S.J. sends me a huge copper pot (18-inch diameter), which has slanted sides and a curved bottom, with two copper bail handles falling in graceful loops to the sides.
These handles are held fast by a double course of raised copper enforcements, which are riveted into the body of the piece. That indicates that the piece was originally used for holding something either heavy or hot. She wants to know the country of origin and usage.
Copper cookware is difficult to date because almost all nations and civilizations used copper to make food. Why did they do that?
We turn to no less an authority on cooking than the late Montecito chef Julia Child, whose “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” states: “Copper (cookware) is the most satisfactory for holding and spreading heat well.” In fact, without the use of copper cookware, it is difficult to imagine those gorgeous French sauces.
Copper is incredibly conductive. It heats quickly and diffuses evenly, then cools rapidly.
All over the world, copper has been used to sear meat and cook delicacies that need to reach a specific consistency. Copper ions have a positive effect, stabilizing egg whites and retaining the green in vegetables. Because copper reacts to acid, cooks refrain from adding wine, lemon juice or tomatoes to a bare copper interior.
Therefore, thousands of years ago, there was a discovery: lining a copper pot with friendly tin solves that acid problem, and I say friendly, because copper and tin are chemically attracted to each other, and form a lasting bond. The best chefs in France send out their tin lined copper pots to be relined each year, because tin has a low melting point of 450 degrees and wears away. The big name in French pots is Mauveil of Normandy, est. 1830.
Upon a trip to visit France, Chuck Williams of Williams- Sonoma realized the importance of copper cookware. He established an American line that used a stainless instead of a tin lining, because stainless can stand higher heat, and last longer. Occasionally his pots will have a copper insert to augment the cookware, called a “copper core,” which some cooks find is a marketing tool and not efficient.
Stainless doesn’t conduct heat as well as copper, and stainless clad copper, because steel and copper are not friendly and can explode at high heats. (There is no natural affinity between copper and steel, and the bond must be induced chemically, forming a slight division between the metals.)
So where does S.J.’s pot come from? I know it is not French. A pot this big in France would have been used for making jams, and jam pots are traditionally not lined.
S.J.’s has traces of tin lining at the very bottom.
And S.J.’s pot has a distinctive shape, not European in style.
The rounded bottom is a clue. A rounded bottom on an old pot means that the pot at one time had a stand, a circle of iron surmounting three legs. This was used for “over the fire” cooking. It was not in the fire. We also know that coppersmiths worked their trade worldwide. Even early American cooks used handmade pots. Paul Revere was a coppersmith!
To geographically place S.J.’s pot, I look for the dovetailing of the joining of the pot in its structure. Copper is worked in sheets, which are hammered and shaped into a circle. (You can see the hand hammering on this pot).But at some point (usually at the base), a hole is created that will need an insert, and that insert, when the pot is a good one, will be dovetailed into the main body of the pot.
Furthermore, I look for rivets that go all the way through the body of the container that are hand-pounded and not machine made. This points to a 19th century or older pot, although the form of the pot could be ancient. The shape points to the Middle East, as well as the size and tradition of slow cooking of meats.
Originally S.J.’s pot would have had a lid. I can see the raised lips where the lid would have fitted, also an indication of slow cooking.
S.J. asks how to care for her pot, and she writes that it was so black that after 30 years in storage that she took her power drill and a stiff brush head with Bar Keeper’s Friend to the piece. Ouch!
The best way to keep that black away (the green verdigris blackens to a rust over time) is to use lemon juice and salt!
The pot’s value is $400.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.