Cast Iron Quality and Famous Cornbread in South Pittsburg
If you pull off Interstate 24 at the South Pittsburg exit, chances are you are heading for the Lodge Factory Store. Cast iron cookware from the Lodge Manufacturing Company fills this bright yellow building.
Cast iron skillets hang from racks and cornbread pans and grill pans line up on tables. Rows of camp Dutch ovens and sportsman’s grills take up a whole section dedicated to outdoor cooking.
The back room has factory “seconds.” It’s the worst-kept secret that the room is replenished with first-quality merchandise when the supply of “seconds” runs low. The two-room store makes South Pittsburg one of the best places in the state for a shopping spree.
South Pittsburg has a lot of pride in the Lodge Manufacturing Company and its products. Joseph Lodge opened his first foundry in Marion County in 1896. Lodge family descendants continue to run the company with the same dedication to quality and technology as was instilled by the founder.
Over the years, an automated molding process surpassed the hand-pour technology. The Food Network, celebrity chefs and a slew of cooking magazines created a huge wave of popularity for cast iron cookware. In 2002 a line of pre-seasoned cookware was introduced. Now the foundry is expanding to include new melting systems and an additional molding line in order to keep up with demand. Lodge offers more than 120 products. The 12-inch skillet is the best seller.
“When people think of Lodge, they think of the skillet,” says Mark Kelly, PR and advertising manager, during my tour of the foundry. Last year, he received a call from a design museum in Paris, France. It wanted to showcase Lodge cookware because it was “hot cuisine art.”
Simply put — Lodge cast iron cookware is world famous.
Many people won’t make cornbread unless they have Lodge cast iron in their kitchens. So, cornbread lovers will come in droves to South Pittsburg’s National Cornbread Festival on April 26-27. The 18th annual National Cornbread Cook-off, a competition sponsored by Lodge and Martha White, will produce a new champion on April 26.
More than 1,000 volunteers in a city of 3,300 people show up to coordinate the festival’s musical entertainment, street dance, fireworks display, craft show, classic car show and cornbread eating contests.
At the festival you will hear people share recipes and talk fondly about their favorite cake pan. “If you keep your cast iron seasoned, it ain’t goin’ nowhere,” is an oft-repeated comment made by people who know their sturdy cookware will be around for the next generation.
Says Mark, “I’ve got my grandmother’s skillet and Dutch oven. They were her wedding present in 1918. I cook with them all the time.”
Carolyn Millhiser has a house full of family heirloom pieces. She is the great-granddaughter of Joseph Lodge, and she and her husband, Bill, recently restored the founder’s home as their residence. As she invites me into her kitchen, I see cast iron cookware crowding the shelves, filling the pantry and hanging from the walls. She and two friends wrote the cookbook “A Skillet Full,” a collection of “ageless and timeless Southern comfort food.”
As a volunteer for the South Pittsburg Historic Preservation Society, Carolyn leads me through the historic district, a neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places. During the festival, the historic district tour’s final stop is the Lodge foundry, which is open for tours only during the festival. As many as 6,000 people go through the foundry in two days.
The historic district is interesting to visit even if you aren’t there for the festival. The white-frame, gothic-style Christ Episcopal Church has handsomely carved interior woodwork and stained glass windows in jewel tones. One window is attributed to the Tiffany Co. The Chapel on the Hill, formerly known as the Primitive Baptist Church, was built of sandstone blocks quarried at Sewanee and transported here by horse-drawn wagons. Residences span many architectural eras, from colonial revival to craftsman to a Sears Roebuck house. Quite a few yards displayed the mascot of the South Pittsburg Pirates. Folks here love their high school football team. Though the team fell just short in the Class 1-A state championship game this past season, they have been state champions five times.
The jewel of the downtown business district is the Princess Theatre, a movie house dating to 1921. Restoration efforts by the Preservation Society have transformed the movie house into a community arts center. The South Pittsburg Heritage Museum in the historic Cameron-Patton Hotel displays sports memorabilia, vintage retail ads and profiles of prominent citizens, movie stars and military heroes hailing from South Pittsburg.
South Pittsburg has exactly what every town needs — Hammer’s Department Store. Red long johns are on sale for $20. A music-loving clientele keeps Opera House Music in business. South Pittsburg Antiques and Loyd’s, a women’s clothing boutique, fill display their windows with appealing merchandise.
Within sight of the Lodge Factory Store, I select my lunch entrée from a menu featuring delicious pasta, sandwiches and seafood at Steverino’s Italian Eatery and Pub. I can guess my choice is prepared with cast iron cookware.
Have you visited South Pittsburg? Tell me about your visit in the comments.