Late this fall, I was helping my cousins clean out their mom’s basement, and we came across a stack of cast iron skillets. I don’t know much about them, but I do know that there are a few highly collectable brands — and the entire stack was nothing but Wagners and Griswolds. I half-jokingly asked my cousins if I could have one, and they said yes, that their mom would have wanted them to stay in the family regardless of their value.
So of course, because I’m me, I immediately went home and looked up the skillet online. According to this article on the Wagner and Griswold Society’s website, (of course there’s a society) this pan is a Fifth-Series Griswold #9 skillet, pattern 710D, with an inset heat ring and a rounded rib handle, manufactured in Erie, Pennsylvania sometime between 1905 and 1907. It is both wondrous and a little scary that there are people who know this much about cast iron — but as a fellow history nerd, I’m grateful they exist.
The skillet was in pretty darn good shape to begin with, but since you only find hundred-year-old cookware once in a blue moon, I followed the lye-bath directions on the WAGS site to electrolyze all the gunk off.
It took a couple of dips and some scrubbing, but after about two weeks the water had turned black and thick as imperial stout. After a couple rounds of scrubbing with Dr. Bronner’s and some steel wool, I had a clean, beautiful bare iron pan.
The WAGS site suggested one seasoning coat of Crisco, but I’m a sucker for Serious Eats with their photo-heavy food-sciencey articles, so I used J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s method. The results were stunning:
Once I’d got the antique skillet back in working order, I took our Martha Stewart pan that had served us loyally for the last dozen years, and stuck it in the lye bath for a couple of weeks. Unlike the antique, we’d ridden old Martha hard and put her away wet, and she was covered in a gunky black crust that no amount of scrubbing could remove. That lye bath, though:
The gunk just sheeted off in 2-inch hunks. I was very impressed. I forgot to take a picture of Martha before we passed her on to some friends, but once that stuff was off, she looked like she’d just walked out of the store: perfectly clean, gunmetal-grey iron.
The experts say that the older skillets are a higher-quality iron, and that they were polish-ground to a fine finish — and I certainly saw the difference between the old skillet and Martha, who was rough and pebbly, even after I’d taken a steel drill-brush to hear a couple years ago. When you run your fingers over the cooking surfaces, you immediately notice the antique skillet’s superior quality. It’s lighter, too — the antique is an inch or two wider than Martha, but she’s lighter. There’s a lot of debate over whether or not this makes that much of a difference when you’re cooking, and I probably have some sunk-cost fallacy / confirmation bias going on, but I feel like the Erie definitely cooks better. Still, for me, it’s more about putting a family treasure back in action. Allez Cuisine!