Chasing a Rare Griswold Treasure

Does anyone else track the vintage cast-iron cookware market? It’s pretty wild. Didn’t so much as dip on eBay during the Americana crash.

Take, for example, a recent, old-fashioned, on-site, South Reading, Vermont auction. There the contents of a tidy, bucolic, 100-acre gentleman’s farm were being sold in the morning shadow of picturesque Mount Ascutney. W.A. Smith Auctions was selling the worldly possessions of a late, well-heeled, southern Connecticut couple that lived at the retirement home nestled into the western edge of a five-acre meadow bordered by a neat stonewall and mixed-hardwood forest. Classic central Vermont, in the heart of ski country.

It was a steamy Friday morning, high sun filtered through thin pinkish smoke from western wildfires. Flexible white-plastic stacking chairs were set up for buyers in tight rows facing the auctioneer under a blue-striped tent, connected by a second tent to the home’s modern sunroom and deck. Talk about the comforts of home, they had it – the sturdy deck and sunroom, likely the retirees’ addition to their antique, center-chimney Cape, looking out at a private meadow friendly to deer, turkeys and bears, maybe a wayward moose.

The rear tent contained the merchandise to be sold, including antique case furniture, tables and chairs, and other household furnishings, such as beds and sofas, artwork, silver and jewelry, and anything else capable of tickling a buyer’s fancy. Among the wares resting on folding rectangular tables was a rare 1930s Griswold No. 7 Oval Roaster – a large, showy cast-iron baking pot that had obviously prepared many tasty pot and oven roasts, smoked shoulders and harvest stews, and will cook yet many more.

That festive covered cooking vessel with bold lettering on its lid had “wood-burning cookstove” written all over it. Looking at it, you could almost smell the soothing hickory-and-maple-smoke scent wafting through wainscoted parlors on a winter day.

Having collected vintage cast-iron cookware for decades, I had more than a passing interest in this large, handsome roaster. I had seen a few on eBay in recent years demanding an opening bid of 300 bucks or more. Maybe this one, sold at a weekday, on-site auction advertised as accepting no phone or online bidding would come in cheaper, I told my wife, who rode co-pilot. Just the possibility was enough for me to justify a 90-minute journey to a place I love to visit anyway. Plus, being Lot 31, the hammer would likely fall on it less than an hour into the estimated six-hour sale.

“Worst case scenario is, in my opinion, $350,” I predicted to my wife.

“I’m hoping for less than 200,” she answered. Isn’t that what wives are for?

Collecting cast-iron cookware was nothing new to us. I started pounding the pavement for it some 35 years ago, perusing backroad tag and estate sales, indoor and outdoor flea markets, and occasionally even auctions in search of early cookware marked Erie, Victor and Griswold, or Sidney, Sidney Holloware and Wagner Ware Sidney O. My target was cookware made before I was born in 1953, the best stuff dating back to between the 1890s and 1930s.

We’re talking about: skillets, hinged skillets, double skillets, double-hinged skillets, and high-sided chicken pans; handled griddles, bailed griddles and skillet griddles; muffin and gem pans; Dutch ovens, Scotch bowls and kettles. You name it, I’ve found it over the years. But big oval roasters like the one on the block in Vermont don’t appear often. There’s good reason. Folks don’t part with them. Why should they? Functional and durable, they last forever with minimal care.

And, oh my, do they ever produce superb meals from stovetop and oven.

Something average Joes who grew up with cast iron in their childhood homes seem to know little or nothing about is fitted skillet covers with self-basting rings on the inside. These cost as much as or more than the No. 8 frying pans they fit, and much more for larger and smaller pans. Cooking with skillet covers has become a lost art. But do they ever come in handy for a wide variety of stovetop and oven cooking. I think everyone should own at least one for their most-used black frying pan.

When I was in the bed and breakfast business for more than 15 years, decorative cast-iron cookware came in handy as presentation pieces for the breakfast and party table. Placing an oven-baked daisy ham from the smokehouse on the breakfast table in the cast-iron skillet it was baked on was always a nice touch. So was putting out cornbread in a hot No. 6 skillet fresh from the oven. How can you beat cob-shaped corn muffins served in Griswold pans? Plus, nothing makes better blueberry and raspberry muffins than heavy cast-iron popover pans. All of it evoked old-fashioned ambiance for travelers passing through the area. Call it Connecticut Valley hospitality.

Although we’ve been out of the hospitality grind for many years, cast-iron cookware still dominates our pantry. There’s an art to caring for and keeping it seasoned, which is by now second nature in our daily routine. We prefer wooden to metal spatulas except for the most stubborn problems, and use little or no soap on cast iron. Only when absolutely necessary do we soak a pan for extended periods to aid in difficult cleanup brought by losing focus to untimely cooking distractions. Even then you can eventually scrape off any tough, burned-on mess stuck to the pan, though it sometimes necessitates elbow grease and a stiff metal spatula. Over time, a cared-for, seasoned, vintage skillet or griddle pan becomes glassy and slick, requiring little cooking oil to panfry meat, and a dab more for pancakes or French toast.

Those who know the construction markers on collectible skillets can recognize them even when the trademarks are totally hidden under decades’ worth of black, crusty grease. The best way to clean such a skillet is to place it in a hot open fire to burn off the crud. Then you scrub it down in hot, soapy water with a wire brush, scouring pad or fine steel wool, dry it, and season it with the oil of your choice before placing it in a slow oven or atop the woodstove for a few hours.

I prefer bacon fat or clarified butter (ghee) for seasoning, but that’s just me. Olive oil, corn oil, canola oil, coconut oil or even spray-on Pam all do the trick. It’s a good idea during the process to take the pan out of the oven from time to time and remove excess grease before it forms a tacky residue on the surface.

It never hurts to tune up even seasoned pans from time to time, just to keep them smooth and shiny, and it’s crucial to thoroughly clean pans after cooking. I clean a dirty pan by scraping it with a wooden spatula or scouring pad under hot, flowing water. Then the proper drying process is essential to keep a pan in tip-top shape. Use paper towels to rub it down, starting inside the cooking basin and working your way around the outer pan. That way you’re wiping the greasiest part first and using the greasy paper towel to spread the residue over the rest of the pan, including the handle for aesthetics.

A heated woodstove on which to dry the pan is a plus for those who heat with wood.

Cast-iron cookware made before 1950 is cast thinner and smoother than the modern stuff, making it easier to manipulate and clean. The more prominently marked pans, such as the large-logo Griswolds from the 1920 and 1930s, command the highest prices. The newer stuff is clunky, its surface is rough, making it less functional.

Which brings us back to that oval roaster I chased 90 minutes north to central Vermont.

My price estimate to start the trip was dead wrong. Despite the absence of phone and internet bidding, there was a little wrinkle capable of driving up the price – that is absentee bids. In other words, those who wanted to place a maximum bid without attending the auction could phone it in during the days leading up to sale day. There were many left bids on the oval roaster. The underbidder was one of them.

The hammer fell at $425, which jumped to $501.50 with the auctioneer’s juice. And there you have it. No oval-roaster bargain was to be had that day in South Reading, Vermont – proving once again that if it’s quality you’re chasing, be prepared to pony-up fair market value.

Something else: by the time that classic piece of cast-iron cookware again hits the market, it’ll likely cost more.



Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.
Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Mad Meg theme designed by BrokenCrust for WordPress © | Top