America's Last King of Cast Iron Finds His Time Has Come AgainZach St. George
Far southeast of Nashville, over rolling hills where the last Christian radio stations crackle and turn to fuzz, where light winks from the bullet holes in highway signs and the roadkill skews opossum, lies South Pittsburg, Tenn., home of the cast iron skillet.
Bound on one side by the Tennessee River and on the others by thick Appalachian woods, South Pittsburg (population 3,100) has one supermarket, two bars, some 20 churches, and half a dozen diners. Bob Kellermann sits in one of these, watching a packet of sugar melt into his sweet tea. He recently made a friend, a guy who said he owned about 6,000 pieces of cast iron. Kellermann is the chief executive of Lodge Manufacturing, a cast iron cookware company, and he’s used to meeting fans. Some of them own thousands of pieces of cast iron, others just one or two, but every pan seems to come with a memory. People and their cast iron—“it’s a love story,” he says.
Nowhere is the romance stronger than in South Pittsburg. Kellermann’s great-grandfather, Joseph Lodge, started the company here 118 years ago. It’s one of the town’s biggest employers, and lately it’s been hiring. Kellermann says the last 10 years have been the best in his company’s history, and Lodge is now expanding to keep up with demand for its skillets, Dutch ovens, and griddles. Once beloved mostly by grandmas and antique collectors, cast iron has grown increasingly popular with foodies, doomsday preppers, and, most important, big-box shoppers.
According to the Cookware Manufacturers Association, shipments of cast iron and similar enameled products in the U.S. have increased more than 225 percent since 2003—rising from $35 million to more than $114 million—while shipments of cookware in general increased by just a third. Kellermann won’t divulge his company’s revenue figures, but Lodge is the only major domestic manufacturer of cast iron cookware.
Treated right, the stuff can last 100 years or longer—although for Lodge, that can be a problem. Greg Stahl, a Harvard Medical School professor, is a prime example of a cast iron devotee who’s not doing anything for Lodge’s bottom line. He’s the founder of the Wagner and Griswold Society (devoted to two of Lodge’s now-defunct neighbors), and he says the growing visibility of cast iron cookware—especially Lodge’s—has brought more people to his website. He once owned about 2,000 pieces, and he knows people who own 10,000. Lodge makes a good product, Stahl says, but he loves his hundred-year-old waffle iron. “It’s made hundreds of thousands of waffles, and it’s still as functional as it was a hundred years ago. With the right care, it will last a hundred more.”
And that, Kellermann admits, is an obstacle his company is still trying to overcome. “The bitch of it is there’s no planned obsolescence,” he says. “When people say, ‘I’ve got my grandmother’s pan,’ I say, ‘That’s not helping me a damn bit.’”
Outside, on a warm April afternoon, an army of high school volunteers assembles a stage for the next day’s cornbread cook-off, the centerpiece of the 18th Annual National Cornbread Festival. Lodge is a sponsor, and Kellermann, with two-tone horn-rimmed glasses and a growly Southern accent, will award the winner of the cook-off the coveted Corny Crown.
Over the next two days, the population of South Pittsburg will grow ninefold, as 26,000 visitors convene for the cornbread celebration. Along with the cook-off, highlights include cornbread-eating and buttermilk-chugging contests as well as “cornbread alley,” a nine-pieces-for-$4 smorgasbord. At the end of the weekend, eight girls ages 2 through 17 will win a Miss National Cornbread Festival title.
South Pittsburg was settled shortly after the Civil War, and ironworker Joseph Lodge started his foundry here in 1896. For most of its history, the company puttered along, ebbing and flowing but never really taking off. It survived the Great Depression by catering to the rich, creating cast iron lawn gnomes and painted doorstops in the shape of dogs. In the decades after World War II, South Pittsburg’s population swelled and shrank as industry came and went. Two neighboring foundries in town shuttered, leaving just Lodge, and the town’s population dwindled by a quarter. The old company gradually modernized, turning from hand molding and pouring to mechanical processes and electrical melters. It laid off workers as it grew more efficient, but sales remained flat. Until 2002, the company struggled to break even.
Iron casting today is largely automated, giving Lodge’s foundry a strangely deserted feel; about 200 people still work there. The main molding and casting room is cavernous and ferrous-smelling, its flat surfaces grimed with black soot. Sun pokes down from far above, falling on turquoise-painted I-beams and covered chutes that run the length of the room. A metal bucket dangling from a yellow lift moves slowly along a rail, molten iron glowing red from its open mouth. Small groups of workers in navy jumpsuits stand around control panels. There is a steady low hiss and the clanging of metal on metal.
The process starts with a molding machine that creates impressions in a mixture of sand and clay, leaving a negative of the finished pan, into which molten iron is poured as the mold moves along a conveyor. “It’s like waiting for a baby to be born,” says employee Mark Kelly. With a rumble, a new skillet falls out of a chute and into the light, silver amid the crumbles of black casting sand. Pan after pan appears, tumbling out of the chute onto another vibrating conveyor; about 20,000 pieces are churned out every day.
