Alex Lauer, at Inside Hook, tells us about a new company bringing old-time quality products back to life.
Founder Dennis Powell spent six figures trying to make a cast-iron skillet that was just like the ones they made 100 years ago; he originally did it just for fun and had no interest in starting a business; now that he is in business, he has no interest in growing, and as he told me on a phone call, he has no problem roasting his customers who mistreat their pans. I can already hear Mark Cuban saying, “I’m out!”
By all modern standards of business, Powell has done everything wrong. But since 2013 when he founded the company, his skillets have become a favorite of chefs when cooking at home, received the highest marks of any cast iron that’s undergone the rigorous testing at Consumer Reports, and regularly rack up significant waiting lists despite being some of the most expensive on the market.
So what’s going on here? It all started with his grandmother’s pan.
“The precipitating moment was: I was at home cooking, I dropped my grandmother’s pan, which was the only pan that I usually cooked with, I broke it — a great big crack in it,” Powell tells InsideHook of his favorite cast-iron skillet. “And since I’d always assumed that was going to be something I was going to give to my two kids, and I realized I wasn’t going to be able to do that, I decided that I was going to just replicate that pan, almost the way a sculptor goes about saying that they’re going to cast a bronze edition of a sculpture.”
What happened next was the slow boil of an obsession. He spent time researching in the Library of Congress, he pored over all the records from the Griswold foundry which he got from a friend who was president of the Wagner and Griswold Society, and he eventually visited 20-odd foundries in the U.S. to try and find one that could make a pan to his specifications. The walls of the skillet had to be thinner than modern iterations (3/32 of an inch thick), the cooking surface had to be smoother (a roughness average of 90) and it had to be made in the States.
“Every one of those foundries would say, ‘You can’t make cast iron to these specifications,’” he remembers. But at these meetings, along with his design brief, he also carried a century-old skillet from Favorite Stove & Range Company that had inspired his own design. “Then I would pull the pan out and say, ‘Well where did this pan come from?’”
After a good long while — which included some test castings at an Amish foundry in Pennsylvania that specializes in replacement parts for steam engines — what Powell discovered is that people don’t make them like they used to because modern technology has made it untenable; automatic molding machines are the norm, not hand-casting done one at a time.
“It wasn’t until 2015 when my wife said, you know you realize you have $100,000 tied up in your research — without exaggeration — and you ought to try to monetize this,” he says. But he was at a fork in the road. On one hand, he could do things like other modern cast-iron companies — brands like Finex, Field Company and Smithey — by creating a rough cast and then mechanically smoothing the pans, or he could develop a brand-new process from scratch that replicates cast iron of the late 1800s in the 21st century.
Atlas Obscura tells us Barilla tried to build a machine to make it, and failed.
Twice a year, pilgrims in Sardinia trek from the city of Nuoro to the village of Lula under cover of night. They walk in solidarity, forgoing sleep and shelter—sometimes by the hundreds, sometimes by the thousand. Twenty miles later, at the entrance of Santuario di San Francesco, they reach their destination.
These seekers persist not to find the sanctuary itself, but to eat what may be the rarest pasta in the world. Su filindeu—literally “threads of God” in Sardo—is unfathomably intricate. It’s made by only three women on Earth, all of whom live on Sardinia. And they make it only for the biannual Feast of San Francesco. It’s been this way for the last 200 years.
The ingredients are simple: semolina wheat, water, and salt. The serving preparation is similarly uncomplicated: gamey mutton broth and a helping of tangy pecorino cheese. Making the pasta, however, is nearly impossible. Engineers from the Barilla pasta company attempted, unsuccessfully, to build a machine that could reproduce the technique. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver also visited Sardinia in hopes of mastering the elusive noodle. After two hours, he gave up.
Paola Abraini, one of the masters of su filindeu, says the hardest part is “understanding the dough with your hands.” She kneads the mixture until it feels like modeling clay, then continues working it into rounded strands. When the semolina lacks elasticity, she dips her fingers in a bowl of salt water. When it needs moisture, unsalted water does the trick. The balance, says Abraini, “can take years to understand.”
