American Chuck Wagon

American Chuck Wagon

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Early Cookware that Tittilated Mans Appetite

If you never do much cooking, likely you never gave much thought to the cookware we use preparing meals. Modern technology has made most meals so easy to prep, cook and serve at the dinner table. It takes longer to shop for the groceries. Plus the fact of fast food chains, one rarely is without so many choices of what and where to eat be it breakfast, lunch or dinner.

I’m also very fortunate being married to a woman who takes pride in the culinary art of gourmet cooking which spoils my palate. Plus the fact that my mother in law also lives with us who too takes pride in her cooking. Perhaps the only thing she cooked different than my personal expectation is Chili. I’m from Texas, she is from Indiana. True Chili does not have macaroni mixed in with it. Plus, I’m the cook when it comes to the out door grilling. Just as long as I keep my hands off the wife’s collection of Rachel Ray cookware, she’s happy. Therefore, I too never really gave much thought about cookware either. Not until one day speaking with an associate about Chuck wagon cooking and period correct cookware. He stated “Chuck wagons did not use enamelware coffee pots” as he continue to point out that they did not become available until the turn of the 20th century. I knew this to be incorrect but not being a subject matter expert on early cookware, I decided to research the development of enamelware and facts of early cookware. While I merely desired to know one general era of period cookware, I found myself intrigued on the over-all history as man’s movement from a primitive state to modern civilization and how to titillate his appetite that develop the tools we have come to use. Though the lack of archaeological evidence makes understanding tools used prior to pottery difficult, though it can some what be understood through the developmental study of civilized cultural.
Stone Age man learned the earliest methods for cooking meals. Perhaps starting with a stick and placing through meat holding above an open fire. In time he likely figured how to make a spit so he could do other things while his meal was cooking and free up sitting there holding the stick. Over time early man became more aware of cooking leading to the development of implements. These early methods were simplex as wrapping food in clay or leaves which held moisture in without burning food. This is still used today in modern cuisines. More complex methods were used as primitive man discovered the values of boiling water. Many different methods have been uncovered through anthropology as man researches the development of civilization. Early innovation indicate different cultures using regional items to store and boil water such as bamboo, turtle shell or the stomach linings of hunted animals. Some of these methods still used in more primitive regions or less inhabited environment. Nevertheless, as man became more aware of his appetite for food, so did his growth of ways to prepare and cook his food.

Pottery: Surely the oldest known cookware as pottery allowed for a variety of shapes and sizes. Pottery is a clay mud molded into a form that is then fired in a kiln. Coatings would enable the tool to used over fire and hold water. Early coatings were of plant gum and later using ceramic glazes, converted the porous clay containers into waterproof cookware that could be hung over fires or directly placed in a bed of low heat burning coals. Although, pottery including stoneware and glass conduct heat poorly and will crack if applied to high temperatures. Earthenware is often preferred as cookware among the less well-off because of its low cost affordability.

The development of bronze and iron metalwork skills allowed for the manufacturing of metal cookware. However, growth of metal cookware was slow due to the higher product cost, and low demand due to its affordability. After metal was recognized with great properties for cookware, most homes would merely continue to the standard of having a medieval kitchen utilizing a cast iron cauldron, some earth ware and a spit for roasting until the mid 17th century.

Cast iron is one of the oldest cookwares next to pottery and copper. It has excellent heat retention and diffusion properties. It is produced with a relatively low level of technology. Seasoning is used to protect bare cast iron from rust and to create a non-stick surface. Seasoning is the process to coat the cast iron in fats and carbons. Cast iron had been developed 513 BC in China used for weapons and figurines. Although, not until 1161 AD in Europe would cast iron be developed into cookware. Early cast iron was brittle requiring the casting to be thicker creating it to be extra heavy and much longer to heat. By 1400 AD, Cauldrons were developed which allowed for the making of great stews, soups or boiling. The Cauldrons often had a bail hanger to be hung inside a fireplace for cooking or from a tripod. Additionally, many had three legs on the pot to allow it to free stand using over an open fire or hot coals. The process of annealing metal allowed cast iron cookware to be made thinner to allow for faster heating. To prevent rust and the taste of iron from seeping into the food, cast iron cookware was later covered with a thin coating of tin metal, a process called tinning. Care of non enamel cast iron was highly important. Clean in mild warm water, dry completely. Place back into heat, cover with animal or vegetable oil, reheat and treat. This is called seasoning the cookware which prevented rusting plus made it easy for food to not stick to the pan when cooked. Seasoned correctly, it has excellent non – stick properties which works as well as T-fal or modern Teflon. If cast iron should become rusty or loose its seasoning, just clean off any rust and season again. Some chef’s insist to cleaning using salts and wipe with a dry towel. Storing cast iron, place a paper towel on the surface of the skillets or inside Dutch ovens to absorb moisture. Well seasoned cast iron will become glossy black over time.

