Doug Bruns

Philosophy and a cast-iron skillet

In Curiosity, Family, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Writing on August 1, 2012 at 6:00 am


We have been toting around Carole’s grandmother’s cast-iron skillet, unused, for over thirty years. A few weeks ago, inexplicably, I took it on a camping trip to New Brunswick. I liked cooking on it over the fire. Once home, I cleaned it up and put it on the stove. Then I did a little research.

It is stamped a Wagner Ware skillet. Amazingly, the Wagner company, started in 1865, is still in business. My wife’s people come from Oklahoma. They were homesteaders. We don’t know the history of this skillet, but I picture it strapped to the side of a canvas-covered wagon toiling its way across the sunsetting American plains. And now it rests on my cook-top range. The history of my imagination.

I’ve done a bit of research and the argument for cooking with cast-iron is convincing. The heat radiates evenly, there are no non-stick chemicals that fleck off, the food tastes better, and one gets a wee bit of iron added to one’s diet. You don’t even need soap to clean it. But that’s not what interests me, really.

As readers here, you know of my mission to build meaning into existence, brick by brick, atom by atom. As I’ve confessed, I subscribe to Camus’s observation that life is absurd and meaning is not something inherent in our existence. We are left to create it. Hence the skillet.

When I cook with this skillet I am linked to a fragile thread that stretches over my shoulder and disappears into a murky history. What hands that have worked this utensil? What foods have simmered here? Mystery is satisfying in its emptiness–an emptiness you can heave yourself into.

There is significance in tradition, and meaning might well reside there. Modern existence is so very bereft of tradition. There is no tradition to a silicon chip, to an e-book, to a digital image. Apprenticeship is dead. Are we not daily, purposefully, yet unwittingly, severing ourselves from that which has delivered us to this very place, rendering us orphans in the process? Is that not a method of madness, severing the tenuous link tethering us to the fog from which we arose, where the heart beats?

I grow dramatic. Sorry. We are, after-all, talking about a skillet.

Yet, you must understand me, yes?

I resist the pull forward and peer back at that which is disappearing…that which fades into the void…and attempt to find a handhold.

  1. Great skillet. I love looking up the history of certain objects.

  2. I wonder if humans cling to much to tradition. It is just that tradition is often manipulated to prevent the human population from progressing. Sometimes we need to examine why things were done instead of repeating them “because that’s the way it was always done”. Marriage – only a man and a woman. Pork – not to be eaten. Women – should be homemakers. Traditionally metals weren’t given out at the Olympic games you point out. Tradition is how we have been doing it for the last 100 years, not the last 1000; you may get as a response. I, personally, wish we could all forget about “tradition”, and start practices based on the problems of the world right now. I don’t know what are good traditions and which are just ceremonies, practices or beliefs that were repeated to help a certain civilization thrive, but the conditions which surrounded many of our so-called traditions are no longer present. Maybe start the practice of feeding people in Africa, educating women in the middle east and we can plant a tree during Christmas instead of cutting a whole lot of them down. Traditions have made human civilization the dominant species but it has gotten to us to a zenith and now clinging to traditions might be the reason for our gradual destruction.

    • To tie your comments together, previous and current: Traditions tied to human constructs like religion and politics, marriage, have, indeed, served us, the human species, in a mixed fashion. I cannot state they have served us poorly in summary, or served well in summary. It’s been a mixed bag. But your point is a valid one and I think that, like most challenges of this type, we stumble over language–or use of language. (The lessons of Wittgenstein.)
      If I were a philosopher I would have to construct a systematic methodology by which we could tease out the bad from the good. In general, there are many traditions that should be broken and have been ill-serving. (Who would do this? I guess we would require Plato’s philosopher king–also problematic.) And yes, a clean start would be refreshing in many avenues. I wasn’t using the word tradition in quite the sense you are using it. Perhaps that is the limitation of language. Perhaps it is me being less than precise. Likely both.
      I think that one way by which we find meaningfulness in existence is to connect to something outside and beyond ourselves. Historically, one way of doing that has been to associate with like-minded individuals, or band together for safety and productivity. All valid human activities, boarding on tradition. (The tradition of the clan, for instance, or of language.) This connection I think–and here is perhaps a limitation of language, perhaps lineage is a word with a better sense of what I mean–this connection seems infused with meaning. It allows us to participate in a practice or a history or a myth that affords the individual a sense of enhanced self. This of course is full of trouble. What if my sense of self is enhanced by connecting to the tradition of nazism, for instance. Leaving those challenges aside, let me work with a specific example.
      The tradition of the apprentice is, for essentially all disciplines, dead. But consider the tradition of the apprentice. The young practitioner invests time and energy to study at the hands of a master. Presumably the master did the same–and his, or her, master did the same before. And so forth stretching back into the fog. The young apprentice has tapped into that tradition, has made a connection with something behind him/her self, bringing a degree of meaning into the practice that did not exist previously. The tradition is enhanced by the new participant and the participant is enhanced by being part of something rich and deep.
      Or: Last week I climbed a mountain here in Maine that Thoreau climbed in his day. Being aware of this, indeed doing it because of that awareness, my experience was enhanced to a degree beyond the experience of the other day hikers that day. I was connected to something beyond the immediate that made my experience richer. Granted, not a true tradition by a conventional sense, but leaning in that direction. (If every year the Thoreau Society hiked up Mt. Keneo on the same day Thoreau hiked a tradition would be in the making.)
      Somewhat half baked thoughts all, but perhaps a start. If nothing else, a good mental warmup.
      Thanks for your thoughts. Good stuff, indeed.

  3. Ha! Exactly, thanks for straightening me out.

  4. Thanks.
    This is more useful and thoughtful than ranting.
    (but I still like a good rant)

  5. I like your thoughts about tradition. I believe in tradition, without it i would not be who I am (for better or worse). As far as your metaphor goes, I’ve lost all my skillet type things, but what I have is the knowledge, the know how, to cook in the skillets I have now.

I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

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