Paul Levy, in the Spectator, reviews Norman Kolpas’s Foie Gras: A Global History, which defends the rich delicacy and its creation via the practice of gavage (the fattening of geese and ducks by tubular feeding) against a recent wave of Puritanism and snobbish morality posing that got the product banned in California and removed from the shelves of Fortnum & Mason in Britain.
[T]he main opposition claim is that the production of the hyper-fatty livers of ducks and geese is physically cruel and therefore immoral.
The factual argument is just plain wrong, and so is the ethical judgment that depends on it. I have witnessed the ‘force-feeding’ of ducks, and it is not a case of animal abuse. What actually happens is that the nicely behaved ducks (imprinted à la Konrad Lorenz) form an orderly line to take their turn swallowing a flexible tube that in seconds whooshes pellets of maize or mash of cereal down their gullets. They appear to relish this, and are, in my experience, fussed about and petted affectionately by the farming women of the south-west of France who perform what is called the gavage.
The problem, says Norman Kolpas, is that our celebrities and anti-foie gras activists ‘immediately and understandably tend to anthropomorphize the birds, imagining how it might feel for a human to have a feeding tube jammed down the throat’. This image of oral rape comes from an ignorance of bird physiology. The human esophagus is a more rigid structure of muscle, cartilage and bone, and inserting a tube down it means getting past the epiglottis, which triggers the human gag reflex. These waterfowl species do not have a gag reflex.
The gavage, in fact, mimics the birds’ natural pre-migratory behavior; following the seasons, they gorge themselves with food in preparation for their long flights. This had been remarked at least as early as 400 BC, when, says Kolpas, ‘well-fattened geese were deemed sufficiently worthy to be presented as a gift when Agesilaus, king of Sparta, visited Egypt’. The Greeks and Romans force-fed geese with figs rather than grain, a practice later adapted for rich pork liver, as recommended by Apicius. Foie gras found its way to south-western France with the conquest of Gaul (121-51 BC), and then Jewish slaves, cooks and farmers spread it east across Europe. Though goose makes the most appreciated fat liver, the amount of goose foie gras now produced globally has become minuscule (about 5 percent) compared with duck foie gras, mostly from (pond-shunning) hybrid male Moulard ducks, whose meat is also succulent and valued.
“A jug of rice wine infused with two hundred baby rodents; a dessert made of millions of crushed flies. Jiayang Fan spoke with the creator of the Disgusting Food Museum, in Sweden, which is located in a shopping mall and is designed with an eye for Instagram. But the playful surroundings belie the museum’s more serious messages about who gets to decide which foods are “disgusting,” and how, if we want to live more lightly on the planet, we need to broaden our palates. Just maybe don’t start out with cans of surströmming, a fermented herring. The museum director informed Fan that these fish have induced more vomiting than any other item at the museum.”
If cookies go a few weeks without getting eaten, they turn weirdly soft or dissolve into fine dust. If cookies go 1,300 years without getting eaten, they get carefully preserved in a case at the British Museum.
In the winter of 1915, the British-Hungarian archeologist Marc Aurel Stein opened a tomb in Xinjiang. Known as the Astana cemetery, these gravesites were where residents of the nearby oasis city of Gaochang buried their dead, roughly between the 3rd and 9th centuries. As the membrane between Central Asia and China, and the path to the Middle East, Xinjiang has been fought over for centuries (a fight that continues today, as China uses an iron fist to control it as an autonomous province). Gaochang, meanwhile, lies in ruins. But the Astana cemetery, with more than a thousand tombs preserved in the dry heat of the Turpan Basin, tells the story of the once-prosperous ancient city.
The Astana cemetery shows how Gaochang was once a prominent stop on the Silk Road, especially for Sogdians, a people from Eastern Iran who often traveled across Eurasia as merchants. Opening the tombs, Stein found heaps of evidence pointing to Gaochang’s role as a place of “trade exchange between West Asia and China.” Though the vast majority of the dead at Astana were Han Chinese, Stein saw corpses with Byzantine coins in their mouths and Persian textiles included as grave goods.
But inside one tomb, Stein found neither of these things. Grave robbers had emptied it of everything, “except [for] a large number of remarkably preserved fancy pastry scattered over the platform meant to accommodate the coffin with the dead,” he recalled later. Stein was taken aback by the beauty of the cookies and their wide variety of shapes—flat wafers with elaborate designs, delicate, lace-like cookies, and “flower-shaped tartlets … with neatly made petal borders, some retaining traces of jam or some similar substance placed in the [center].” In the arid earth of the cemetery, the sweets managed to survive to modern day.
