Hi, Ellen here. I e-met Sara Dahmen in a Dana Kaye webinar about promoting during a pandemic. Sara had written a gorgeous book, Copper, Iron, and Clay: A Smith’s Journey, about iconic American cookware and her journey to become the only female coppersmith in America. Read about how she came to write this awesome book – which includes delicious recipes…
Some of Sara’s gorgeous creations
Did you know that I don’t write outlines before I write any book? Well, now you know. But I don’t! I just sort of just let it write itself. Not because I am a “pantser” (I didn’t even know about term until recently!) but because writing from an outline is so insanely stressful! It’s like being stuck on a path—I’m one for following rules—and if I break from the outline I wrote for myself, I’ll feel guilt. There’s probably something Freud in there.
Plus, if I write from an outline, there is zero mystery of what comes next. It’s right there, on the paper, dictating what happens. This is mostly why I don’t write outlines for fiction, which always includes characters who speak on their own and surprise me much later, when I edit and am shocked by whole sections I don’t remember really writing. Usually those are the best and the funniest parts, too. So, why should I spoil the mystery of what comes next? Let those characters deal with their issues within themselves and with each other, and drama is sure to come.
This whole ‘make it up as it comes’ didn’t work when I was writing Copper Iron and Clay: A Smith’s Journey. I had to be strategic. And make sure I had all the facts right, or at least be sure I made a note when I was just reciting from memory. There was a whole outline submitted to the publisher! An outline to SUBMIT! What?! Turns out there must be way less mystery when it comes to writing non-fiction, and certainly when there are real recipes involved. My family’s potato salad literally has instructions (which I have written down) that say ‘Milk: miniscule bit’ and ‘Sour cream, tiny amount’ and ‘Generous Beau Monde seasoning’. None of that flies when you’re writing non-fiction. People want zero mystery about what “miniscule bit” really means.
There’s little unusual about recipes. You read them, you follow the directions, you cook, and you eat (and hopefully enjoy it). My husband always says he can’t cook, and I remind him he can read and has two hands and really likes to follow directions. He’s always so fascinated when he tries it, and it works!
But there was a LOT unusual about tackling this book. For instance, the last time someone wrote a book about coppersmithing, it was in the late 1800s.
Old school tools
I was a woman writing about it, too. The metal trades have been traditionally almost 100% male dominated for centuries. It was a trade passed from father to son, not really father to daughter. Women took up tin or copper work under duress – a husband gone, a son departed, family dead. This was a completely unknown realm—not only for me who had never taken a shop class in her life—but for ladies in general.
So many unknowns to unravel! What did all this vocabulary mean? And all this science! Conductivity? Thermal expansion of cookware rivets? (And why was it so hard to remember half the time?) Or the fact that one thing could have three different names. (It’s no wonder language is so hard to piece back together if we lose it!) How did everything happen in the foundry? What kind of tool was needed to make a copper pot? Who made the 200 year old copper pot that needs a patch (and can I manage it)? Every day suddenly uncovered more mysteries than answers. And as those answers started to stick, I was worried about one more fact: all of the information was in my head and notebooks of notes, but it wasn’t readily available anywhere. All the old smiths had it in their head, and they surely were NOT going to start a YouTube channel or write a blog, let alone a book. It had to be preserved, so the mysteries of metalsmithing and coppersmithing would live for another generation or three.
And that is why I suffered through the outline to write the book Copper Iron and Clay. That is why letting go of my personal dislike of putting together a plan for a book was worth it. Freud would probably be proud?
Readers, what kind of cookware do you like to use? Is there an item you dream of owning?
BIO: 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 those crafts 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; she lives in Wisconsin on her mini farm with her three young children (ages 9, 7. And 5) and John, her husband of 14 years.
SYNOPSIS: A gorgeous, full-color illustrated love letter to our most revered cookware—copper pots, cast-iron skillets, and classic stoneware—and the artistry and workmanship behind them, written by an expert craftsperson, perhaps the only woman coppersmith in America. Richly illustrated with dozens of stunning color photographs, Copper, Iron, and Clay showcases each material, exploring its fascinating history, fundamental science—including which elements work best for various cooking methods—and its practical uses today. It also features fascinating interviews with industry insiders, including cookware artisans, chefs, entrepreneurs, and manufacturers from around the world. In addition, Sara provides recipes from her own kitchen and some of her famous chef friends, as well as a few historical favorites—all which are optimized for particular kinds of cookware.