“Is Copper Cookware Outdated?”

“Is Copper Cookware Outdated?”

When the copper cookware manufacturer Waldow Company of Brooklyn, NY went out of business in 1979 it was observed that its founder, Bruno Waldow, was in his 80s, the company was the last copper cookware manufacturer in the US, and none of his heirs elected to take the business over. However, when I met the buyers of the Waldow tooling and heavy machinery, they had a slightly different take on the demise of Waldow’s cookware business.

Copper cookware sales had been sinking progressively through the 1970s, and while Waldow’s showroom did brisk business until the end, the wholesale side had been withering for years. Several other US copper cookware makers and retailers had rolled up in the preceding couple of decades, including New York stalwarts Chas. Ruegger and The Copper Mine. Waldow’s machine tools and other shop content were the only parts of the operation with residual value, and these were inexpensively acquired and put back to work in capacities other than making cookware. The cookware tooling went into storage.

Waldow’s copper cookware business slowly crumbled owing not to quality issues or even copper’s falling out of favor with accomplished cooks. Two forces combined to drive high-quality cookware and Americans cooking for themselves into decades-long decline: The made-up conception of cooking as “drudgery” and the advent of disposable cookware.

Like so many things Americans used to do for themselves, cooking has been progressively co-opted by capital, which engineers “value” by processing foodstuffs (“so you don’t have to”), extending shelf life (“freshness”) with elaborate packaging, stabilizers and preservatives, and progressively finding more and more slots in the commercial food-chain for its government subsidized, ultra-processed corn and soy-based products (high-fructose corn syrup, chemically-extracted seed oils, hydrogenated (trans) fats, protein isolates, etc.).

All these values were spun as “progress” in advancing the interests of women in particular, specifically freeing them from hours spent in the kitchen. Much as we see corporations cynically paddling in the cultural current today, 50 years ago TV dinners were explicitly marketed as “liberating” and soap opera advertising jingled “Don’t cook tonight, call Chicken Delight!”

Cookware itself became the equivalent of the old ball-and-chain, from which, again, corporations chivalrously offered to free women. More and more foodstuffs entered the household as “heat and serve” (increasingly to be processed within that other great kitchen time-saving advance of the 1970s, the microwave oven). The handling and preparation of raw ingredients became associated with not having anything “better” or “more important” to do. Dousing and heating a pre-portioned, freeze-dried mix became associated with a modern, “space-age” way of life. One of the great marketing phenomenons of the time, Hamburger Helper, required the addition of “fresh” (or frozen) ground beef – itself likely processed and packaged – intended to encourage a sense that one was still cooking.

Often, however, a box was simply emptied into a pan of water, brought to a boil and served (e.g., Mac ’N Cheese; still as popular as the day it was introduced). Many of these “convenience” foods were largely starch based and fetishized as “low-fat” (another tragic commercial mania), which often necessitated the addition of synthesized ingredients such as stabilizers, gums and syrups to make up for flavor and texture deficits (many components of flavor are fat-soluble).

Such highly processed preparations are, in a word, sticky. Starches are also exceptionally susceptible to burning quickly at relatively low temperatures (the pyrolysis point of carbohydrates is significantly lower than that of other macronutrients). As anyone who has let the Mac&Cheese go too long in an unlined pan knows, often more than just dinner is ruined.

In the 1950s a French company, Tefal, pioneered the application of the exceptionally slick byproduct of an industrial accident, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), to an inexpensive stamped aluminum pan and non-stick cookware was born. Dupont, the originator of Teflon (as PTFE was to be branded) licensed its use to myriad cookware manufacturers, and Teflon’s advance in the market place neatly paced the growth of starchy, sweet, sticky, shelf-stable manufactured foods.

Again, at the time this was all thought to be extremely progressive. Convenience foods would free women to join the workforce while providing their families with “tasty and nutritious meals in minutes”. This suited the convenience of large corporations very well, as most of these meals were comprised of a shrinking list of commodity inputs, such as corn, its derivatives (including “corn-fed” beef) and soy, both of which could be produced increasingly intensively across ever broader swathes of the US mid-west, conveniently (and cheaply) fertilized with repurposed ammonium-nitrate munitions chemicals, for which a huge manufacturing infrastructure was built during the Second World War. The steady expansion of the labor pool alongside advances in automation has steadily driven down per-unit labor costs over the past half century. Heightened competition within the labor pool for increasingly scarce middle-class jobs has contributed to the decline of labor unions, the shriveling of non-salary benefits, the massive rise in college tuitions, and the advent of the gig economy. That many of the manufacturing operations required to produce both food and cookware were among the first US jobs to be either automated and/or out-sourced further added to the bottom line of manufacturing, agricultural, food processing and chemical industries.

