Throw out all your cheap, mass-produced pots and pans and invest in a handful of real, pure cookware. It’ll last you an entire lifetime and can be passed down in your will, never going in a landfill. If we all did this, our world would be not only cleaner, but more energy-efficient, and we’d know the provenance of our cookware. It would change how we cook, how we nourish ourselves, and how we interact with our food and our plane
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sara Dahmen.
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 1865 and 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.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Ihonestly never planned to become a coppersmith, or do anything with math or metals. Neither are my strong suit. But history is, as is learning, which is truly the path that brought me to this day. Over six years ago, I was writing historical fiction on the side which gave me a private creative outlet away from young children and my event coordinating business. As I researched, I realized I wanted to not only learn about the kitchens and cooking of American pioneer women of the 1800s, but also provide such cookware again. We’d lost the ability to walk down the street to a smith who could repair or build our kitchen goods. Surely such goods could be brought back “home”. Turns out, it was definitely not an easy path. But slowly and painfully, I began to build a cookware line, completely sourced and made in the USA, which was important to me as I wanted to offer provenance. However, the learning didn’t stop there. I realized I wanted to go deeper — how were the original pots and pans made in this country in the 1700 and 1800s, before modern machinery? By pure serendipity, one of the country’s leading historical tinsmiths lives very close to me, and I was able to visit him and watch him work. Within a few months, I was going to his shop every week, and he was calling me his apprentice. It soon became clear that I could build my own cookware line now that I had the original skills of a 1700s smith, and I brought most of the copper work into my garage. Now, years later, I not only can build my own cookware line, but I can repair and restore and re-tin old family heirlooms as well!
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Well, it’s pretty disruptive to charge into a completely dominated men’s world — coppersmithing has traditionally been a masculine trade for hundreds of years. There are a few (and by few, I am thinking of about five) women who are traditional tinsmiths and build cookware with tinplate in the old manner, or re-tin or polish cookware. But as far as I know, I’m the only woman who is building copper cookware as well as restoring it or doing custom builds for the kitchen. And also I want to bring back this trade and craft. It has all but disappeared from knowledge. I mean, how many people do you know who can build copper cookware from scratch?
We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I’ve been very fortunate to have many mentors throughout the journey to become a coppersmith. Mac Kohler of Brooklyn Copper Cookware was one of the first to answer my questions and take me under his wing, offering advice and terminology via Skype and an occasional breakfast in New York when I was in town. Bob Bartelme, who became a tinsmith in his retirement, has been an enormous influence due to the hands-on work I learned in his metal shop. What has been the most beautiful thing about the apprenticeship with Bob over the years is how much it resembles a traditional, old-school apprenticeship. My children, husband, and I have become part of his family. We go over there for holidays, weddings, and events, and my kids call him “Grandpa Bob” and his wife is “Grandma Marilyn”. Who knew a trade would also come with a family? It’s a double win!
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
Well, so many people have provided so many nuggets of advice, it’s hard to choose, and some of it is so specific to metals! But here you go:
- “Order scotch. Learn to like it. You’ll be taken seriously as a businesswoman when you’re networking with the boys.” I received these words from a powerful local businesswoman in how to navigate a man’s world. I’ve done it. And she was right.
- “We won’t know until we try.” This from Bob, the master tinsmith I apprenticed under. He still says this whenever we attempt to build something new, which is pretty much every week. Working in copper and tin and reproducing vintage pieces or custom builds is always about attempting something unusual and there’s no one to ask. So you just have to dive in and try it out and be fearless.
- “Jakoś to będzie.” This is a Polish saying which basically means ‘things will work out’ but it has an underlying meaning in Poland that goes beyond that. It means to leap without worrying about the consequences. To reach for the stars and trust. To work hard and not be afraid because you can handle whatever will come your way.
How are you going to shake things up next?
I’m going to keep building traditional copper cookware, continue to play with fire, and am hopefully going to find ways to teach others the lost art of coppersmithing, even if I have to do it virtually! We have to save the knowledge!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Throw out all your cheap, mass-produced pots and pans and invest in a handful of real, pure cookware. It’ll last you an entire lifetime and can be passed down in your will, never going in a landfill. If we all did this, our world would be not only cleaner, but more energy-efficient, and we’d know the provenance of our cookware. It would change how we cook, how we nourish ourselves, and how we interact with our food and our planet.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m not sure if this is an official “Life Lesson Quote” as it were, but my personal mantra is “Just f***ing DO it.” It’s what I think to myself any time I worry or question myself. I mean, everything leading up to that moment has usually be considered or calculated, because one certainly doesn’t want to misstep in a career or a network relationship. But if I ever get caught overthinking, or if I’m feeling stuck, I prefer to take action and sometimes taking action can feel scary, especially if there’s no roadmap. And at that juncture, instead of staying frozen, I just tell myself to DO it. And then I do it.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!