PITTSBURGH – Mike Sanders has been destined for a career in the music business since he first picked up an acoustic guitar as a teenager in Erie.
A student at Slipry Rock University when he founded the Strip District-based concert promotion company Opus One in 1997, he has owned the South Side’s Club Cafe live music venue since 2011.
The 48-year-old Lawrenceville resident is also involved in the food industry with Margaux, the jazzy European-style cocktail and coffee bar that serves small and group dishes that he opened in East Liberty last July.
But while you can get a boy out of Erie, can you ever really get Erie out of a boy? For Sanders, the answer is a tough no thanks to his love for the iconic cast iron cookware that was made there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
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When the pandemic brought Pittsburgh’s restaurant and music scenes to a sudden screeching halt last year, the nightlife promoter took up an unusual hobby. He started buying old Griswold cast iron cookware at flea markets, flea markets, and thrift stores and taught himself how to restore them. He estimates that in the months since, he has brought around 100 rusty and damaged pans back to life – some for friends and family and others for sale to collectors.
“When the shutdown happened, literally all of my business, which was directly connected to nightlife or the bar or concert industry, was gone in no time,” he recalls.
To find his way through the coronavirus abyss, he asked himself, “How do I deal with this situation?”
A few dozen YouTube videos later, he found the answer with the help of a scrubbing brush, a thick pair of rubber gloves, and a plastic tub of lye on his back patio.
His newly discovered hobby didn’t get out of hand: his mother Laurie collected and exhibited Griswold pans during his childhood – to his amusement, he recalls with a laugh. So did his two grandmothers, who also lived in Erie. He developed his own appreciation for the vintage pans when he started cooking on them while in college, for all the reasons collectors are so eager to find them – a silky smooth surface that food won’t stick to, unbelievable Durability and a lower weight, which makes lifting and pouring easier.
“Griswold is undoubtedly the top antique brand,” he says, and adds enthusiastically: “You can make anything out of it!”
People have actually been cooking since at least the 18th century, but it wasn’t until the introduction of the kitchen range in the mid-19th century that flat-bottomed pans and saucepans became popular.
Selden-Griswold Manufacturing Co. was founded in 1865 to manufacture hinges and other hardware. In the 1870s, the company expanded its product line to include cookware and was quickly recognized for its high-quality cast iron pans, pans, waffle irons, cake pans, and bean pots. In December 1957 the company was finally closed. If your grandmother or mother hasn’t passed one down through the generations, then you are out of luck.
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Stamped with a cross in a double circle and the word Erie on the bottom, Griswold pans are among the most sought-after collectors today. A fully restored cookware can fetch hundreds or even thousands of dollars among collectors, depending on its size, era, and condition, and whether or not it has a heating ring. In 2019, for example, a rare Griswold “Spider Skillet” from the late 19th
While Sanders has always had a general idea of how to keep his personal pans clean and flavored, learning to remove a pan that was covered with rust or encrusted with food was a complicated process. Or so he thought until he tried.
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All you really need is some elbow grease and don’t be afraid to work with lye, a corrosive substance used to make soap that leaves a chemical burn on unprotected skin.
Methods vary, but he does it this way: after scrubbing a pan or saucepan clean to remove the spices and scraping them down to the original metal surface, he places them in a caustic bath and leaves them for a few days to a month soak for a few weeks to remove organic matter. (Other methods include using an alkali-based oven cleaner like Easy Off or Electrolysis.)
After scrubbing off all the residue, he soaks the pan in a vinegar-water solution, rinses it with soap and water, scrubs the floor clean and dries it. The next step is the seasoning process, which gives the pan its wonderfully classic black patina and also gives it a non-stick coating. He first dries the pan in a 200-degree oven for 15 minutes and then rubs Crisco inside and out. After he has polished off the oil with a dry cloth, he places it in a preheated oven at 425 degrees for an hour to allow the fat to polymerize. Then he lets it cool down in the oven and repeats the process two or three times.
The end result is the silky smooth surface you’ll ever cook on, he says.
A properly seasoned griswold pan is great for baking and frying almost anything because it holds and distributes the heat so well, he says. Breakfast dishes like eggs and pancakes are especially fun in cast iron, he says, because they slide straight out of the pan. He also loves to sear steaks and roast vegetables in the oven. You can also bake everything from pizza to calzones to apple pie in a cast iron pan.
“It was an affair of the heart that kept me busy during COVID,” he says. “My mom was really excited and next, friends from the woodworking came along and I was restoring their pans too.”
The biggest hurdle for would-be collectors and restorers is to find a pan at an affordable price that has no cracks, warps or holes in the bottom. While collectors could find bargains in the past, sellers today know they have a treasure, especially on eBay. If you make a deal, the pan is likely to have serious problems – let’s say it stood in a water-filled barn for 30 years.
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At the very least, it’s pretty easy to roughly date a griswold pan (which helps determine its value), even if the numbering system has nothing to do with size (they indicate the pattern). The various markings and logos are associated with the years of manufacture. For example, if you have a pan with a slanted logo in the circular cross, you know it was made between 1906 and 1916.
Despite these challenges, Sanders managed to collect and restore a full set of pans from the same era in sizes # 3 through # 12 last year. When he put it up for sale in December, it was immediately sold to someone in San Diego for $ 2,500 – five times its original investment of $ 500. A centuries-old, mediocre bean pot that he found in an antique shop in the Strip District for $ 100 sold for $ 300.
“There’s a lot of real excitement people get with Griswold pans,” he says, and it has only grown over the years.
Sanders admits that his hobby is quirky, but it’s also incredibly satisfying, especially given his Erie roots.
“The idea of taking something old that is sitting around who knows where or has been cooking for 100 years and bringing it back to life like new … it’s just great.”