Farther on, a woman leans back in her chair, holding a flaring butane torch. She’s the bubble burner—after the pans are cleaned, sprayed with oil, and baked, it’s her job to burn off any small hiccups that formed in the seasoning. Until recently, Lodge sold its products in an unseasoned, silver state, leaving it for customers to cook on the grease that made the cookware nonstick. That was intimidating to “young homemakers,” Kellermann says. They didn’t know what kind of oil to use, how hot to bake it on, how long. Pre-seasoned cookware, he says, was “instant gratification for the consumer.” This in turn made the products more attractive to big-box stores such as Wal-Mart and Target, which now make up the bulk of Lodge’s sales.
In 2002, Lodge won a Good Housekeeping “Good Buy” award for its pre-seasoned skillet, and it appeared on Food Network in a segment on how to properly pan-fry chicken. Since then, Kellermann says, every year has been better than the last. People like that cast iron is durable and chemical free, he says, and the price is also a selling point—most Lodge products are inexpensive in comparison with stainless steel, copper, and nonstick aluminum pans, and even cast iron from its Chinese competitors. Because most of the raw materials are recycled, he claims the pans are also sustainable.
“It’s kind of a throwback,” says Matt Moore, a chef and author of Have Her Over for Dinner: A Gentleman’s Guide to Classic, Simple Meals, who has written about cast iron cookware. “It’s affordable, it’s durable, it’s super versatile.” Southern cuisine is enjoying a renaissance, he says, and “cast iron is really a prerequisite [for] authentic Southern cooking.”
The embrace of cast iron is also, for some, a response to consumerist, throwaway culture. Many people abuse their cookware, put it in the garbage, and buy more, says Debra Mednick, a home-industry analyst at NPD Group. “You won’t believe how many of these two- and three-packs are sold and thrown away,” she says. “It’s very disturbing.” Cast iron, by contrast, is hard to ruin. Even the stacks of old, rusted cast iron skillets in the back of every thrift store are just waiting for a wire brush and some grease.
Still, new cast iron keeps arriving. When the Lodge factory finishes replacing its pair of four-ton melters with two 10-ton melters early next year, production capacity will increase at least 50 percent. Cast iron now makes up about 10 percent of the cookware market, according to Mednick, up from just 2 percent or 3 percent a decade ago.
Crowds fill Lodge’s factory store throughout the weekend, but the festival isn’t about selling pans. After all, many of the attendees already have cast iron skillets and Dutch ovens that show no signs of wearing out. Convincing consumers they need more than one of Lodge’s products will be its biggest challenge in the future, says Mednick. There are also many people who probably wouldn’t use it in the first place. Cast iron is heavy, keeping it seasoned requires diligence, and Mednick’s market data suggest cast iron’s growth may already be slowing. She calls it the inherent problem of cast iron: “How do you take something old and heritage and put a new spin on it?”
It’s a riddle South Pittsburg is hoping the company will solve. On top of the 200 employees at the foundry, 40 work at its factory store, making it one of the biggest employers in town. Lodge ranks with the hospital, the school system, and Wal-Mart as one of the biggest employers in Marion County. Almost every family has a member who works or has worked at Lodge, says National Cornbread Festival organizer Beth Duggar. “If Lodge went under,” she adds, “I don’t know what would happen.”
“A lot of people wouldn’t have nothing, but for Lodge,” says Raymond Sisco, 66, a former employee whose father also worked for the company. “It’s part of the backbone of this town.” Sisco is overseeing a team of cooks in Cornbread Alley, where a long line of people wait to try samples of buffalo chicken cornbread, pimento cheese cornbread, and chocolate chip pecan cornbread made from 3,500 eggs and almost a ton of cornmeal. “That’ll make you slap your momma twice,” Sisco says, as someone takes a sample of his Raymond’s Lemon Crème Cornbread.
The cook-off comes in the afternoon. In the months leading up to the event, testers from Martha White—a J.M. Smucker subsidiary that makes flour and also sponsors the festival—have winnowed down more than 400 entries to nine finalists, who have traveled here from all over the country to compete. The rules are simple: Entries must be “main dish” cornbread, full meals (none of the sweet, cakey cornbread popular up north, referred to as “Yankee cornbread”); contestants must incorporate a package of Martha White cornbread mix (cornmeal plus baking powder, oil, and buttermilk); and every recipe must be cooked in a Lodge cast iron skillet.
The contestants prepare their dishes on stage in front of a crowd of spectators, then serve them to a panel of bloggers, food writers, and local TV stars, including editors from Southern Living, Southern Plate, and Southern Bite (as well as one Bloomberg Businessweek correspondent enlisted at the last minute because a New York Times reporter couldn’t make it).
After sampling the recipes, the judges retire to a small room with drawn curtains to deliberate. Should windy conditions be considered? Should the difficulty of the hollandaise sauce be taken into account? Should a contestant’s use of Yankee cornbread mix count against her? Wearing tense smiles, the contestants stand at one end of the stage, and the gathered crowd is silent as a local TV personality announces the winners. Kellermann stands by with the Corny Crown, a cast iron pan with the bottom cut out, attached to a hard hat, painted, and, as he puts it, “glitterized.”
The third- and second-place winners are announced. A drumroll is requested for the big reveal, but the band has already left the stage. No matter: The winner is Andria Gaskins of Matthews, N.C. For her Roasted Tomato Cobbler, she wins $5,000 and a new stove, and she throws her hands to her face as the local media swarm. The new cornbread queen glows with pride as Kellermann approaches with the Corny Crown, setting it on her head.