM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you have old cast-ron, it is rarely branded. This page can help you identify what it is, if you care.
posted by Seamus at 8:37 AM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Great post - which reminded me both of my grandmother, whose cast-iron pots I still use, and my grandfather who was a businessman and community leader like Kellermann. So a lot of dust in here, too
posted by mumimor at 8:38 AM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is bittersweet, since just last week I dropped my cast iron (vintage, but generic) skillet, snapping the handle right off. Makes it a bit less easy to cook with.
posted by Panjandrum at 8:38 AM on March 8, 2016

I don't come from a "Southern" cooking heritage. I come from an immigrant family Northeastern cooking heritage and I have my grandmother's cast iron. It's Wagner and it rocks.

The stuff that is made nowadays, yes, even by Lodge, is crap compared to it.
We drove across country over Thanksgiving and while driving through Tennessee my wife forced me to stop at the Lodge factory outlet. She doesn't cook. I do. She knew I needed something even though inertia made me want to keep moving.
Turns out I had been needing a comal/griddle, so I bought one. I seasoned it because I didn't have the time to grind the cooking surface, but man, I should have taken the time.
Cooking tortillas or chapati on it is fine, those don't stick, but making pancakes is maddening.
There are casting lumps on the surface the size (if not shape) of grains of rice.
The sand cast and grind of spurs but do absolutely nothing to the cooking surface anymore.
If you buy a new pan, do not expect the magical cooking surface people talk about from their grandparents cast-iron unless you spend a few hours wet-dry sanding by hand or 20 to 30 minutes with a grinder taking those lumps off before seasoning.
posted by Seamus at 8:43 AM on March 8, 2016 [7 favorites]

Obliged to say that I love my Finex in every cast iron thread. Pricey though.
posted by booooooze at 8:45 AM on March 8, 2016

Holy crap, you ain't kidding, boooooooze!
posted by Seamus at 8:49 AM on March 8, 2016

Finex does good work; they machine the cooking surfaces so you get a very nice, smooth finish. I've not seen a Borough Furnace in person, but hear they're on a similar quality track.

If I didn't already have a nice, old, mirror finish Wagner kicking around the kitchen, I would gladly shell out for the Finex. They pay their people very well, and it is worth every penny to keep that shit domestic.
posted by furnace.heart at 8:50 AM on March 8, 2016

Never having used a Borough Furnace or a Finex but having used modern lodges and older Wagners, Lodges and Griswolds, I think I would be willing to save up for a Finex over a Lodge, though at my pay grade, I would be more likely to suffer through with a Chinese-made Wenzel until I could find a thrift-store rust-bucket that I could throw in an electrolysis tank. But damn, if I had $200-300 dollars to blow on a skillet, I'd buy one.
posted by Seamus at 8:57 AM on March 8, 2016

I have a simply amazing mid-1940's James Smart 9" that is my everyday pan and a Lodge that is actually kinda meh in comparison. I would love a Borough but $300US to Canadian $ is $$$.
posted by Cosine at 9:11 AM on March 8, 2016

I've often thought if Lodge brought back a line of pans with a machined surface instead of the foundry sand finish on the inside they would be hugely popular.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 9:11 AM on March 8, 2016 [6 favorites]

J. Kenji's post about cast iron cookware is very informative and worth a read if you're into the stuff.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 9:15 AM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have a big vintage Wagner Ware that I think I found in a pile of junk a while back. My mom has a medium-sized heirloom Griswold. If you want a nice vintage cast-iron pan, there are probably some at your local antique store, and there are always a ton of them on eBay.
posted by Slinga at 9:28 AM on March 8, 2016

"Your chance of being struck by lightning in your lifetime is about 100 times greater than your chance of buying a faulty Lodge skillet."

...Huh. The math checks out.
posted by Shutter at 9:39 AM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Nice article. I think both of ours are Wagner. ~ 15 years old. The from-store finish was good, we've seasoned carefully, they work well. Love em.
posted by Artful Codger at 10:00 AM on March 8, 2016

The stuff that is made nowadays, yes, even by Lodge, is crap compared to it.

As I understand from doing a fair bit of research a couple years ago, cast iron is cast iron. The only functional difference between modern Lodge pans and those treasured antiques is that they don't grind the cooking surface smooth like on older pans. This is a bummer, but not insurmountable; it just takes more seasoning (i.e. cooking and cooking and cooking and cooking and etc.) to fill in the pits and create a smooth cooking surface.