While popular today, cast iron cookware has been used world wide for hundreds of years. China, India, Europe and North America have found it as an essential cookware. During the trail drives, the Chuck wagon carried several cast iron items, Dutch Ovens, frying pans (skillets) deep fryers, griddles and even waffle irons. Pottery was seldom used with chuck wagon crews due to its poor character for unbreakability. Although non cookware pottery such as crocks for storing sourdough starter or jugs that may contain alcohol often have been archived in photographs.

Brass, Bronze and Copper: Brass and Bronze are a form of copper with an added metal. Bronze once believed to be the product of the Greeks had deep roots with Egypt and China dating over 6000 years. Recent Archeologist discoveries indicate Ban Chiang, Thailand used bronze dating to 4500 BC. Tin bronze was not in western Asia before 3000 BC. Additionally, craftsmen during the 15th century, in Binen now known as Nigeria, Africa created highly prized castings desired by the ruling elite. Evidence shows Binen castings as early as the 13th century. Until Western colonizers centuries later entered Nigeria, the Bronze castings were unknown. The Bronze Age is regarded as the second part of a three-age system of prehistoric societies. Although while some cultures have superb written records during their bronze age, and most areas of the world the Bronze age followed the Neolithic age, some areas of sub-Sahara Africa, the Neolithic age was directly followed by the iron age and in some cases in the world, a copper age. This is only to provide an understanding of time periods and the cookware which may or may not have been used in any region of the world. However, by the 17th century, it was common for a Western kitchen to contain a number of skillets, baking pans, a kettle and several pots, including a variety of pot hooks and trivets of cast iron. Local blacksmith in the American Colonies commonly produced these items from iron while bronze or copper cookware became common in Europe and Asia. Future improvements in metallurgy during the 19th and 20th centuries allowed for pots and pans from metals such as steel, stainless steel and aluminum to be economically produced. Bronze had long been around before iron as is a product of mixing copper with tin and a tad bit of other metals. Lead was often used to make bronze.

NOTE: Lead is an indestructible heavy metal that can accumulate and linger in the human body. Although the problem of lead exposure has been reduced in the United States, minorities and disadvantaged individuals remain chronically exposed. In developing countries, occupational and environmental exposures still exist and are a serious public health problem. Cookware, paint and other household items manufactured or imported into the Unites States can no longer contain lead since the early 1980’s.

As the use of Bronze during ancient civilization became ubiquitous, people began using bronze for cookware as pots and pans, jewelry, buttons’ for clothing, and further used as art sculptors as used in modern day. Copper continues to be hungered for as cookware. Because of its high heat conductive properties and ability to handle extreme heat makes it the best pan for Sautee use. Many collectors just love their look but professional chefs enjoy the modern Copper cookware blended with stainless metal. The first colonist brought these precious copper cookware items with them as they settled early America. Homemakers frequently cooked from the HEARTH before the development of stoves. However, copper was an import item brought to the new world on the most part and very expensive. It continues to be costly but when cared for will last a life time. Since copper is a soft metal, modern improvements using various alloys help maintain the beautiful gold luster and help harden the metal. Brass also is a product of copper smelted with zinc. While not as readily used in the United States, brass cookware is highly popular in Asia often used for utensils or as a coffee maker in Turkey.

Copper kettles and boilers were used on cattle drives. However, copper being more expensive over tin or cast iron often made their purchase slim Pickens as a good trail boss ensured to make good of his budget and the cook made better use of the supplies. Cast iron was surely more practical as well various tin, wood or enamel cookware.

NOTE: Brass, Copper and bronze reacts to highly acidic foods such as wine, tomatoes and other foods. Unlined copper, brass and bronze cookware should never be used to cook or store food and is potentially dangerous. Should any light green discoloration be seen inside the cookware may be developing verdigris, a highly poisonous substance. For this reason, any copper alloy should be coated with a tin lining or stainless steel. Never boil any copper item dry as this can damage the lining. If the lining becomes worn, discontinue using until the cookware has been relined. If you are serious about using copper, always buy a reputable and proven cookware brand.

