Pittsburgh nightlife promoter Mike Sanders channels Erie’s roots and restores kitchenware

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PITTSBURGH – Mike Sanders had been destined for a career in the music business since he started playing acoustic guitar as a teenager in Erie.

He was still a student at Slippery Rock University when he started the Strip District-based concert promotion company Opus One in 1997, and he has owned the Club Cafe concert hall on the South Side since 2011.

The Lawrenceville resident, 48, also has a helping hand in the food industry with Margaux, the jazzy European-style cocktail bar and cafe serving small plates to share that he opened last July in East Liberty.

But while you can take a boy from Erie, can you really take Erie from a boy? For Sanders, the answer is an emphatic no, thanks to his love for the iconic cast iron cookware produced there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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When the pandemic brought Pittsburgh’s restaurant and music scenes to sudden screeching stops last year, the nightlife promoter adopted an unusual pastime. He started buying vintage Griswold cast iron cookware at flea markets, yard sales, and thrift stores, and he learned how to restore them on his own. He assumes he brought back to life a hundred rusty and damaged pans over the next few months – some for friends and family, and others for sale to collectors.

“When the shutdown happened, literally all of my business directly related to nightlife or the bar or concert industry was gone in the snap of a finger,” he recalls.

Mike Sanders examines a cast iron pot soaked in a laundry tub at his Lawrenceville home.  Sanders, club owner and concert organizer, restores cast iron cookware.  The laundry bath cleans the pots and pans.

To make his way through the chasm of the coronavirus, he asked himself: “How am I handling this situation?”

A few dozen YouTube videos later, with the help of a scrub brush, a thick pair of rubber gloves and a plastic laundry pot on his back patio, he found the answer.

His new hobby didn’t completely come out of left field: his mother Laurie collected and exhibited Griswold pans throughout his childhood – much to her amusement, he recalls with a laugh. His two grandmothers too, who also lived in Erie. He developed his own appreciation for vintage casseroles once he started cooking on them while in college, for all the reasons collectors so avidly seek them – a silky surface that foods refuse to stick to, durability. amazing and lighter weight which makes them easier to lift and pour.

“Griswold is the best brand of antiques, hands down,” he says, adding enthusiastically, “You can do anything about it! “

People have actually been cooking in cast iron cookware with legs or handles (which allows them to be hung or stood on the hearth) since at least the 1700s. Yet that was not until the range was turned on. was introduced in the mid-nineteenth century as flat-bottomed pans became popular, as well as saucepans.

The Selden-Griswold Manufacturing Co. was founded in 1865 to manufacture butt hinges and other hardware. In the 1870s, it expanded its product line to include kitchen utensils and quickly rose to fame for its high quality cast iron pots, pans, waffle irons, cake tins and bean pots. The business was finally closed in December 1957. If your grandmother or mother did not pass one down through the generations, well, you were out of luck.

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Stamped with a cross inside a double circle, as well as the word Erie on the base, Griswold stoves are among the most sought after among collectors today. Fully restored cookware can fetch collectors hundreds or even thousands of dollars, depending on its size, era and condition, and whether or not it has a heating ring. In 2019, for example, a rare “Spider Skillet” by Griswold from the late 19th century – believed to be the only one to have been stamped with an arachnid – went up for sale on eBay for a whopping $ 8,000.

While Sanders has always had a general idea of ​​how to keep his personal casseroles clean and seasoned, learning how to pickle a pan covered in rust or encrusted with food was a complicated process. Or at least he thought so until he tried it.

A waffle iron, sold between 1910 and 1940, part of a Griswold kitchenware display in the Watson-Curtze mansion, Thomas B. Hagen History Center, is shown in Erie on November 2, 2019.

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All you really need is a little elbow grease and not being afraid to work with lye, a caustic substance used to make soap that will leave a chemical burn on the skin. protected.

The methods vary, but here’s how he does it: After cleaning a pan or saucepan to remove the seasoning and wash it down to the original metal surface, he places it in a detergent bath and lets it soak in. a few days to a few weeks to remove all organic matter. (Other methods include using a laundry-based oven cleaner such as Easy Off or electrolysis.)

After cleaning up any residual matter, he soaks the pan in a solution of vinegar and water, rinses it with soap and water, cleans the bottom and dries it. Next comes the seasoning process, which gives the pan its wonderfully classic black patina and also makes it non-stick. He first dries the pan in a 200 degree oven for 15 minutes, then rubs it all over the inside and out with Crisco. After polishing the oil with a dry cloth, he then places it in an oven preheated to 425 degrees for an hour so that the grease polymerizes. He then leaves it to cool by itself in the oven and repeats the operation two or three times.

The end result is the silkiest surface you’ll ever cook on, he says.

A well-seasoned Griswold skillet is great for baking and frying just about anything because it retains and distributes heat so well, he says. Breakfast foods like eggs and pancakes are especially fun to cook in a cast iron, he says, because they slide right out of the pan. He also loves to sear steaks and oven-roasted vegetables. You can also bake everything from pizza to calzones to apple pies in a cast iron skillet.

“It was a labor of love that kept me busy during COVID,” he says. “My mom was all excited about it, and the next thing you know, some friends were coming out of the woods and I was still their pots.”

The biggest hurdle for potential collectors and restaurateurs, he says, is finding a pan that isn’t cracked, warped, or pitted on the bottom for a cheap price. While in the past collectors could find great bargains, today’s sellers tend to know they have a treasure, especially on eBay. If you get a deal, the pan is probably in serious trouble – say, it’s been in a barn for 30 years filled with water.

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At 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 the size (they indicate the pattern). The various markings and logos are linked to the years of manufacture. So if you have a pan with a logo slanted in the cross circle, for example, you know it was made between 1906 and 1916.

Despite these challenges, Sanders managed last year to collect and restore a full set of pots from the same era that range in size from # 3 to # 12. When it went on sale in December, it immediately sold to someone in San Diego for $ 2,500 – five times its original investment of $ 500. A century-old bean jar in average condition he found in a Strip District antique store for $ 100 sold for $ 300.

“There is a lot of enthusiasm that people feel with Griswold stoves,” he says, and it has only grown over the years.

Sanders concedes his hobby is quirky, but it’s also incredibly satisfying, especially given his Erie roots.

“The idea of ​​taking something that’s old and that’s been sitting somewhere or has been cooking for 100 years and bring it back to life like it’s brand new… that’s just awesome.”


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