I own a cast iron pan, ten inches across. It is my most treasured possession. Its interior shows imperfections: folds and wrinkles, divots and dots. Upon its bottom surface is stamped the number “8” next to a crudely chiseled triangle. Its most “modern” feature is a hole at the end of its handle, ostensibly for hanging by a nail or hook.
I nurture and love this pan. I make food for the people I love with it.
one day there is a terrible diagnosis and the shape of your family changes. your family makes preparations for this process and the shape of your family changes. you leave a job you love and the shape of your family changes. you teach others and do light work so that you can make food for the people you love with your pan. you get a dog and the shape of your family changes. together, you hold it together. You make food for the people you love with your pan. you
make food for the people you love
with your pan.
I did not buy this pan. It was my grandmother’s. It came to me after her death. I remember her frying chicken with it. She made food for the people she loved with it. She nurtured it because it was once her grandmother’s, too.
Cast iron pans work because of seasoning. Seasoning keeps the pan from rusting and creates a surface that doesn’t stick: ideal for cooking. A pan’s seasoning is actually a thin skin of hardened and polymerised fat. The process of seasoning cast iron is both a science and an art. Like any skin, seasoning can be damaged. This is what happened to my pan: it suffered a scrape that went through to the bare metal, and from that violence bloomed the red tidings of rust. I was distressed.
on a december morning the phone rings and the shape of your family changes. together, you hold it together. you give a eulogy on a foggy day. you make food for the people you love with your pan.
your life is a series of events that are both context and catalyst for what happens next.
you have grief and from that wound blooms more grief in rapid process. questions begin falling like rain and you begin to lie awake nights, anxious, sweating.
you pick up your sleeping dog and move her so that you can climb into bed next to your wife. you open your book. you daydream before you hope to dream for real. you plan out your next day. you try to fall asleep. tomorrow
you will continue the process of taking your skin off.
When a pan’s seasoning is damaged, it must be re-seasoned. A true re-seasoning is a difficult and lengthy process and begins with the removal of the pan’s old seasoning. This is a brutal doing. All the cruft and crap must be removed. Steel wool will grind away all the black from the iron. The correct depth is when the surface turns grey or silver. That’s the bare iron.
how much of your life is truth about what you believe and how much is theater? you claim to be atheist but are you? does it bother you that your mother is sad you do not follow in her faith? are you truly at peace with your decision not to have children or are you lying to yourself and having second thoughts?
if tomorrow you were diagnosed with degenerative death, what would you do? how would you care for others? would that even be important? would you end it?
for your entire life you have been adamant about not taking psycho-active medication. how did you come to that decision? was it made honestly with vision or from fear of losing your oh-so-fucking-precious “identity”? you know that entire idea is an illusion, right?
you have the word ‘courage’ tattooed on your arm. can you truly say you live up to that? what are you actually brave about? what are you not being brave enough about? who is hurt when you fail to be brave?
where did your ambition go?
Grinding to the iron takes time, patience, and no small amount of agony. It must be done clinically. While it is possible to shorten this effort through the use of aggressive chemicals, such techniques are dangerous and not recommended. It is best, always, to do the hard work on one’s own, relentlessly. When or if rust appears, that must be ground away as well. In the end, fingers may bleed, but the iron revealed is stronger and blessed by the suffering.
your sanity feels like a plastic bag: thin, stretchy. something is going to poke through, maybe, and then you’ll be right and truly fucked, won’t you?
if you don’t believe that you’re real, why buy life insurance? your moral responsibilities end with your death. it’ll be a fucking void. the fact that you seem to give a shit about what happens after your death belies that particular conceit, you stupid fuck. you clearly think otherwise, so cut the shit. for that matter, if you believe this horse shit, why even bother sticking around?
you were taught to handle these situations when you studied philosophy. you remember your training: you have to work with your old tools while you forge new ones.
you think about the things you’ve said in life and the way you’ve said them. you think about the people you have injured, on purpose or by accident, through malice or negligence. you deconstruct those behaviors. you ask why, and then deconstruct those answers as well.
you know you’re an asshole, right? your words often had the exact opposite effect of what you wanted to have happen. do you remember the time you scared that person? this other one was creeped out by you, remember that? why did you speak that way? you were upset? what a shit excuse.
you can’t avoid answering the questions, nor can you lie. you’re the interrogator.
you don’t talk about this with anyone at any depth. your wife and friend know this is happening but they cannot help you. it is long weeks of quiet desperation, watching yourself disintegrate.
you remember your training.
