When Word Smithing Turns into Coppersmithing: A visit with Sara Dahmen

JENN McKINLAY: What do you do when your Today Show appearance is canceled because of a pandemic, well, you do the next best thing. You come and visit Jungle Red Writers and share your amazing, glorious, and beautiful book with us! 

Seriously, I was thrilled when Jungle Red friend and author Ellen Byron reached out to me to host Sara Dahmen. I absolutely fell in love with her story and her book -- Copper, Iron, and Clay: A Smith's Journey -- and I know you will, too!

Sara DahmenMy kids watch Mysteries of the Abandoned with abandon when I let them. One time they even highlighted a lighthouse near Wisconsin, in the middle of Lake Michigan, which brought the whole show closer to home. Mysteries are everywhere when we start to look, even in the mundane every day. Some of those mysteries get started only because we ask the question “why?” and there’s no real answer.

I asked “why?” one too many times five years ago, and it started me down a rabbit hole of metal which was full of mysterious chemistry, vocabulary words like “nanostructures” or “tool & die” (which is an actual aluminum plate, not a new murder term), and the desire to answer questions that didn’t seem to have answers anymore. It was like being a detective, looking at the past and realizing the past bled into the present, but in real life, not a book. What had started as passionate research on pioneer kitchens for my historical novels (TINSMITH 1865 and WIDOW 1881) became a new kind of passion about cookware.

Questions quickly developed, and they weren’t very grammatically correct. Questions such as: “What are you cooking on? What’s it made out of? Who made it? Where is it made? How exactly does it work and why was it used for hundreds of years and yet not anymore?

These mysteries weren’t easily answered in a Google search, or even looking to libraries. The last book on coppersmithing was published in 1894! Most of the information was locked in the mind of hobbyists, elderly gents who aren’t easy to find. 

Answering these questions meant going so deep into a subject that I turned into a coppersmith – as far as I can tell, the only woman coppersmith building copper cookware in America! Creating a cookware line based on early American cookware, finding an apprenticeship with a retired tinsmith, and taking over my garage with vintage and modern tools to restore and make cookware finally offered information. Turns out, half of the answers were in getting my hands (literally) dirty.

Did you know the term “breaking the mold” comes from blacksmithing? Or that we have changed our cookware and in turn our very stoves in the past 50-ish years based on what metal was left over from WW2? Did you know that until very recently, copper cookware was always lined with tin? How many people do you know who know how to season a cast iron skillet? All this lost information had left our kitchens for myriad reasons, and suddenly I was in possession of it all.

These discoveries to the lost trades and missing links in our kitchens developed into COPPER IRON AND CLAY: A SMITH’S JOURNEY – a full-color, hardcover published by William Morrow/Harper Collins and just hot off the press during the pandemic – that yes, outlines this crazy journey to answer the mysteries of our cookware but also talks about the history of our three basic cooking utinsels, why it works, how it’s built, and what the proper care is for each. Filled with interviews with the major cookware makers – Lodge, Mauviel, Ruffoni – and recipes from me and chefs of all walks, it’s a culmination of cooking, history, and all things copper, iron and clay. Who knew asking “why” about abandoned cookware would result in a book and a career as a coppersmith? Good thing mysteries are everywhere, eh? 

Jenn: Please note, Sara's book received a fabulous review from Publisher's Weekly!

So, Reds and Readers, what's your preferred cookware? And did you ever fall so deeply into research that it fundamentally changed your life?

To celebrate the release of her book, Sara is offering two giveaways! One commenter will win a signed copy of this fabulous book! And another will win copper straws! So cool!

Sara Dahmen is an award-winning writer and entrepreneur, as well as the only female coppersmith in America, manufacturing, restoring, and building copper cookware in her Wisconsin copper shop. 
Sara’s non-fiction book on the history, science, use, and care of cookware, Copper, Iron, and Clay: A Smith’s Journey, (William Morrow/Harper Collins) features her story, recipes, and interviews from the biggest cookware makers in the world, from Lodge to Ruffoni to Mauviel and more. She single-handedly runs her company, House Copper & Cookware, using tools from the 1800s as well as current power tools, and bases all her new designs on lost American cookware shapes, sourcing all materials from the USA. 

Sara has published over 100 articles as a contributing editor for various trade magazines, has written for Edible and Root + Bone, among others, and spoke at TEDx Rapid City on how women should enter the trades in order to save the trades themselves from disappearing. Her historical fiction Flats Junction series (Promontory Press, Inc.), including Tinsmith 1865and Widow 1881, has been critically recognized as well.

In her spare time, Sara sews her family authentic clothing for their 1830’s reenactment camping. Sara lives in the country outside Port Washington, Wisconsin with her three young children (ages 9, 7. And 5) and John, her husband of 14 years.