As Americans got thicker and thicker from steady consumption of cheaper and cheaper, nutritionally impoverished manufactured foods, our cooking skills atrophied along with our health (cue the pharmaceutical and medical industries). Well-made cookware faded in importance along with a well-made meal, and pots and pans themselves became thought of as disposable within the tidy, convenience-oriented kitchen (indeed, many US “efficiency” apartments constructed in the 1980s and 1990s were equipped with just a counter, sink and room for a microwave, disposing as much with the idea as the necessity of cookware almost entirely).

Even the most robust non-stick pan linings are reduced to flaking films after only light use in less than 10 years, and usually in less than 5, leaving essentially a useless husk of cheaply stamped metal flecked with plastic shreds. According to the Cookware Manufacturers Association (in 2015), no non-stick cookware produced before 1999 is likely to still be in use. This fact represents a reliable replacement market for plastic-coated pans, but it also represents the addition of millions of tons of unstable and toxic polymerized petrochemicals to our landfills, and the infiltration of their byproducts (especially perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), one of the most pervasive and carcinogenic man-made compounds known) into our ground water and soils. PFOA is also the chief toxic byproduct of PTFE manufacture, and for decades was simply dumped into rivers and into open pits.

To the question of whether traditional cookware such as copper is outdated, the answer with respect to the foregoing would be emphatically no. Rather, copper lined with tin may be considered uncommonly “green” in that every component of a typical piece is not only 100% recyclable, but such cookware almost never sees the scrap yard because it can restored to like-new condition for a fraction of the replacement cost. The service life of tin-lined copper cookware is measured not in years, not even in generations, but in centuries. These days a significant portion of new copper cookware is formed of recycled metal, with the remaining percentage new copper being smelted with many times less energy and waste than iron, aluminum or the other popular cookware metal, stainless steel.

With minor upkeep, cast iron is in the same league as copper for durability, with many, many thousands of centenarian pans still in service in the US alone. While rust and caustic exposures can pit cast iron to the point of failure, lightly pitted and even heavily rusted pans can be resurfaced, reseasoned and put back to use. Refined iron, aka carbon steel, is likewise susceptible to oxidative degradation, but in most cases can be restored to service with minimal effort.

Pure metal cookware is, as a practical matter, indefinitely renewable; even as an ancient technology it’s as ecologically up-to-date as solar energy. That it is many times more expensive than disposable cookware accrues not only to its far greater utility for time-tested and safe preparation of real foods, but to the facts that fabricating or casting pure metal cookware requires a lot of hand work and is today only a small fraction of overall cookware production. This results in far higher unit costs. However, one buys a tin-lined copper pot or cast iron frying pan once and then uses for the rest of life, passing it down to heirs, and heirs of heirs. The lifetime cost of a new pure metal pan of any type, even with periodic restoration, is on average significantly less in both nominal and constant dollar terms than regular disposal and replacement of a pan with an intentionally short design life.

Because the manufacturing costs of copper, iron and carbon steel on the secondary markets have been amortized down to zero, prices there are subject to simple supply and demand. There is a lot of supply of pure metal on the secondary markets these days, and often a good quality pure metal pan needing perhaps slight restoration can be had for a quarter the price (or less) of an equivalent new piece. Nearly any used pure copper or iron pan will perform significantly better than a brand new mid-to-upper grade stainless or aluminum pan of the same configuration, and will do so longer and for less total cost of acquisition and restoration.

It’s a triumph of marketing that cooking and the tools used to perform this most biologically essential task ever fell into disrepute. Fortunately, interest in decent ingredients, humane animal husbandry, the health of soils, the cleanliness of the water supply and, finally, the performance and material qualities of the tools used to convert raw nutrients into the energy by which we sustain and enhance our own lives, are filtering back into common consciousness. The wholesale abdication of our ability to feed ourselves to profit-driven enterprises has shifted incentives from nutritional value to shareholder value and from long-term stewardship to short-term return on investment. The results are the despoliation of Earth’s surface, water and air, the ever tighter concentration of financial wealth, and ever larger swathes of humanity abandoned to the ravages of industrial malaise.

Post-industrial communication techniques are enabling me to write and share this essay, so I’m far from indicting the entirety of corporate modernity. As it applies to biology, ours in particular but also the planet’s generally, paying attention to how humanity provided for itself prior to the manipulation of food for profit’s sake is, I think, instructive as well as desirable. Pure metal cookware predates the industrial revolution and has been been improved by it, but as ingredients in sound cooking modern pure metal vessels are functionally indistinguishable from those relied upon by humanity since antiquity.