November 1, 2002 - I left New Paltz, NY with mixed emotions. I had really wanted to stay over a few more days and visit New York City. However, I had been keeping a weather eye open and instinct told me that the weatherman was wrong.
It was bright and sunny as I left the farm but when I had gone fifty miles I ran head on into a full blown winter storm complete with heavy snow. Fortunately, I had decided earlier that I would bypass the big cities as much as possible and headed West towards Scranton, PA. Just outside Scranton I turned South towards Harrisburg, PA driving in a raging snow storm. The snow was easily six inches deep along the side of the road, but I kept truckin' behind the big rigs that were keeping the highway clear and when I made a stop for the night I had outrun the storm.
My ultimate destination on this leg of my cross-country trip was South Pittsburg, Tennessee, a small town on the Tennessee River bordering Alabama and Georgia. South Pittsburg's great claim to fame is that it is here Joseph Lodge decided to settle in 1896 and to start the Lodge Manufacturing Company, the America's only remaining manufacturer of cast iron and Dutch Oven cookware.
However, before I could get to my destination I had to travel a thousand miles through some of the most beautiful country I had ever seen. As a teenager I had visited Gettysburg, Williamsburg and most of the other major tourist attractions in this region and I had no desire to see them again.
What interested me now was seeing some of the famous whitewater rivers my friends, fellow river guides, had told me about during my years as a rafting guide. So, I got off the beaten path and followed a few rivers across the Southeast.
My trail meandered through the Appalachian Mountains passing rivers like the New, Gauly and Sehenandoah. I drove for hours along the Nantahala River and stopped in many places to view other famous whitewater rafting rivers like the Ocoee, French Broad and Nolichucky.
I traversed often across State lines as I traveled between the Allegheny Mountains, Blue Ridge Mountains, Great Smoky Mountains and the Cumberland Plateau. Had I known that this country would be so spectacular I would have scheduled a few weeks instead of days for the journey.
One very impressive site was the abundance of hard wood forests. Even since I had crossed into Wisconsin I had begun to notice the changing flora and when I reached New York State I would stop and stare in awe at pulchritudinous stands of maples, oak, birch and other hardwood trees. You don't see many of these in the West and Pacific Northwest, and it was an unanticipated and inspiring bonus.
I hope to return some day, without an itinerary, and take my time enjoying this beautiful region. But, a destiny calls and I had to cut short my visit to paradise so that I could arrive on time in South Pittsburg.
I had made an appointment with the folks at Lodge Manufacturing for early Monday morning and there was no way I would miss this opportunity since this stop was my primary reason for making the trip in the first place.
So, what's the big deal with Dutch ovens? For me, the fascination (obsession) with cast iron cooking goes back to my childhood and watching my grandmother and mother deftly creating wondrous meals in these old black pots. We used them at home, on camping trips, in hunting camps and countless fishing trips. I've carried these old black pots for days on horseback and countless miles on wilderness river trips.
Years later, after I became a professional Chef, I really learned to appreciate the special qualities of cast iron. It consistently heats evenly, without "hot spots," adds iron (a needed mineral) to the food and, most importantly, food just tastes better when cooked in cast iron! I'm not kidding; it really is true.
For many years I had wondered exactly how Dutch ovens were made, and the only place left in America where they make them is in South Pittsburg, Tennessee at Lodge Manufacturing.
It is believed that the Chinese were the first to smelt iron ore, and to use a green sand casting process over 5000 years ago.
The European use of iron dates back before 3000 BC, or before recorded history. Exactly when and where cast iron was first cast as a cooking implement is unknown.
It is known that in 1704 and Englishman named Abraham Darby traveled to Holland to inspect a Dutch casting process that used dry sand molds. He returned to England, improved upon the process and finally patented a molded sand casting system that included baking the sand mold. He quickly began a booming production business of manufacturing cast iron for domestic and military uses.
An earlier introduction of the cast iron cooking pot occurred in Africa in 1652 when the Danish explorer Jan Van Riebeeck landed at the Cape of Good Hope bringing with him cast iron pots. Versions of these pots are still in use today and are called a potjie pot - pronounced "poi-key." They are very similar in design to our modern Dutch oven.
The Dutch East Indies Company used these pots as "trade goods" and their use quickly caught on where ever the Company landed and traded with locals. Along with exotic spices and silk from the orient it is not a great leap in faith to believe that cast iron pots where one of the first items "discovered" by earlier European traders upon arriving in China.
The use of the term "Dutch" oven in America has been attributed to various sources. One cites the original Dutch casting process; another points to the arrival of the Pennsylvania Dutch colonists and still another points to the fact the Dutch traders, caller "tinkers," used to travel from farm to farm and village to village suppling folks with the essentials of frontier life. The carried cast iron skillets, ovens, horseshoes, knifes, guns and other hard to manufacture items. Whatever the source, Dutch ovens are here to stay and the following is a first hand account of how they are made today.
November 4, 2002 - Lodge Manufacturing, South Pittsburg, Tennessee
I had made my appointment with Lodge a few weeks in advance but was still surprised when I arrived at their headquarters and was greeted with a lobby sign saying, "Welcome, Chef Patrick Brown." It was a very good first impression and "Well, I thought, at least they're expecting me."
