The Butter Pat origin story of a broken pan.

It all started with a broken pan.

Here we were, along the edge of the Chesapeake Bay, and there it sat, on the ground before us. “A black pan,” as our grandmother, Estee, used to nonchalantly call it—a 10-inch, unmarked hunk of cast iron that held little if any value. (Except, of course, that it was hers.) We watched it fall down the steps into the Maryland mud, and out of thin air, it now carried a long thin line across its surface, nearly splitting it in two.

Estee was the matriarch of our family, the sort of omniscient being that most Southern grandmothers become, instilling in us her strong will, work ethic, and lack of suffering for any fools.

But almighty as she may have been, her pan was not passed down with any fanfare.

It would come into our hands and remain there, much as she saw it—a nothin’-special, no-frills kitchen tool to be used day in and day out. It was the pan that stayed on the stove, the one we cooked in, that we packed up in boxes and took with us from place to place. It was like our right hand, sure, but was it meaningful?

Well, it certainly was once it lay cracked on the ground at our feet.

In one fumbling second, we broke not just the pan, but also the possibility of passing this family connection further in time. That cast-iron had been in Estee’s hands. It was in ours. And it could have been in our children’s one day, too. But it was only in that moment that we understood its true value. Right before our eyes, this otherwise ordinary object was transformed into a priceless heirloom.

In Japan, there is an ancient philosophy that speaks to this new way of seeing. Centuries ago, Buddhist masters started to replace the popular, imported drinking bowls of the country’s sacred tea ceremonies with that of common pottery. These rustic ceramic vessels, first used by farmers, had no striking colors or sleek designs. They were handmade and imprecise, which the masters encouraged ceremony participants to study, slowly spinning them in their fingers and admiring their imperfections.

In doing so, they challenged the rules of beauty that came before them, and in passing the bowls down from master to master, they created a sort of pedigree, elevating their status to that of state treasure.

In the end, wabi sabi is an embrace of the ordinary, the imperfect, the impermanent, and a celebration of the understated beauty that comes with age and time. Be it a piece of pottery or a cast-iron pan, flaws and fleetingness only make an object more profound. The patina of use becomes an essential part of its history.

This is a hard concept to swallow in Western culture, where we prioritize perfection and preservation. But once something is perfect, where do we go from there? What comes next? What becomes our purpose? 

Even now, that old broken cast-iron, much as the new ones we make today, are nothing special. They’re tools, each of which is cast by the human hand, however meticulously, with the rouge fingerprint from our foundrymen sometimes finding their way into the iron surfaces, and the letters on each handle hail from our own quick scrawl. We welcome both as artifacts—testaments to the fact that we were here.

But just because something is utilitarian doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful, or instilled with value. “Pare down to the essence,” wrote Leonard Koren, a wabi sabi expert, “but don't remove the poetry.” We use these pans every day. We hold them in our hands. We let them nourish us and our families. The hope is that, years from now, someone will pick one up, appreciate its curves and craftsmanship, and use it in their own sort of ritual. Then pass it on to someone else, too. 

Maybe there was some fate in the handle slipping out of our hands that morning. Maybe instead of breaking off a possibility, that “black pan” and its broken metal would set in motion all the rest. A jagged crack that represents different paths taken. A scar that marks not the end, but rather a beginning—or one of many. 

Estee’s cast-iron still sits on a shelf in our office with that thin line lingering toward the center. We like to see it as a humble reminder of all the work that’s left to be done.

March 14, 2019 — Dennis Powell