Joel Schiff has a number of culinary preoccupations, but one of the most persistent is his desire to establish “The Museum of the Hearth and Kitchen”. The idea is to trace the history of premodern cooking from the Stone Age until about 1950, with exhibits, reenactment’s (like Conestoga wagon cooking) and an on-site restaurant where chefs prepare meals using bygone techniques. No such institution currently exists. But much of the would-be Museum’s future collection is stuffed into Mr. Schiff’s 850-square foot one-bedroom East Village apartment, where, in lieu of standard decor, the space is dominated by waffle irons, skillets, bread pans, coffee roasters, chocolate pots, broilers, and other antique or obscure pieces of cast iron cookware that Mr. Schiff has accumulated living here for the past four decades. The few bits of furniture, couch, some bookshelves – seem to function as spots to rest cast iron.
Asked the size of his collection Mr. Schiff said he no longer knew. “I stopped counting 10 years ago at approximately 7,000 pieces”, he said. While many pieces are held in storage units, his collection here ranges from a bread pan shaped like an ear of corn to a rare combination omelette-and-egg poacher to a cast-iron lollipop mold in the shape of Christ on the cross. “It boggles the mind” he said of the mold.
– Wall Street Journal, Excerpt by Steven Kurutz. Reproduction of the published photo by Beatrice de Gea for the Wall Street Journal, 2/19/10.
Where does one begin to describe WAGS member Lawrence Joel Schiff? Passion. It is difficult to think of anyone that has more passion for cast-iron cooking utensils than Joel had. A regular at Brimfield, Kutztown, and other venues, Joel was always looking for the early, the rare, the odd, the significant. And the history that went with these pieces. Over the roughly four decades of scouring the big shows and the small flea markets, Joel amassed a collection that is estimated at 10,000 items. He looked for things he didn’t know existed and he look for things his research suggested did exist. And when he found these things, he acquired them. One such item is a Griswold broiler he shared with WAGS members attending the 2014 convention. The patent for the broiler suggested that Griswold made it but until Joel bought one on eBay no examples were known in the collecting community.
Not many people are passionate about something to the point of wanting to establish a museum, but that was exactly what Joel dreamed of doing.
Joel was the subject of a chapter in a book written by Bob Wyss, a journalism professor at University of Connecticut. In Brimfield Rush, Wyss writes:
“Schiff belongs to both WAGS and GCIGA and tries to remain clear of most of the politics. He views anyone else who buys cast-iron cookware as the “noble competition.” He explains: “I’m always telling people it is important to know that the competitor is not your enemy. If you form a good relationship overtime you’ll make deals with other people, and you will be able to help each other out.” He worries that it is not his fellow collectors but the tens of thousands of designers out there who are a greater threat, finding a rare piece and selling it to a client interested in tacking it to the fireplace to complete “the country look” design for his or her living room.”
The noble competition will miss him.
– THE CASTING CALL, The Newsletter of Wagner and Griswold Society, 3/16. Photo: Small pot, very early form, possibly c. mid 1600’s. Large pot, cast iron with wrought iron bail, American c. 1830.
A yellow Chinese peasant hat bobbing and weaving through the crowd, catches my eye on the opening day of Jean Hertan’s Show. Then a glimpse of gray hair tied back in a ponytail, a grizzled beard, and a T-shirted torso. The man is moving fast, swinging his head from side to side like a bird of prey looking for something tasty, something new, something to pounce on, haggle over, and carry away. It was only when he emerges from the throng and swings nimbly up the steps to Jeane Hertan’s porch on his crutches that I notice his missing leg.
Joel Schiff is a dealer and a collector and he has a specialty. He buys and sells cast-iron cookware – pots, griddles, waffle irons, waffle makers, plates, porringers, bake pans, coffee roasters, ice cream cone makers, sauce pots, pressure cooker‘s, chocolate possets, coffee pots, and water kettles. But not any of the above, only artifacts manufactured before 1950 further no stove parts trivets, coffee grinders or reproductions of any kind if you please. He is not playing around. He is as serious about cookware as a Fifth Avenue art dealer is about fine painting, and is a fully paid up member of the Cast Iron Cookware Association, and in the Stove Association. Although scientific proof is lacking Joel Schiff must be the cast iron cookware king of Brimfield.
– BRIMFIELD, © 2008 by Angelo Dounoucos, Excerpt by John De St. Jorre. Photographer unknown.
Cast-iron skillets are also definitely American cooking vessels. Iron itself was probably invented by the Chinese around 1100 b.c., and had inched its way to Europe by around the 14th century. In both places, it was cast into pots and kettles (as well as weapons of war, agricultural implements, and such), but the traditional process of cast iron which means melting iron ore and then pouring it into molds to harden, was arduous and time consuming.
American ironmongers in the mid-1800s streamlined the process, learning how to liquefy the ore, at higher temperatures for smoother pouring, and developing sturdier molds. According to cast-iron cookware collector and historian Joel Schiff, skillets (commonly called griddles until the 1850s, and still known today and parts of new England as spiders) made of this material grew in popularity in America along with development of the individual home stove.
The numerals on many old skillets correspond to the size of the cooking holes (i.e.,the burners) on old cast-iron stoves. A No. 8 skillet, for instance, would fit over a No. 8 home; try to use it on a No. 9 hole, and it would fall right in.
– SAVEUR, Excerpt by Colman Andrews, 1/22/2001. Photo: Griswold Skillets No. 2’s and No. 4’s
This week on A Taste of the Past, host Linda Pelaccio sits down with cookware historian/collector Joel Schiff and author/poet Stacey Harwood to talk about the history of cast iron cookware. Joel traces the material’s early beginnings in ancient China to its resurgence in popularity today. Then Stacey shares some of her favorite recipes to cook in cast iron molds.
– Heritage Radio Network, Episode #65, Aired 6/9/11. Photo: Griswold Hearts & Star Gem Pans
Radio interview starts after commercial (about :50).