The Practical Idealist

All Change is not Progress

Gradmas cast iron pan 72dpi

All change is not progress: My Grandmother’s Iron Pan,

Along with a recipe for pan-grilled steak,

By Neil C. Olsen.

Selecting something to remember a favorite relative by after their death is difficult. When my Grandmother died in 1990, I selected her cast iron pan, a National 9, dated 1890ss to 1930s. It is almost indestructible, though rusted on the bottom. It will last hundreds of years if taken care of.

My Grandmother Sylvia (known as Gradma) was born of an American Mennonite German father and a German immigrant Mother in 1899 on the eve of the twentieth century. She was born in the Midwest town of Dayton, Ohio, in 1899, and largely grew up there. She was not raised by her parents (her mother died when she wave five, and her father, a barber, we think was an alcoholic). She and her younger brother were adopted by loving relatives. As she grew up, she once told me that the Wright brothers repaired her bicycle in their shop.

Her brother married, stayed in Dayton, and spent his working lifetime at NCR (National Cash Register) company. She met her husband Charles, a young man from New York City, when he joined the army at the tail end of World War I. He met her in 1818 when he was stationed in Dayton Ohio; he married her there the next year. Meeting and falling in love with a man about to be sent to fight the Germans may have been traumatic for a women raised in a German speaking church with a Baptismal Certificate in German. Together they had two children, my mother, a noted Interior decorator and businesswomen in Wilton, Connecticut (she worked in the 1950s and 1960s at a time when none of my friend’s mother’s work), and my uncle who seems to have been the first family member since 1640 who had graduated from college: he became a Dentist. My Grandmother moved to Norwalk, Connecticut shortly after my mother’s birth to be near her husband’s relatives, and remained there the rest of her life. She died in 1990, and is buried next to her husband on a hill overlooking the river valley of Norwalk Connecticut. The play Our Town could have been written for her – the could have been Rachel or Emily – and when I visit her grave I like to think of her sitting there looking down on the troubles of the living.

She lived through a quite a number of major technological innovations and inventions that changed her life. Some sound big, some small, but until the mid-1970s, at least, she accepted and used most of them in her domestic life. She didn’t have a fax or ever use one, to my knowledge, nor a computer. The inventions made in teh last 16 years of her life, after she was 76 and until she died at age 91, did not seem to impact her so much.

I have created a  timeline below listing them. I focused on small ones that matter, not necessarily the big ones. It was generated by looking at a half-dozen web sites, and judging which she was directly impacted by, or had a major effect that changed her life. She was a housewife, and excellent German heritage cook, so most of them involved the kitchen or family.

And the iron pan? I’ve gone through dozens of Teflon or “no-stick” pans, which are really no easier to clean than stainless steel or iron once you realize you can’t put them in a dishwasher which relies on abrasives (she never used a dishwater, so it is not in the list below). But the iron pan is as good as ever. And it does some things better than anything else, including a hot charcoal grill.

Here is a recipe for pan-grilled steak I make often. It is one of those meals that is not only easier to make at home, but quicker, better, and less expensive than any steak house. The second hardest part is waiting for the steak to reach room temperature. The hardest part is letting it rest after cooking it before you eat it.

Note:  steak is expensive and worth the preparation. It takes very little time.



  • steak (rib eye, new York strip, t-bone, or sirloin, or flat-iron : you want some fat in the meat)
  • one tablespoon of oil (any kind but olive oil works, as it may smoke at high temperatures) and enough more to lightly coat the steak (about a teaspoon).
  • kosher salt and pepper
  • Optionally,  herbs, one or more of these: thyme, rosemary, parsley, or chives, shallots, or garlic, one or two teaspoons total
  • Optionally, a dash of wine (red, white, brandy, or vermouth all work)
  • 1-2 oz. butter

1. Take the steak  out of the fridge and let it reach room temperature. Or else. Heat the pan. Trim off the fat.  Instead of throwing the scraps away, I set them in the pan to extract the fat, which has a higher smoking point than vegetable oils, and also make cackling for a salad while using the leftover fat for the oil.  When the cackling is ready (black and crispy), I sprinkle it with salt and set it aside.  As my semi-vegetarian friend once said: “If you have to eat meat by killing an animal, you owe it the respect to eat all of it.”

