Read how cookware originated and is artisan and mass-produced today, from raw materials to finished products. I’m privileged to share criteria of quality for these everyday products entrusted to me by international experts at renowned factories where I became an EYEWITNESS TO QUALITY!
Brand names change, styles change and prices change,
TIMELESS CRITERIA OF QUALITY FOR EVERYDAY HOME PRODUCTS
DO NOT CHANGE.
Yes, you can JUDGE FOR YOURSELF.
Man learned to control and use fire over four hundred thousand years ago! History and Science museum vignettes feature primitive peoples cooking fish and wild life over an open fire and near-by, heating clay pots of grain. Millenniums later, we still cook this way, but most of us use matches.
Eventually, fire was contained indoors in tiles and brick and foods were cooked at the hearth. Stoves appeared in the 17th Century and a patent was issued for a ‘cast-iron-even-heating-range’ with a flue in 1802. These were only for warming and baking; pots of food were still cooked in the fireplace. Stove-top cooking began when coal burning stoves were developed mid-nineteenth century. Gas cooking was developed in 1802 but thirty years passed before gas stoves were safe. Electric stoves appeared in 1890.
And the POTS:
Chronological Ages of man’s development are:
COPPER 5,000 B.C.
BRONZE 3,000 B.C. ( an alloy of copper/ tin )
IRON 1,000 B.C.
Archeologists labeled these ages because of surviving decorative artifacts crafted by metalsmiths using fire for extracting metals from ore, fire for developing alloys and fire for creating shapes. Historians know that metal weapons and utilitarian objects followed but an accurate time-line for cooking wares has not been established.
The first cooking pots were made of clay and many cultures still cook in clay pots. Sometime after the Bronze and Iron Ages, bronze and iron cooking pots were made by blacksmiths—similar to the early clay pots and to the pots we use today. It’s recorded that a copper sauce pan was used in the 14th Century.
As metallurgists developed and perfected alloys and shaping methods, great cuisines developed in many cultures, especially the Chinese, Italian and French. From these cultures, specific pots were shaped to cook specific dishes. Blacksmiths were the first in America to create and sell cooking pots in all shapes and sizes. An iron cooking pot was introduced in 1644 in Massachusetts where one of Paul Revere’s ventures was a copper rolling mill.
The Industrial Revolution spawned a Middle Class who filled their homes with amenities as pots and pans made of cast iron and later, aluminum; typically sold by peddlers from horse drawn carts. Copper pots were in the homes of the wealthy. Stainless steel, an alloy of iron-chrome-nickel, was developed in 1913 and by the 1930’s was used for cookware experiments. Steel, harder than previous alloys, required modification of machinery and new technology.
After World War II, stainless steel became the dominating metal used for mass-produced pots and pans. Because steel is a poor conductor of heat, a heat diffusing cladding of aluminum or copper (too thin to be beneficial) was added to the bottom of each pan. Brand manufacturers marketed complete sets of these shiny wares and promoted benefits of easy cleaning, durability and hygiene. These styles were repeated for decades with little change.
When my mother replaced our dull aluminum pots and pans with the ubiquitous stainless steel pans with copper-clad bottoms, polishing copper became a daily routine.
I wondered why there were scorch spots inside the shiny pans when I heated milk—even though the milk wasn’t hot enough to melt the cocoa.I didn’t understand heat diffusion, but these ‘not-very-good’ pans looked pretty, especially after polishing.
GASTRONOMY MEETS TECHNOLOGY:
The 1960’s chronicled dramatic lifestyle changes in America. Lack of domestic help, television and international travel awakened our interest in cooking and dining and aligned all elements for the triumph of Julia Child’s public television cooking show.
Julia Child didn’t originate French Cooking: she made it accessible to millions who watched with delight as she taught us about ingredients and cooking techniques. With new vocabulary and great authority, we ordered and critiqued ‘her’ foods in restaurants. Following is my favorite quote from Ms. Child:
“Theoretically a good cook should be able to perform under
any circumstances, but cooking is much easier, pleasanter and more efficient if you have the right tools” . Julia Child
After each of her shows, desire to emulate her recipes created instant demand in our Gift Gallery for the specific implements used by Ms. Child. Because selections of French cookware from New York importers were limited, authentic cookware— indigenous to each country— became a major quest for my next European buying trip. Experts in every artisan studio, atelier and mass-production factory demonstrated: quality is a synthesis of raw materials and production methods.
