Friday, July 22, 2011

Cast Iron in the Family

A cast iron dutch oven.

Unlike other popular antique items, cast iron pieces don’t always garner automatic respect.  My mother once offered my wife a cast iron pot which my father remembered as previously belonging to my great-grandmother.  My mother casually asked my wife if she was interested in it;  she said she “hated to throw it away.”  My wife (who loves cast iron) jumped at it!

Maybe the problem is that cast iron is so utilitarian.  Or that cast iron tends to look somewhat antique even when new, so an antique piece may not look that significantly different from a newly purchased pot from the Lodge Cast Iron catalog.  Rust isn’t even a good signifier of age.  Leave a new cast iron pot outside for awhile and it can start to look pretty old in a hurry.

I asked Kory Berrett at Berrett Conservation Studio for advice on how we should care for our old cast iron cookware.  He reminded me that even sturdy-looking cast iron is fragile:  “Water exposure, damp conditions, and undisturbed soil will work against iron in almost any context.  The finish on properly ‘seasoned’ cast iron cookware is corrosion resistant but care must be taken in cleaning and drying these utensils to avoid harsh abrasives or caustic chemicals.  After these items are retired, they are prone to rust and corrosion if left unprotected.  Periodic cleaning and waxing is an excellent way to protect iron cooking and fireplace tools.”

A cast iron spider.
Then Kory added that this discussion of cast iron only touched on a very small part of the wide-ranging variety of ironware that might be found in a family collection.  According to Kory, “There are material differences between sheet iron (tinned iron), wrought iron, and cast iron in terms of how it’s made, finished, used, and in terms of the problems it presents.  The issues and answers are also dependent on circumstances – your question was about a particular cooking pot, but this leaves out everything from cookie cutters to public fountains and from tin cans to rifles and re-bar.  There would be different issues and answers for each of the different object types.”

© 2011 Lee Price

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