For a change of pace I’d like to share some thoughts about pots and pans apart from making and marketing them. While we love creating tools with which people can do their best work, we also think cookware matters in lots of ways beyond its mere utility, and such ideas form some of the spirit of our enterprise.
BCC has often been referred to as “artisan” in the press, and I sometimes wonder what that means – apart from being a marketing hook implying hand-made, small-scale, “authentic” and so forth (often quite inauthentically). I’m leary of buzzwords generally (unless I can use them ironically), but I think BCC is most authentically a manufacturer, albeit one with about 10 people involved in making and getting your cookware to you. That does make us pretty small, and everything that goes into our wares is in fact hand-made in the US by individual smiths in small shops. So, we sure look the part, but “artisan” touches on the subject of art, so eventually thinking about whether or not manufactured goods can be “authentically” artisanal gave way to other more interesting questions: Is there an “art of cookware” (a tag line we’ll never use)? Where does cookware intersect with art, if at all?
Geologically, copper occurs mostly in what is known as “native” form, meaning it emerges from the earth’s crust approximately pure and does not have to be refined from other ores (copper is synthesized in the biggest furnaces there are – stars). It is utterly and completely artless. It is also incredibly abundant; known reserves extracted at today’s rate would last literally millions of years. Copper takes very little energy to smelt or recycle, and retains its working properties across most applications early humans would have found useful. With all this going for it, copper was practically “hard-wired” to end humankind’s stone age with its first metallic epoch, the Copper Age, starting about 7000 years ago.
Copper is the heavy-walled “body” of any piece of Brooklyn Copper Cookware, the structural element that makes it what it is – a pot. The importance of pots, according to Karl Friedrich von Rumohr in The Essence of Cookery, is that in them “innumerable natural products were first rendered edible.” I’ll go the Baron one better and propose that one of the signal traits of being human was first distilled in cookware: It is very possible that in pots humanity first departed from other tool-using creatures and became a creative species.
Cooking in a vessel captures the nutritional value of food that would otherwise be lost to an open flame. The Copper Age was characterized by copper tools, among them cooking vessels, but Stone Age humans had been cooking in low-fired stoneware vessels for millennia. Preserving and incorporating a wide variety of nutrients by means of cooking is commonly understood by biologists to have revolutionized human development, while anthropologists record that the seasonal cycles of hunting and gathering summoned the very first purely contemplative impulses from the human psyche. The Jomon people of Paleolithic Japan are widely thought to have been the first to decorate made objects for purely contemplative purposes. What they decorated were their pots, pressing another of their early tools, rope, into wet clay, starting about 16,000 years ago.
Along with the pots themselves was something of far greater interest for our purposes here, namely, the ideas being expressed. The word Jomon is from the Japanese for “cord-marked” or “cord-marking,” or in some translations “rope-marked.” Whatever other practical uses rope may have been put to in Jomon culture (and one assumes that such uses were many), its entire 13,000 year epoch in Japan is distinguished entirely in name and artifact by aestheticizing rope in pottery, as revealed in potsherds.
Cave paintings, several of which date back as far as 40,000 years, may constitute an earlier purely aesthetic impulse, but just as compelling a case is made by experts for cave paintings being early written communication, less reflective than descriptive and eminently practical. The case of the Jomon is interesting precisely because their rope marking of pots was incontrovertibly decorative.
I’m suggesting, therefore, that the humble cooking pot, whatever its biological utility, is quite possibly also the birth certificate of art. Inasmuch as pots and rope could be brought together advantaging neither in any practical way makes me think the Jomon were satisfying a contemplative, aesthetic, perhaps even spiritual criterion. Art for its own sake.
(It’s worth noting here that the human contemplative impulse likely emerged as a function of a rapid increase in brain size owing to increased nutrient density, safety and complexity, all of which can be attributed not merely to cooking, but to cooking in pots.)
Cookware is quite possibly the stage upon which the human aesthetic impulse took its first turns, and is certainly the theater wherein the “art” of cooking began as it continues to this day, where disparate elements can be brought together with energy and to create results greater than the sum of their parts.
Art. Utility. Simplicity. History.
Maybe a little alchemy.
And a small group of passionate people.
There’s a lot standing behind Brooklyn Copper Cookware.
For further reading:
von Rumohr, Karl Friedrich, The Essence of Cookery. Devon: Prospect Books, 1993. Tellingly, von Rumohr’s volume is titled in the original German Geist der Kochkunst, which translates literally as “(the) Spirit of Cooking Art”.
Pollan, Michael, Cooked. New York: Penguin Press, 2013