Searching for the ‘right tools’ in Paris, I selected soufflé dishes in countless colors, patterns and sizes; all round, straight-sided and porcelain. Cravings for cheese soufflé drew me to the dining room of the Plaza Atheneé where visions of a tall, puffy savory were interrupted by the presentation of a rectangular, slope-sided, silver loaf pan…filled with my tall, puffy, savory!
Maitre d’: “Is zere something wrong, Mademoiselle?”
Me : “I thought soufflé was made in a round, straight-sided porcelain dish?“
Maitre d’: “Ah, Mademoiselle, ze secret of ze soufflé is ze temperature
of ze oven—-and—EXPERIANCE”.
Introduced to porcelain as cookware in Paris showrooms, I chose fruit and flower designs for porcelain saucepans and other utilitarian wares hoping they would call attention to all of our new cookware. Within days of putting them on display, all were sold: many customers already knew the delight of cooking in porcelain pots and were surprised to find this classic French cookware in Buffalo.
Our French commissionaire also brought me to the historic meat packing district in Paris—and home to restaurant supply houses furnishing implements for French chefs. Ogling cavernous metal pots, I asked who needed such pans? Jean Pierre asked “Have you never heard of rub-a dub-dub?” He grinned and added that when he was in the army, many-a-day he could have filled them with potatoes.
From France and Italy I ordered copper egg-beating bowls, sauce pans, roasting pans, gratin and flambé pans, and after enjoying beef fondue in Zurich, ordered authentic copper fondue pots in Switzerland. Charmed by presentations of products in the Food Halls and Cookware Departments of Harrods in London, I realized their displays didn’t look commercial!
I bought an antique hanging balance scale for the Gift Gallery to showcase French whisks and other small essentials. Customers squealed as they pinched rolls on our table settings: they were fresh! Newspaper publicity generated traffic and sales of our international cookware began to escalate. Similar stories must have unfolded in every retail store in the developed world as gastronomy and technology began to converge.
Young or old, male or female shoppers in today’s cookware departments are overwhelmed by similar products with inexplicable price differences, multiple brands of duplicate products (each extolling superiority), no label transparency and misinformation from untrained salespersons. WOW!
Consumers know what styles they like;
they just don’t know how to differentiate product quality.
Some consumers buy expensive products; assuming they’re best.
Some consumers buy ‘bargains’; assuming they’re a good deal.
Some consumers buy brands favored by parents;
………….assuming the brand is still good.
BUT: GOOD QUALITY CANNOT BE ASSUMED!
Timeless, unbiased, generic principles of quality from international experts convinced me: no one can judge the quality of cookware without knowing and understanding the materials and production methods used to make it.
The breadth and complexity of raw materials and production methods used today is extensive; not all have merit. However, when new: all cookware looks good!
I give you the lowdown on the cooking performance of each fabrication and potential uses for pot sizes and shapes to help you buy only what you need. One ‘size’ doesn’t fit all! Everyone who needs new pots and pans and everyone who regrets past purchases of pots and pans can benefit from this information.
Julia Child chose diverse brands and shapes of diverse metals because she demanded performance for each food. Her pegboard of cookware is on permanent display at the Smithsonian.
Today, cookware marketing is a biased-brand-name game.
Brand names are meant to build confidence and consumer loyalty, earned by product performance : not expensive public relations and promotion. Some brand-name cookware manufacturers do maintain a standard of excellence but many coast on a good reputation —no longer deserved. What manufacturer admits their products are less-than-good?
We must stop being programmed by ‘brand-marketing spin’and we must demand labeling transparency for all cookware in order to consciously assess raw materials and production methods used to make each cookware product.
WHO HAS MONEY TO THROW AWAY?
MY NEXT POST IS: THE RAW MATERIALS OF COOKWARE
Pat Breen: EYEWITNESS TO QUALITY