There was a cast-iron post here less than a year ago, the result of which I spent some elbow grease sanding down the inside of a 7-inch pan and re-seasoning (with flax oil, incidentally), and ever since it's worked like a champ. I have had no problems cooking eggs (even omelets) in it.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:03 AM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I should have added, that one of the reasons Lodge pans are so cheap is because they don't spend the time and labor grinding down the cooking surfaces.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:05 AM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would ask if the sand has changed. I had a year long class in metal casting (Foundry workshop) back in engineering way too long ago, and the types of problem y'all are describing (rice sized bubbles) seem to imply changes in the moulds as well the leaving out of the final grinding. (Cost cutting?)
posted by infini at 10:11 AM on March 8, 2016

I do have some newer Lodge pans that are nice and smooth after a year or so of cooking and seasoning. Metal spatulas help speed that up.

I do prefer the older ones I have, though.

My funny story is that a few years ago I lucked out and found an antique Wagner at a thrift store just a few weeks before Christmas. A perfect gift for Dad! It was pretty gross and of unknown provenance so I sprayed it up with oven cleaner and scrubbed it clean, and spent a couple of days slowly re-seasoning it. He was thrilled with the gift, his first cast iron pan!

He called me all excited a month or so later. "You're right, this pan is amazing! I've been taking such good care of it. I've been scrubbing and scrubbing, and I've almost got this black stuff off of it!"

Oh my god. I quickly set him straight and sent him a few links and now we're all good and his pan is back to nice and black and shiny. And he's acquired a few more.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 10:15 AM on March 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

A round sharpening stone will make short work of giving your pan a smooth finish, if you don't have a grinder.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 10:21 AM on March 8, 2016 [3 favorites]


I'll go ahead and renew my offer to help identify any unmarked cast iron you may have sitting around. Send me pics and I'll do my best.

My most recent find was (to me) really exciting. It's a small No. 3 skillet made by Birmingham Stove & Range as part of their Red Mountain series, which was produced from about 1930 through the 40s. Thing is, you know how you often see numbers inscribed on the bottoms of the cookware? Those are identifying marks cast in the mold -- usually. This little No. 3 was produced so early on during the production of the Red Mountain series that the number is actually scribed by hand. It's imperfect and beautiful and really cool.

Yes, that makes me giddy in my geekery. Leave me alone.
posted by mudpuppie at 10:27 AM on March 8, 2016 [14 favorites]

Here's the post I mentioned. A whole year ago! That's a lot of eggs....
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:27 AM on March 8, 2016

You can take lodge skillets to a machinist and they'll machine the surface for you. You need to reseason it, but then you've got basically the same thing as some of the vintage/ultra expensive ones.

This works best in areas with oldschool machinists, or hobbists. Newer, more modernized places kind of give you a side eye and quote you some insane number for the work to be done, but its quite easy work. If you can find a Community College program, you can post there too. Since you're providing the material, its usually just labor and facilities that you're getting charged for.

I've not done this, but known a couple folks who have, and they say it was worth it for the lack of hassle in finding vintage buddies.
posted by furnace.heart at 10:33 AM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Our new house has a glass cooktop, and I tell ya, things just aren't the same without being able to fire up the flame and get my skillet screaming hot for a good sear. I miss gas stoves. Cast iron just isn't the same without it.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 10:58 AM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Last time I looked, there were plenty of old wagner and griswold pans on ebay, and unless they are particularly collectible (oh, a #8 with the big logo!) they were reasonably priced. I helped my daughter outfit her kitchen this way. I will not waste my time belt-sanding a modern Lodge pan into submission.
posted by mr vino at 11:06 AM on March 8, 2016

I managed to crack my first 12" Lodge Cast Iron Skillet less than a month after I started using it. The customer service representative was very impressed at how cleanly I managed to wreck it.

(The replacement they shipped over is holding up much better.)

I like cast iron. It's durable, solid, and I like how hot it gets--and how the black color hides a lot of stains. I'm pretty hard on my cookware, and it seems to hit that sweet spot for me, where it's nice but also sturdy, and still looks pretty after several years of solid use (unlike say, most of my stainless steel pots and pans).
posted by PearlRose at 11:09 AM on March 8, 2016

My problem with old cast iron skillets is that I have too many of them, yet I cannot pass them by when they show up at the thrift store for $3.99. I guess I need to open an Etsy store for refurbished pans. I have the same problem with old steel road bikes. Hmm. I see a pattern.
posted by jetsetsc at 12:27 PM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm highly skeptical of the notion that they've resisted Wall Street all this time because they're angels.