Today, the pastries are owned by the British Museum, as part of what Stein described as his “haul” of artifacts sent back to the United Kingdom. During his expeditions, Stein also helped himself to priceless cultural objects, such as the first-known printed book. Stein’s plundering of the Diamond Sutra caused vociferous protests in China. In 1961, the National Library of China released a statement saying that Stein’s book theft was enough to cause “people to gnash their teeth in bitter hatred.” The cookies, in comparison, are regarded more as curiosities. A 1925 article in The Times of Mumbai, describing an exhibition of Aurel Stein’s finds in New Delhi, noted how “the most remarkable of all the objects are the actual pastries deposited with the dead as food objects,” with the author writing that they closely resembled “the ‘fancies’ of a modern confectioner’s shop window.”
Archaeologists in Pompeii, the city buried in a volcanic eruption in 79 AD, have made the extraordinary find of a frescoed hot food and drinks shop that served up the ancient equivalent of street food to Roman passersby.
Known as a termopolium, Latin for hot drinks counter, the shop was discovered in the archaeological park’s Regio V site, which is not yet open the public, and unveiled on Saturday.
Traces of nearly 2,000-year-old food were found in some of the deep terra cotta jars containing hot food which the shop keeper lowered into a counter with circular holes.
The front of the counter was decorated with brightly coloured frescoes, some depicting animals that were part of the ingredients in the food sold, such as a chicken and two ducks hanging upside down.
“This is an extraordinary find. It’s the first time we are excavating an entire termopolium,” said Massimo Ossana, director of the Pompeii archaeological park.
Archaeologists also found a decorated bronze drinking bowl known as a patera, ceramic jars used for cooking stews and soups, wine flasks and amphora.
When we were litle kids, back in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, we found this plant abundantly present on waste ground. We referred to its fruit as “Inkberries.” They were believed to be deadly poison. Childhood folklore held that you only needed to eat a single berry to die. So we picked lots of the fascinating berries, crushed them in containers and dared each other to try eating “Inkberry soup.” No one did.
It never occurred to us to do anything with the plant’s ordinary, boring green leaves, but Abby Carney, in Saveur, tells us that Poke salad is really a long-time staple of Appalachian-cum-Afro-American rural cuisine, valued for its flavor as well as regarded as having medicinal properties.
All we did was pick the berries, make poison with them, and throw them at each other.
Despite the fact that the kudzu-like Phytolacca americana sprouts up all across North America, poke sallet, a dish made from the plantâ€™s slightly-less-toxic leaves, is a regional thing, popular only to Appalachia and the American South. The leaves must be boiled in water three times to cook out their toxins, and, as aficionados will tell you, itâ€™s well worth the extra effort.
But if pokeweed is so toxic, why did people start eating it in the first place? In a word, poke sallet is survival food.
According to Michael Twitty, historian, Southern food expert, and author of The Cooking Gene, poke sallet was originally eaten for pure practicalityâ€”its toxins made it an allegedly potent tonic. “Back in the old days, you had a lot of people who walked around barefoot,” Twitty said. “They walked around barefoot in animal feces all the time. Most of our ancestors from the Depression backwards were full of worms.” So then, poke sallet acted as a vermifuge, a worm purger.
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center cites research showing that raw pokeweed has medicinal properties that can help cure herpes and HIV. That said, there are no clinical trials that support the use of the cooked dish as such, or as any kind of medicine, but its devotees swear by its curative qualities. Pokeweed remains a popular folk medicine, but it hasn’t been widely studied, so its healing properties remain, officially, purported.
Li Ziqi said in an interview, â€œI am shooting about my imaginary life in the future.â€ In an elegant traditional Hanfu, she appears in a place like Utopia, surrounded by a landscape with an old-fashioned attractiveness, all natural ingredients, simple and practical cooking utensils, traditional yet retro cooking steps that fascinate her audience deeply. It helps to relax a lot of people who are living a busy urban life. Her videos with an ancient style are very eye-catching, just like being washed by a chilly wind. The word “traditionalâ€ describes her videos the best.
