When It Comes to Cast-Iron Pans, Collector Mike Zubik’s a Seasoned Pro

He resells and restores hundreds of pieces of antique and vintage cookware through his home business, Passadumkeag Iron.

Mike Zubik, pictured in his Passadumkeag kitchen
Mike Zubik, pictured in his Passadumkeag kitchen
By Nora Saks
Photos by Michael D. Wilson
From our April 2024 Home & Garden issue

Every week or so, retired police officer Mike Zubik drives from his Passadumkeag home to a town off I-95 to meet a stranger in a parking lot. “There’ll be a nod, and the trunk goes up. It probably looks like a drug deal,” Zubik says with a laugh. But the stuff changing hands here is cast-iron cookware. His wife, Marge (whom he calls “the cast-iron widow”), sits patiently in the car while he barters with a fellow collector or a homeowner who’s been cleaning out an attic. Then, he brings the haul home to his basement workshop, where he’ll (eventually) restore it and ready it for sale online or in his booths at Bangor’s Central Maine Antique Mall and Cape Cod’s Wellfleet Drive-In Flea Market. “I’m good at acquiring items,” says Zubik, who currently has hundreds of pans awaiting refurbishing. “They come in like a landslide and go out like a glacier.”

Zubik has had a lifelong interest in saving old household objects. Early on, he fixed up and sold antique furniture. During the energy crises of the 1970s and ’80s, he worked as a picker for an antique-stove dealer, combing the state for cast-iron woodstoves, many of which were made locally in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The stoves often came with cast-iron pots and pans and Zubik grew fond of the period cookware’s elegant shapes, smooth finishes, and supreme durability. “It’s about the permanence for me,” he says. “I have pieces from the Civil War era and they’re still usable.” After retiring from law enforcement, he launched his cast-iron business, Passadumkeag Iron, in 2014.

In addition to reviving items for resale, Zubik also restores customers’ personal collections. “I hear over and over again, ‘I have my parents’ pans’, ‘I have my grandparents’ pans,’ ‘My kids are gonna have my pans,’” he says. He starts by scraping caked-on grease and gunk from a pan with a putty knife or stainless-steel sponge, then soaks it in a lye bath to remove the rest. “Lye is very caustic,” he adds. “The bad guys used to use it to dissolve bodies.” To remove rust, Zubik steeps the piece in white vinegar and water, then scrubs it with scouring powder and dish soap. Finally, he seasons the pan in an oven, gradually increasing the temperature from 200 to 500 degrees and applying Crisco or grapeseed oil midway through. When customers pick up their cookware, they’re often wowed by the transformation. “It’s not magic,” he says with a shrug. “Just elbow grease.”

Zubik follows a multi-step process to resuscitate cast iron that involves soaking pans in lye to lift grease and a vinegar solution to remove rust.

There have been moments, however, when a grimy skillet emerges from the lye tank and reveals itself to be a 100-year-old collector’s item with a rare engraving on the bottom. “Then,” Zubik says, “it’s like watching a butterfly coming out of its cocoon.”

Passadumkeag Iron. 207-570-1310. mzubik@midmaine.com

Pan Handling
How to care for cast iron.

COOKING: To evenly heat a cast-iron skillet, start on low and gradually turn up the temperature. Until the pan is well seasoned (i.e., sporting a dark, shiny surface), avoid adding acidic foods, like tomato sauce, which can degrade the finish.

CLEANING: “I use my skillet every morning, and unless it gets really crudded up, I just wipe it with a paper towel,” Zubik says. To wash, use warm water and a non-scratch scouring pad (avoid dish soap until the seasoning has built up), then dry. Heat on low for a minute or two to evaporate lingering moisture, then wipe with a little oil.

STORING: Place paper towels between stacked pans, or between pans and their lids, to absorb moisture and allow air to circulate, preventing rust.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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