I was soon met by Bob Kellermann, Chairman and CEO, who invited me into his office and the receptionist quickly followed with a cup of coffee. I was in SOUTH Tennessee and hospitality isn't just an idea, it is a way of life. Jeanne Scholze, Research and Development Manager, joined us and it didn't take long for me to feel "at home" with these congenial and casual professionals. We exchanged stories about "Dutch" oven cooking, my background and a little history of Lodge Manufacturing. Jeanne was interested in my thoughts about "getting the word out about cast iron cooking" to other professional Chefs. I mention that I would be writing an article about my visit for my column on http://www.cheftalk.com/ and we discussed Culinary Schools as an excellent venue to reach younger Chefs.
Our discussion had lasted over an hour when I was introduced to Louis Zarzour their Quality Control Supervisor who was to be my tour guide. I was anxious to "get to the meat of the matter" and quickly followed Louis to the main plant about 300 yards behind the Administrative Offices.
Upon entering the lobby of the main plant I was again greeted with a sign saying, "Welcome, Chef Patrick Brown." I was starting to feel like a celebrity!
Louis showed me around the employee cafeteria, changing rooms with showers and other amenities of a modern manufacturing plant before taking me to his "area," the Quality Control Center.
Just as consistency of a recipe is the key to success of a restaurant, here consistency is also the key in the manufacturing of cast iron.
The Quality Control Center at Lodge is a state-of-the-art facility that monitors over 35 specific variables in the making of cast iron. There were spectrometers to analyze the metal, other equipment to analyze the sand and still more machines that analyzed numerous other variables in the manufacturing process.
As Louis handed me a pair of earplugs he explained that he would "talk me through the process" here, in the relative quiet of the lab, since once we entered the main plant normal conversation is almost impossible over the continuous din.
The "process" begins with the mixing of metal. Here Brazilian Pig Iron ingots are combined with scrap steel , returning pieces of cast iron from the casting process, cast iron that failed inspection as well as some additional material like extra silicon. The scrap steel is called bushling and is a fairly pure and controlled steel leftover from another manufacturer that stamps electrical switch plates. It is very important to use fairly pure steel to keep unwanted metals out of the metal formula.
The crane has a large magnet that selects quantities of each item and mixes about 1,600 pounds in each batch. This is preheated in an electric furnace to about 1800 degrees. It is then poured into the main four-ton core less-induction furnace (they operate two of them) where another 6,000 pounds of already molten metal helps speed up the process called "cookout." It takes between 8 1/2 to 10 minutes for the "cookout" to complete.At this point a "button," a small cylinder of metal, is poured out and sent to the Quality Control Center for testing. Passing inspection, the molten metal is poured into a "transfer ladle" where the "slag" (impurities) that have floated to the surface are removed. From here the metal is placed in a "holding furnace/pouring furnace" that is synchronized with the automated molding equipment.
The iron melts at 1900 degrees, but is actually poured at 2800 degrees. It must flow like water to move through the tooling without cooling down - especially for intricate patterns like the perch pan (so you can see the scales) or the barbecue grill grate.
Meanwhile, the "muller" is mixing the sand, water and clay in a kneading process in 6000 pound batches.
The "male" and "female" sides of the mold. The bronze colored area is the channel the molten iron uses to reach the actual mold.
The sand used in the process is a specially processed sand called "sub-angular." It is made up of some rounded grains and some angular grains. They run seven or eight tests on the sand and clay before determining the best mix. Relative humidity plays a major role in determining how much water will be added to the mix.
Once the proper sand/clay/water mixture is attained the mix is blown into the "blow chamber" in the automated molding machine. The machine squeezes two sides of a pattern (male & female halves) and makes a front half and back half of a sand mold.
The molten iron is then poured between the molds and the iron cools as the mold travels down a transfer conveyor. At the end of this conveyor the sand mold and its contents (your favorite cast iron pan) drops off onto another transfer conveyor. This is the "shaker" conveyor and it vibrates (noisily) causing the sand mold to separate and fall off. The sand falls on another conveyor below and is returned to the "muller" where it is recycled into another mold.
Next the conveyor turns into a high frequency "shaker" that gets the fine sand off. At this point the iron is about 450 degrees.
After this conveyor each item is inspected and hung on a hook then sent into a "blast chamber." Here small steel shot (like BB's) is projected by high pressure air against the iron which cleans any remaining sand and smooths the surface areas.
Each item is inspected again and separated, some pieces being sent to the grinder for extra finishing the others going directly to the washing system.
They use a wet rock system to wash the items adding Tennessee River stones, soap and a rust inhibitor. The rocks help remove any grinding edge and burrs that remain.
Each item is then rinsed with a high pressure rinse removing any remaining soap and rust inhibitor.
Next each item is again hung on hooks and goes through a hot wax bath. The 110 degree bath is a Carnuba based food-grade wax. The items now go through a 160 degree drying tunnel and onto a final inspection before being labeled, placed in boxes, organized on pallets and sent to the shipping warehouse.
Lodge has recently started offering a pre-seasoned line of cast iron products and some of the finished products are sent through the seasoning process.
Well folks, that's how it's done at Lodge Manufacturing in South Pittsburg, Tennessee.
For more information about Lodge Manufacturing please visit their web site at:
Before leaving South Pittsburg I was fortunate to meet Henry W. Lodge, President & Chief Operating Officer of Lodge. Henry had spent part of his youth growing up in Southeast Alaska, and I enjoyed exchanging tales of life in Alaska.I was also treated to lunch at the local cafe and made a stop at the Lodge Outlet Store where I happily traded a few hundred dollars for some more excellent cast iron products.Next stop, Baton Rouge, Louisiana and the final chapter of "Searching for the perfect cup of Coffee."For more Dutch oven tips and techniques, visit our friends at The Outdoor Sports Advisor