All by her own effort, Li Ziqi has explored a whole new area of short videos – making delicious meals in an ancient style. Watching her videos may make you feel like traveling in a time machine, as if a versatile beautiful lady from ancient China has come to the modern Internet world. Her videos have also made her audience dream of â€œTaoyuan Mengâ€ (the dream of Utopia) as well.
Writing about the food of Japanese monks and nuns for a magazine like this one presented a conceptual difficulty. From the Buddhist perspective, cooking is a form of spiritual practice that produces nourishment to prepare the body for hard work and meditation. Unlike, say, Memphis barbecue or the cuisine of Lyonnaise bouchons, shojin doesnâ€™t have a whole lot to say on the subject of pleasure. Shojin has bigger fish to fry. Its goals are nothing less than permanent enlightenment, nirvana, the fundamental transformation of the human mind and society. It does not fit easily into the hedonistic, novelty-addled world of food journalism.
Before every other restaurant extolled the virtues of seasonal produce, there was shojin ryori, a Buddhist cuisine reimagined by monk chef Toshio Tanahashi.
I chanced upon my salvation, journalistically speaking, in the person of Toshio Tanahashi. Heâ€™d practiced the art of shojin as a Zen monk in a rural temple near Kyoto and then did something unprecedentedâ€”he opened a restaurant in Tokyoâ€™s chic Omotesando neighborhood that presented vegan monastic cuisine in a fine-dining context. The restaurant, Gesshin Kyo, became both successful and influential. Reviewing it for the New York Times, author and culinary authority Elizabeth Andoh described it as a â€œsecular space imbued with a spiritual respect for food.â€ It was a spiritual respect that nonetheless made room for distinctly un-Japanese elements like tomatoes, mangoes, and white bordeaux. Freed from temple kitchens and its role as nourishment, shojin dazzled Tanahashiâ€™s diners with its unfamiliar and subtle beauty. The Zen monk had become a famous chef by reimagining monk food.
Tanahashi closed Gesshin Kyo after 15 years, in 2006. Along the way he wrote two books about shojin ryori and came to see it as a corrective to the worldâ€™s restaurant culture, which he believes to be addled with costly, scarce, and unhealthy ingredients. …
[S]hojin [is] world poised between the rigorous simplicity of spiritual practice and its often exquisite trappings. Consider the tools found in a shojin kitchen. On the day we met, Tanahashi brought me to Aritsugu, renowned as a shrine among the international brotherhood of knife fetishists. The family-owned shop has been in continuous operation since 1560 and once supplied swords to the Imperial House of Japan.
At the modern-day shop in Kyotoâ€™s enclosed Nishiki Market, we shimmied past vitrines of eye-wateringly expensive sashimi blades to a back room, where a soft-spoken manager showed us the principal tools of the shojin chef. There was an adorably petite vegetable cleaver called a nakiri-bocho; a one-sided grater of tinned copper trimmed in magnolia wood and deer antler used for working with lotus root and wasabi; and a strainer-ricer made of the braided hairs of a horseâ€™s tail bound with a band of cherry bark. These utensils, made by hand, were remarkably beautiful.
â€œThings that are made by humans for humans are good for the spirit,â€ Tanahashi declared. He explained that shojin kitchens forbid plastic and machinery. Taking care of oneâ€™s tools, he added, turning the cleaver in his hand, was in itself a form of Buddhist meditation.
Over the next several days, Tanahashi led me on a breakneck tour of shojinâ€”not the grand theory behind it, but the myriad building blocks. He referred to it as my â€œeducation.â€ At an antique lacquerware shop called Uruwashiya, behind one of those dimly lit Kyoto storefronts that always look closed, Akemi Horiuchi, the elegant proprietor, showed us the most important dishes used in serving shojinâ€”several attractively worn red bowls and a matching tray. Red is the auspicious color of the temples, she explained, and the trayâ€™s raised edge indicates that it encloses a sacred space. Shojin must be served in handmade vessels, and few are as painstakingly handmade as theseâ€”delicately carved wood covered with layer upon layer of urushi lacquer, making the dishes supple, lightweight, and resilient. The lacquer on the bowls Horiuchi showed us had faded in placesâ€”a prized quality, she saidâ€”because they were made nearly 500 years ago, in Sen no Rikyuâ€™s lifetime.