More like:
-- Wall Street wants control.
-- Wall Street recognizes that there's nothing inherent to the Lodge brand that would create a barrier to entry for a Chinese firm.
-- Wall Steet recognizes that this is a no-growth business, because the only calling card - long term quality - also means you never need to buy more product, ever.
-- Because of the above, Wall Street's number is never high enough for Lodge to take the plunge and give up control.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:38 PM on March 8, 2016

Cool Papa Bell, all that is plausible; however, their employees quoted in the article absolutely adore the owners, and there are several generations of people who've worked for Lodge, so at the very least the Lodge and Kellerman families know how to treat their employees right.
posted by infinitewindow at 12:53 PM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

That's probably another reason Wall St. won't touch them....
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:55 PM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Really, any time Wall Street comes in (i.e. a company goes public), the constituency of a company ceases to be its customers, but shareholders. Shareholders could care less about the product itself, the employees, the community, or the environment. To them, all companies are just lines on a spreadsheet from which they demand quarter after quarter growth.

This is why I favor regulation: to force consideration of other factors (employee welfare, environment, etc.) into this mix.
posted by MrGuilt at 1:09 PM on March 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

There's a new company producing cast iron pans here in Australia. I haven't tried their pans, but they seem enthusiastic and intelligent about their products: AUSfonte cast iron pan care, cautions and best practices
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:29 PM on March 8, 2016

All my heirloom cast iron is Lodge, coming from a southern family. I'm fully aware that Griswold or Wagner are better pans, or higher quality iron, or a better machined surface or whatever, but that John T. quote nails it: “Each time a Southern cook hefts a skillet to the stovetop, he or she is not alone. Trapped within the iron confines of these skillets and stewpots are the scents and secrets of a family’s culinary history.” My pans came to my from my grandmother (my biggest, and possibly oldest, it has a deep, black shine you can see your reflection in, well enough to shave, from years of fried chicken duty), my aunts, and lots of family friends (one came to me rusted and worn, found in a corner of an old shed at a family plantation house, it's no good for eggs, but still gets bacon duty, which seems like a fine retirement to me...).

Oh sure, I've got Tri-ply pans for perfect scallops, and Pyrex for casseroles, and various plastic tubs to keep things fresh and tasty, and other bits and bobs that are technically better for various things, but my cornbread is always made in the big #8 pan that was my grandmother's, because with Southern Food, you always make enough to share. Now, pass the chow-chow, I'm half-starved...
posted by 1f2frfbf at 1:40 PM on March 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Love my cast iron, probably have over #200 of it. My favorite piece is a Lodge 9x18" oval deep fryer (unfortunately missing its lid with the grilling surface on the inside). The newest piece is a Lodge wok with a skillet handle and a flat base, besides weighing almost #10, it cooks as good as Grandma's old 12" Wagner.

There's some gem pans on the rack that look like they're early 18th century, with a little care they should be good into the 22nd. :)
posted by ridgerunner at 2:17 PM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's frustrating that the article is framed around cast-iron dogs -- the collection of Depression-era doorstops in the opening, the tiny "special people" dog in the closing -- but doesn't have any photos of them.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 3:59 PM on March 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Luckily! Someone shared a photo of the dog on the BS' facebook (in the comments).
posted by Maaik at 6:35 PM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Not sure the brand of my mom's pans... They are super old. I'm going to have to investigate. The old Lodge that I just found in my basement is very small, maybe 6 inches across and it has a good coat of age. Going to have baby girl bring it back to life. She needs to learn how.
posted by pearlybob at 8:21 PM on March 8, 2016

I dropped my cast iron (vintage, but generic) skillet, snapping the handle right off.

Oww! If you saved the handle, cast iron is weldable. A nice weld line would give it character.
posted by ridgerunner at 12:00 AM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I found a beautiful old Griswold in a thrift store on the rich side of the lake several years back, for like 7 dollars. If you try to take it from me I will hit you with it.
posted by palomar at 6:06 AM on March 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

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