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Farewell to Teflon

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I feel sad about Teflon.

It was great while it lasted.

Now it turns out to be bad for you.

Or, put more exactly, now it turns out that a chemical that's released when you heat up Teflon is in everyone's blood stream -- and probably causes cancer and birth defects.

I loved Teflon. I loved the no-carb ricotta pancake I invented last year, which can be cooked only on Teflon. I loved my Teflon-coated frying pan, which makes a beautiful steak. I loved Teflon as an adjective; it gave us a Teflon president (Ronald Reagan) and it even gave us a Teflon Don (John Gotti, whose Teflon-ness eventually wore out, making him an almost exact metaphorical duplicate of my Teflon pans). I loved the fact that Teflon was invented by someone named Roy J. Plunkett, whose name alone you might have thought would have insured Teflon against becoming a dangerous product.

But this year DuPont, which makes polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) resin, which is what Teflon was called when it first popped up as a laboratory accident back in 1938, reached a $16.5 million settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency; it seems the company knew all along that Teflon was bad for you. It's an American cliché by now: a publicly-traded company holds the patent on a scientific breakthrough, it turns out to cause medical problems, and the company knew all along. You can go to the bank on it.

But it's sad about Teflon. Teflon wasn't really good when it first came onto the market. The pans were light and skimpy and didn't compare to copper or cast iron. They were great for omelettes, and of course, nothing stuck to them, but they were nowhere near as good for cooking things that were meant to be browned, like steaks. But then manufacturers began to produce Teflon pans that were heavy-duty, and you could make a steak that was as dark and delicious as one made on the barbecue. Unfortunately, this involved heating your Teflon pan up to a very high temperature before adding the steak, which happens to be the very way perfluoroctanoic acid (PFOA) is released into the environment. PFOA is the bad guy here, and DuPont has promised to eliminate it from all Teflon products by 2015. I'm sure that will be a comfort to those of you under the age of forty, but to me it simply means that my last years on this planet will be spent, at least in part, scraping debris off my frying pans.

Rumors of Teflon have been circulating for a long time, but I couldn't help hoping they were going to turn out like the rumors of aluminum, which was suspected (back in the nineties) of causing Alzheimer's. That was a bad moment, since never mind giving up aluminum pots, it would also have meant giving up aluminum foil, disposable aluminum baking pans, and most crucial of all, anti-perspirants. I rode out that rumor, and I'm pleased to report that it went away. (So has my memory, but I think that's a coincidence.)

But this rumor is clearly for real:

A few days ago, Marian Burros, the incontrovertible food writer for the New York Times, announced that she had moved her Teflon pans to her basement. I notice that she did not throw them out (which I'm going to have to do, since I have no basement). She tested a zillion other pots and made a trillion omelettes, and she wrote that the black enamel frying pan made by Le Creuset was as good as Teflon and even managed to cook eggs that didn't stick. Today I am going to go out and attempt to buy one. My guess is that there are none left in the city of New York.

After I find one, and not a moment before, I will throw my Teflon pans away. Meanwhile, this morning, I am going to make one last ricotta pancake breakfast:

Beat one egg, add 1/3 cup fresh whole-milk ricotta and whisk together. Heat up a Teflon pan until carcinogenic gas is released into the air. Spoon pancakes onto the frying pan and cook about three minutes on one side, until brown. Carefully flip. Cook for another minute to brown the other side. Eat with jam, if you don't care about carbs, or just eat unadorned. Serves one.