A Cast-Iron Chat
We catch up with our old pal, Dennis Powell, of Butter Pat Industries.
Nearly two thousand miles from our neck of the woods in Utah, the Cowboy Cauldron Company’s unofficial sister company has set up shop in Maryland along the edge of the Chesapeake Bay. There was a time not that long ago when our founder lived in the Mid-Atlantic, and it was during this tenure that he met Dennis Powell, of Butter Pat Industries, which makes what is—flat-out—the best cast iron cookware to have ever been made. These were the days before our respective masteries of metal, and it would be this friendship that would give us each that final push to follow our own mad pursuits, though they’ve always been joined at the hip. Now, there’s nothing better than standing over a Cauldron and watching something wonderful cook in a Butter Pat pan. They’re really the perfect match. So this summer, we caught up with our old pal to hear about his version of our origin story, plus how he builds the best cooking fire and other shaggy-dog tales.
Where did you meet our founder, Mike?
I met him at my brother’s Christmas parties. They had lived in the same beach house. And we were instantly kindred spirits about being outdoors. Mike was this outdoorsman trapped in Alexandria, Virginia. He fished on the Potomac, and we both canoed, and he is pretty much the person who got me hunting for the first real time since I was a child. And then the Cauldron was just sort of an extension of all of that. The Cauldron—his first—was around for several years before he started thinking about making any of them. It was the outdoor edifice for everything we did. Every chance we had, we were sitting around it. And then he decided to move back to Utah, and we stayed close. When he got back, people started asking about the Cauldrons, and he started making them. And at the time, we were collecting cast iron and selling it to restaurants and chefs and Mike’s customers, to use on them.
This was the early 2010s. What was the cult of cast iron like back then?
There were so many people who were looking for cast iron. I think Francis Mallman's Seven Fires book had just come out, and it was really the very beginning of this fascination with live-fire cooking. At that point, barbecue was still in the bushes, and pitmasters were not celebrities. Like, I met Rodney Scott at this time, and he was working at his dad’s restaurant out in the middle of nowhere, not writing cookbooks and winning James Beard Awards yet. It wasn’t at all like it is now. So all of that exploded. And the story we tell, about the beginnings of Butter Pat being inspired after breaking our grandmother’s pan, is absolutely true. But it was also responding to the fact that Mike and I knew, if we could figure out how to make one of these things, we would be able to sell it. At the time, nobody believed us.
Any particularly notable memories around those early prototypes? Surely there are many that may not be able to be repeated in a public forum.
I had a pig roast every Fourth of July for about 10 years. We had like 250 people who came to it and we built what we called the pig coffin to cook the pig. It was more like the Texas offset style that Mill Scale Metalworks makes its smokers for, where there is no direct flame—it's literally cooked with heat and smoke. We had to stay up all night to cook this thing, and obviously beer and bourbon were always involved. And one night, I remember I was upstairs in the house, and I could hear Mike outside yelling, “Pig house on fire, pig house on fire!” We all ran outside, and sure enough, the pig cooker was completely in flames. We had to douse it with a hose, and then of course the pig was soaking wet, and we still had those 250 people coming later in the day, so we had to figure all that out. It was absolutely hilarious. Even now, anything that is marginally approaching some sort of catastrophe is always called “pig house on fire.”
What’s your favorite way to use a Cauldron?
In the summer, we use the small one as an outdoor kitchen. In the winter, we use the big one to sit or stand around, and we only cook with it if there’s a large group of people. We usually skip the grate and cook down in the coals, either putting our pans directly on top, or over a hand grill by Grills by Demant. A common mistake people make is that they’ve got too much fire. We burn it down to almost no flame at all. And we’re agnostic about what we cook. We cook everything.
What’s one of your favorite dishes to cook in them?
Soft-shells crabs. That’s partially because, no matter how hard I try, I can't get all the water out of them, and so when they blow up, which inevitably they do, you’re outside, so you're not running the risk that you’re going to have splattered crab all over your ceiling.
How do you start your cauldron fires?
My wife, Matilde, is the fire starter. She’s really good at it—it could be pouring down rain and she’ll still light it with one match. We don't use paper; we use kindling. We always have a hatchet and a sledgehammer to cut up the kindling, so she’ll take a log and bust it up into pieces that are about the size of two of your fingers. We also keep an old copper washtub that we fill with sticks that we pick up around the yard. And then that’s what she'll build the teepee with. I know it might sound like sacrilege, but we’re not log-cabin fire people. Remember to start your fire earlier than you think you need to. We start ours an hour in advance. We cook it down to a bed of coals and add new wood to it, and then once that wood has burned about halfway down, we shove that off to the side and cook on the bed of coals, with that half-cooked wood there to feed the fire and make sure there’s enough heat while we do the rest of the cooking.
Any other techniques for cooking in the Cauldron?
On live fire, you’re cooking with multiple heat zones, from stacks of coals to blue flames and red flames. You don’t have the same kind of control as other heat sources, like charcoal or gas, so you’re moving your pan all the time, not just letting it sit there. There are a lot of benefits to cooking with precise, consistent heat, but when you work with a live fire, that's much less relevant, and part of the fun of it. Even in restaurants, I ask chefs all the time, do you care if your pan heats consistently? And they’ll say, of course not, all our stoves are on full blast, we don’t adjust the flame, we just move the pans around, and they even do zone cooking all in one pan. That’s why we typically use our Lili, because it gives you a larger cooking surface and you can really get multiple cooking zones, having enough space to shove some things off to one side while cooking something else in another. And because of the Cauldron’s design, it miraculously channels air down into it from all directions, so you don't need to blow on your fire or do much tending to it.
Mike likes to say he’s the one that, in a canoe no less, pushed you to start Butter Pat. Besides that, what’s the best advice he ever gave you?
It wasn’t actually advice. But when he was living in Alexandria, Mike was sort of a stay-at-home dad. Stay-at-home dads are rare and they don't get the credit that they deserve. And he was a great dad. The meals that he prepared for his kids, the time he spent with them, the rhythm of everything. I just admired him so much for the father that he was, and I was privileged to witness it.
Well, thanks for your time.
Oh, and one more thing. For years, we had this thing about hats. And I would say that my favorite memory with Mike would be at a dove hunt in the panhandle of Texas, up near the Kansas border. He had this cowboy hat that he really loved that was at the end of its respectable life. We were heading out, driving down the road, and he said, hey, where’s my hat? That thing needed to be burned and buried, and I had taken it and put it under the truck tire. I said, oh, I think I saw it back there. And I still love the expression on his face when he looked back saw his hat all smooshed and blown away into the bushes. We’re certainly not above playing cruel jokes on each other pretty regularly, too.
As we mentioned, if you'd like to find Mike's version of this story, you can read it on the Butter Pat Industries website. Read the full version here.