2. Sprinkle the steak well with a large pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper, and lightly coat it with either the extracted fat or oil. Make sure the entire surface is covered.

3. If you haven’t made the cackling, heat a ca st iron skillet until it is almost smoking. Add a  tablespoon of oil and swirl to coat the pan.

4. Lay the steak down in the skillet, and cook it for 2 minutes. While you are cooking think about your Grandmother, and how many times she used the pan or cooked for the family. You can look at the side of the steak, and when the red turns brown just less than half way up, it is time to flip.

5. Cook on the other side for 2 more minutes, then take the steak off and put it on a plate. Let it rest for ten minutes.

Note: As an alternate method, some recommend flipping the steaks every 15 minutes; this is fun and I like to use one method then the other just for a change.

6. If you are fussy about the exact degree of the steak color, cut it and look, or stick a probe into it (rare 120 ˚F, medium 140˚F, well done 160˚F. I have learned ALWAYS to use a probe, or else you can overcook and ruin a $10 steak. Remember, it will cook after you take it off the heat. Take the steak out and put it on a plate to let it rest.

8. Toss a hunk of butter (1-2 oz.) in the pan and enjoy the sizzling, while scraping the bottom of the pan with a flat metal or wood spatula. When it melts and you can’t hear or see the foam, toss in the herbs. Let them cook a bit. If you must have that smoky charcoal steak, a sparse drop or two of a powerful “Liquid Smoke” product will provide it: most taste is smell, and it works well enough to give that smoky grilled flavor. I usually don’t use it. As an option, you can add a dash wine, brandy, sherry, or water to thin the sauce: make sure the alcohol boils off. Alcohol changes the taste profile, and over time I find the simplest sauce is often the best: generally I use just butter and fresh thyme along with the pan scrapings to make the sauce.

9. Put half the sauce on the steak on the plate, then turn the steak, put the rest of the sauce on the top; it is important to baste the whole steak in butter-sauce. When you have rested the steak enough (all right, when you can’t resist eating it), well, eat it.

And so, despite all the technology change my grandmother went through, about 66 major inventions in about 76 years, ponder the famous saying, “All change is not progress” – a phrase that itself dates back at least to 1857.

A cast iron skillet is still the best technology around for cooking a perfect steak – and it makes its own sauce.

Timeline for Grandma-impacting inventions, 1900-1974

1900: Electric cookers

1901: Vacuum cleaner, trans-Atlantic radio

1901: Safety razor with a disposable blade, assembly line

1902: Air conditioner, flashlight

1903: Orville and Wilbur Wright prove powered flight, Porcelain teeth fillings, Coat Hanger, Safety Glass

1904/5: Ice Cream Cone, Popsicle, Radar, Plastic

1907: Bakelite, color photography

1908: Celephane, first Motel T Ford

1910: First talking motion picture

1913: Zipper, Bra, Home refrigerators

1919: Toaster

1920: Hair dryer, Traffic Light

1924: Frozen food

1926: Television, liquid fuel rocket

1928: Bread slicer, penicillin

1930: Cellophane Tape, jet engine

1932: Polaroid cameras, Parking Meter

1934: Nylon thread used for toothbrush

1938: Ballpoint pen, Teflon, freeze dried coffee

1939: Nylon stockings, Sikorsky Helicopter

1941: Aerosol Can

1940: Color television

1945: Microwave oven, Atomic bomb

1946: ENIAC computer; disposable Diapers

1947: Transistor, mobile phone

1948: Velcro

1950: Credit card

1951: Random Access Memory

1952: Transistor Radio

1954: Milk carton

1957: Sputnik Satellite

1962: Audio cassette

1963: Cassette recorders

1964: Acrylic paint

1962: Permanent-press fabric

1971: Food processor, Pocket calculator, liquid-crystal display, microprocessor, VCR

1974: Bar codes

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