When the pan’s surface has been returned to a dull grey sheen (you’ve flushed your bullshit), it is time to re-forge its seasoning. This is a process that cannot be rushed: doing so courts disaster. It must be done methodically and with patience.
Cast iron can be seasoned with many kinds of oils. Most will produce a decent, usable result. For my pan, I chose to season it with flax oil. Flax oil is a food-grade version of linseed oil, which has been used by artists for centuries to provide long-lasting sheen to paintings. Flax oil has low “smoke point” – the temperature at which the oil begins to burn and produce smoke.
You will want to cover a cookie sheet in foil and place it in the bottom rack of the oven. This is to catch inadvertent oil drippings from the pan. There will be no drips if the process is done correctly but it never hurts to be careful.
If the foundation of a building is discovered to be damaged or destroyed, the entire structure is possibly weaker and requires inspection. This may lead to further action, such as the shoring up of walls or earthquake retro-fitting. In extreme cases, the building must be demolished and a new one erected in its place.
So it is with our mental models and our identities. Questioning an atomic aspect of our identities is an unsettling and humbling experience because we have to look in the mirror and say “I may have been wrong all this time.” Your understanding has changed, and thus you must build new tools: better ways of thinking, ones more suited for your new world.
When you find yourself questioning the nature of your existence, you must continue to behave as if your questions do not exist in order to function from day-to-day. Until your new tools are completed you can only interact with your old tools, in much the same way that folk continue to live in a house while it is being remodeled. This can be a frustrating process but is perfectly natural.
Flax oil should be coated over the entire surface of pan. This must be a very light covering. Once the pan is covered, as much oil as possible must be removed from it using a paper towel. This must be done continuously until no more oil can be removed with a paper towel. Only the barest hint of oil sheen should be apparent. I suggest wearing latex gloves to reduce mess.
The pan should then be placed in the oven on the top rack, cooking surface down. At this point the oven should be turned on and heated to 500° Fahrenheit (or 450°, whatever your oven can do). Let the pan heat along with the oven’s pre-heat cycle. When the oven reaches temperature, leave it there to forge in the heat for one hour. Baking flax oil produces a peculiar scent that is unusual but not unpleasant. The odor only lasts for the first half hour that the pan is in the oven. My wife tolerated it but I asked her permission before each burn.
Turn the oven off after an hour. Let the pan cool in the oven unmolested for two hours after which it may be inspected. It should be darker in color but only barely.
One night, I picked up my sleeping dog and moved her so that I could climb into bed next to my wife. I opened my book. I daydreamed before I hoped to dream for real. I planned out my next day. I rolled over, anxious because I didn’t expect to sleep. In doing so I disturbed the slumber of everyone else in bed: my wife, the dog, and our two cats. My wife mumbled that she loved me. A cat shifted. The dog sighed and nestled into my arm pit. It was then that everything cleared and I knew exactly what I valued.
That night, I found myself staring at a set of elemental truths about myself. Laid bare and naked, these were things that I truly cared about. These were the things that were my true motivations. They were signposts into the future, waiting for examination.
I felt at peace and slept soundly for the first time in months.
After the first firing of the pan, you must repeat the process: oil the pan, bake it for an hour, and allow it to cool for two. This must be done a total of six times at a minimum, including the first firing. Six is the magic number. Six is the smallest perfect number. But if the devil is six, then god is seven. I baked my pan a seventh time, for luck.
Since that period, I have set about determining what behaviors and traits in myself that I to encourage and grow. I have also decided which parts of myself I want to improve or jettison. I’ve had some successes in that regard. Some changes were obvious and carried immediate result. Others are much more involved and subtle, with slow effect. It’s slow going, sometimes frustratingly slow, but nothing of value is ever rushed and I have patience.
sit on your hands more. assume that you are wrong more. be the leader people want you to be.
stop speaking with authoritative language. yes, yes, you were trained that way. shut the fuck up.
actually engage in self-care.
drink less alcohol. take more walks. admit that your identity is fluid and explore medication.
get a fucking therapist, asshole.
You sure as fuck need one.
When I pulled the pan from the oven for the last time, after the extra firing (for luck!), I felt a deep satisfaction and pride in my work. This is a real thing I have done. The process was difficult. It required skill and patience.
Today, the pan feels different now. It rolls smoother in my calloused palms. The seasoning is subtly iridescent in the light: a thousand golden flecks glimmer in the deep black of its abyssal surface.
Tonight, I will pick up my sleeping dog and move her so that I can climb into bed next to my wife. I will open my book. I will daydream before I dream for real. I will plan out the next day. I will fall asleep.
Tomorrow, I will make food for the people I love with my pan.