Gold and Silver: Tableware was made of gold for the royal Mongol courts. Gold is an inert element that does not react with acid or alkali foods. The gold used was 24 carat, and not 10 or 14 carat. Gold has not been highly used as cookware due to cost, although in modern cooking, many items may have Gold plating to give an attractive appearance and elegance. Nevertheless, cost of any gold cookware could only be afforded by the very rich. Silver has also been used mostly as utensils, coffee and tea servers, and for food serving. Silverware was more common through the middle class and wealthy. Since Gold and Silver both are use for modern utensils, it should be noted that the fork is the youngest piece on the dinner table that originates in the orient. The knife, developed during the stone age has made some changes as today the blade is rounded and the handle longer allowing better hand control while cutting or spreading such as butter of their food. The first spoons were made from bone, shell, horn or wood. Knife and spoon was consider personal items and carried by individuals cased in a pouch attached to their belt. Until the Renaissance era, it was customary to eat with your hands. Finger licking good came long before the term used by the Colonials modern fast food of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Enamelware and Graniteware: While enamelware production grew during the later 19th century, it is an old age process that is thousands of years old. It is not known exactly where or when the first enamelware products began but this process is much like the same in making glass, metal oxides or glazed pottery clay. The enamel mixture is of feldspar, borax and or quartz. These are heated at extreme temperatures until they liquefy, then coating over metal or clay for a finish product. This process was much like the making of Cloisonne. The earliest surviving cloisonne pieces are rings in graves from 12th century BC Cyprus. Both Ancient China and Egypt created fine jewelry items decorated with gems using this process. Nevertheless, Enamelware as we know today is the term used for items that have a porcelain enamel finish. Porcelain has been used to coat many household items such as sinks, tubs, appliances, as well cookware be it cast iron or tin. The second feature of enamelware was using a press cutting either sheet steel or tin items that would sometimes call for soldering other pieces on a product that would be used as a spout, handle, seemed sides or bottom. Rivets also were used to hold added pieces to various cookwares. Heating the enamel and the material in a furnace would allow the materials to bond together giving a glass like glaze over metal.

Generally, there are two types of Enamelware known as Agateware or Graniteware. Agateware is distinctive because of its particular design. It has multi-colored curves and bands circling the enamel. Unlike agateware, Granitewares main component is granite, which gives it a unique finish and color. Enamelware provides good strength and heat conductive abilities and can be subjected to very high temperatures without cracking or fracturing. The thin coating of enamel also gives it a greater degree of flexibility. This finished process made the press metal sheets tough and difficult to break while the glass like surface provided a non stick surface and resisted stains. It’s non-porous surface keeps the cookware nearly germ free.
In the late 18th century, Germany was applying enamel glazes to iron at the same time Sweden was developing this process. The Riess family of Ybbsitz, Austria has been in business now over two hundred years manufacturing enamelware and kitchen products. The Riess business is on the original “Pan making Workshop” dating back to 1550 as Riess GmbH and Company that is now managed by the sixth generation of the Riess Family. As Germany perfected the enamelware cookware, France joined the production ranks, and, by 1803. Great Britain also joined the ranks of top enamelware manufacturers. Enamelware was not manufactured in the New World until around 1848 with the first United States patent. However, competition from Europe and affordability did not make enamelware an everyday house ware until the later 1870’s. However, many immigrants would have brought these cook wares to America along with the importing of the product. During the Civil War, it would be unlikely that either military would have purchased enamelware to use in the field because the readily available European import was considered fancy and colorful. Plus the higher cost over simple tin ware and cast iron. This is not to state that it would not have ever been used, such as gifted or looted, just not purchased. Although as the Civil War ended in 1865, the following year Charles Goodnight invented the chuck wagon for his trail drive from Texas to Colorado. As the trail drives grew over the next 12 years, enamelware was photographed in use and the coffee pot became the essential item for the chuck wagon’s of the late 1860’s. Enamelware was becoming popular among homesteaders, farmers and ranchers alike. This was influence by increase productions in the United States and Mexico making enamelware more affordable over Copper and cast Iron cookware products by late 1870’s.

Today, metals continued to be enameled much as my wife’s Rachael Ray cookware set. Prices vary as to good quality along with trademarks. Slowly cast iron from grandma’s collection finds its way to the flee market or sold in auction. Although, while I continue to use my vintage….Griswold and Wagner skillets and Dutch ovens, Riess Coffee pots because I particularly enjoy cooking upholding a vintage early American Cowboy tradition of smoke flavors, baked beans and fresh sourdough….modern items as Bakelite, plastic and microwave safe glass cooking ware is in the home but never as hearty as the true outdoor flavors of my period correct cookware. Sure it takes longer to prepare that meal, but the time is sure worth the wait when shared with friends and family as that appetite has been titillated.

Story by R. Edison


  1. Thank you for compiling this information about historic cookware. The knowledge of techniques and speculations on the whys of cookware evolution were very enjoyable to read.

    Once more, on behalf of the many who may have read this but did not post and those yet to come, thank you.

  2. Help. I posted a question about cast iron Wagner 0 with lid anonymously and now i don't know where to look for a reply. >.< .... the question was about now to season a pan that used to be my Mother's from the 50s. Not rusted but leaves black splotches on the bottom of eggs... what to do? Thank you.

    1. I would clean the inside of the skillet again. Then reseason throughly until the surface is dark and dry. At times, oil burns leaving eggs splotchy too meaning you are cooking at to high a temperature but a clean and well seasoned skillet should not do this.

  3. I'm wondering if you could cite any sources to support your claim that cast iron cookware was being produced in 12th Century Europe. I'm researching medieval cookware and have found many indications that cast iron was NOT used for cookware until will into the 18th Century.

  4. I just love your blog, the cookware is very beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

  5. the first mention of a cast-iron kettle in English appeared in 679 or 680, though this wasn't the first use of metal vessels of cooking. The term pot came into use in 1180. Both terms referred to a vessel capable of withstanding the direct heat of a fire