How one young woman left a cast iron legacy

By Mary Theisen, vintagecastironllc.com

Mary Etta Moses—Etta, as she was called—was the face of the Griswold Manufacturing Company of Erie, Pennsylvania, for 25 years as “Aunt Ellen.” Aunt Ellen was to Griswold what Betty Crocker is to General Mills, except Aunt Ellen was always a real person.

Etta began working at Griswold in 1896, when she was 23 years old. She worked as a stenographer in the office of the president. When she retired in 1947, after 51 years with Griswold, she was the company’s longest-serving employee.

Documents courtesy of Mary Theisen. Griswold cast-iron pans courtesy of Larry and Marg O’Neil.

In 1922, Etta took on the job of handling letters from Griswold customers and used the pen name Aunt Ellen. Print advertisements for Griswold products encouraged readers to write to Aunt Ellen for recipes and advice about using Griswold cookware. During the fall and winter—busy selling seasons for Griswold—it was common for 75 letters to cross her desk each day.

An advertisement for the Griswold Tite-Top Dutch oven in the April 1925 edition of Good Housekeeping magazine encouraged readers to write to Aunt Ellen to request her recipe for pot roast, saying “‘Aunt Ellen’ has a knack for preparing and seasoning a pot-roast that many a cook would give her best hat for.” When readers wrote in and asked for the recipe, they got more than just a little hand-scribbled note in response.

“Delicious Dutch Oven Dinners” brochure courtesy of Eric McAllister. Griswold cast-iron pans courtesy of Larry and Marg O’Neil.

Writing as Aunt Ellen, Etta replied in single-spaced type on both sides of a piece of Griswold letterhead, setting forth in lavish detail the steps taken to create her masterpiece pot roast. To replicate the majesty of Aunt Ellen’s roast, the meat must be cooked in a Griswold cast-iron Tite-Top Dutch oven with a self-basting lid, not a “thin, flimsy, quick-to-burn saucepan.”

Aunt Ellen always specified what Griswold products were necessary to produce her delicacies. Two of the most common cast-iron sets she recommended are shown here: the Griswold skillet with self-basting cover (right) and the Griswold Tite-Top Dutch oven with lid (left). Aunt Ellen particularly praised the lids. The raised concentric circles on the underside served to make them “self-basting,” freeing the homemaker from that tedious task. Today, these sets are highly prized by collectors and cooks alike. The trivets alone, which were included with sales of Griswold Dutch ovens, can sell for hundreds of dollars in the less common sizes.

In addition to providing the basics on how to prepare the roast, Aunt Ellen offered advice on how to make the roast “extra fancy” by hollowing out turnips and carrots, and filling the hollows with cooked lima beans or green peas when ready to serve. But, “of course that is just for company occasions, you know. It tastes just as good served plain.” Etta hand-signed each letter, “Aunt Ellen.”

Documents courtesy of Mary Theisen.

Aunt Ellen told another reader how to prepare a one-skillet barbecued ham meal in a Griswold cast-iron skillet with the Tite-Top self-basting lid. “I want the ham to get delicate and expensive tasting, through the smothered heat and self-basting. Also, the sweet potatoes to have a fresh delicious flavor. And the corn pones to be dainty and crisp, easily retaining their shape because the skillet cooks things gently.”

“Aunt Ellen Says” was the cornerstone of the Griswold advertising campaign from the 1920s to the 1940s. She always had helpful advice for the homemaker about how to best equip the kitchen for cooking, which of course necessitated an array of Griswold products. Griswold also produced pamphlets from “Aunt Ellen’s Kitchen,” which were freely sent to customers upon request. A pamphlet with Aunt Ellen’s favorite Dutch oven recipes was included with sales of Griswold Dutch ovens. These pamphlets are sought after by collectors, as are vintage Griswold advertisements.

Griswold cast-iron pans courtesy of Larry and Marg O’Neil.

Aunt Ellen’s responses always described the means of making the dishes in succulent detail. The reader could almost smell the dish cooking and taste its splendor. Of course, the final dish could only rival that of Aunt Ellen’s if it was made in the same Griswold products. As N. W. Ayer & Son, Griswold’s advertising agency, stated: “To read Griswold copy, to look at Griswold illustrations, puts the feel of Griswold utensils in the housewife’s hand and fixes the longing for Griswold quality in her heart.”

Griswold saw sales of cast-iron cookware rise once Aunt Ellen came onto the scene. As her popularity grew, Griswold expanded her role. Her photograph began to appear in advertisements, as a kindly, grey-haired lady wearing an apron. The cornerstone of Griswold’s advertising campaign became “Aunt Ellen Says.” And Aunt Ellen had a lot to say: “Men like to smack their lips over food.” “My Griswold Tite-Top Dutch Oven saves meat!” “My Tite-Top Dutch Oven bastes meat in its own juices, in such slow, steady heat… that braised beef tastes like some strange, rich delicacy never known before.” “I cook royal lunches on my Griswold Cast Iron Griddle in such a little while!”

“The proof of the cooking is in the eating.” “My folks think meats cooked in my Griswold Tite-Top Dutch Oven are finer than the most delicious turkey cooked anywhere else.” “When folks praise my fried chicken I smile and think of my Griswold skillet with its close-fit cover.” “I hustle a roast into my Griswold Tite-Top Dutch Oven, clomp the cover on, and go and shop all afternoon.” “With a family the size of mine, I never could cook waffles fast enough if my waffle iron weren’t a Griswold.” (Etta Moses was unmarried and had no children.)

Griswold cast-iron pans courtesy of Larry and Marg O’Neil.

Aunt Ellen’s popularity resulted in Griswold creating recipes in a kitchen at the Griswold plant dubbed “Aunt Ellen’s Kitchen.” In addition to more typical meats and stews, recipes were created for such delicacies such as Chicken Mousse, Veal Olives, and French Mélange. The French Mélange was billed as tasting like “eating a bouquet of flowers.” Aunt Ellen’s recipes were reproduced in pamphlets that were sent out upon request and included with sales of Griswold Dutch ovens.

Letter from Aunt Ellen courtesy of James Fuchs.

Aunt Ellen’s popularity is such that her recipe booklets are still sought by collectors—as are the Griswold cast-iron products she so perfectly portrayed.

 

Correction: In the original print version of this story in the March/April 2019 issue of Southern Cast Iron, the letter from Griswold’s Aunt Ellen should have been credited to James Fuchs.

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