Thursday, February 24, 2011

I Lived On Fat


After a Winter Storm

The white china sky broke this morning
so the Diner brought out the blue-plate special.
Customers fell into a frenzy for it.
You over there: Can you hear them
pounding the tables with their forks?
Can you hear the slap of waitress feet
and the hiss of fat on the stove?


(This is a Friday Flash 55, a challenge hosted by the G-Man. Go visit his blog for more strange recipes in exactly 55 words.)

When I was growing up, child of Depression-era parents, we saved bacon fat, pouring it into a crock that sat on the back of the stove. Anything to be fried we fried in a heaping spoonful of that softly solidified bacon fat heated in the old cast-iron frying pans. How old was the fat at the bottom of the crock? Was it safe to cook with? Nobody asked. A mess of green beans fried in bacon fat was delicious. A pan of chopped potatoes and onions was scrumptious. That’s what you cared about. There was lard for pie crusts, shortening for Betty Crocker baking recipes, margarine for bread, and bacon fat for frying. I never heard of olive oil until I was married. I learned the word “sauté” then, too. Somewhere along the line, I disposed of the bacon-fat crock.

We lived on beans, beans and biscuits, beans and cornbread, black-eyed beans and ham hocks, chili beans. We had Spam, hamburger patties, beef stew, corned beef hash, chicken-fried steak, and pot roasts on special occasions. There was always gravy. We ate beets and green beans, potatoes, buttered carrots, fresh corn on the cob and canned peas. We had homemade cole slaw or shredded carrots with raisins, or iceberg lettuce with thousand island dressing made with catsup, pickle relish and mayonnaise, or Jell-O salad with fruit cocktail, or sliced fresh tomatoes picked that morning.

When we were really lucky, we had fresh abalone steaks dredged in smashed saltine crackers and fried in fat. I have two memories of abalone. In one, my older brother and I went with my dad and uncle to a friend’s ranch on the coast, and we rode in a Jeep over a mountain down to the rocky shoreline. There the men pried abalone off the rocks while my brother and I entertained ourselves. I had to go number two, and there was nothing to use but ice plant, which grew everywhere, and it was not an unpleasant, albeit strange, substitute for toilet tissue.

In the other memory, the men brought gunny sacks full of abalone into my grandfather’s sawdust-filled garage, where they gouged the shellfish from the shell and pounded the abalone with hammers. The women were cooking in the kitchen until the men came in with platters heaped high with abalone steaks. Then the men took over the kitchen. Cousins were running around everywhere. Women in aprons bustled back and forth. That abalone feast was the best thing I had ever eaten.

We eat healthier now. We use fresh-pressed extra virgin olive oil grown locally, or real butter. No more margarine or bacon fat. I buy a bit of Crisco in packaged blocks at Christmas time, and a block of lard only if I’m going to make a pie. I make a fine gravy at Thanksgiving or the occasional family breakfast. Abalone hunting is banned around here. We don’t eat canned vegetables or Spam or corned beef hash. My husband doesn’t like beans much. I never eat Jell-O salad except on Christmas Eve when my aunt makes my grandmother’s recipe.

I learned how to cook in Home Economics when I was 13, and from then on I was the cook in the family, coming home from school and making dinner for my working parents. I branched out from Betty Crocker. In college I cut out recipes from magazines and bought other cookbooks. I cooked dinners for friends. Friends taught me about other foods. I began eating in fine restaurants. I invented recipes. I cooked for more than 45 years, as a teenager, college student, young wife, single parent, and older, wiser wife. When my husband was injured out of his career, he went to culinary school. Now he’s the cook except for Thanksgiving, and this past year, I started teaching him how to roast a turkey. Sometimes I miss the bacon fat. There are few more wonderful breakfasts than bacon-fat gravy with sausage bits and biscuits made from scratch.

33 comments:

Steve E said...

On the farm lived in our house 4-6 hired hands, men who were 4-F (for one reason or another, unfit for military service, WWII). I remember always a poy of grease/fat sitting unrefrigerated for months. Nobody ever gave it a thought.

What you do Chris--cooking--is an art, no less than that creativity of painting, writing, or composing/making music. I AM impressed!
PEACE!

Rómulo Vela Cervantes said...

Hi!!! Lovely blog, thanks a lot for the generosity!!! Happy weekend!!!:)

just jane said...

I know that this will sound silly but you are making me hungry....really! I love corned beef hash, and sometimes my husband and I have it for a treat, hash and eggs. It smells like dog food, but tastes like Heaven. I am smiling, thinking about my growing up foods. Yes, we do eat with more conscience, but my grandparents all lived long full lives. They worked off the extra calories doing everyday chores. My grandma ironed everything, and scrubbed the floors on her hands and knees.

Thank you for reminding me. Thank you for the beautiful Flash 55. I am glad to follow such a talented writer, with fresh ideas. Peace.

G-Man said...

I have a huge coffee cup thats sits on the back of my stove. Thats where I pour my bacon grease. It goes in the fried potatoes and the pop corn!!!
Chris...
Of course I LOVED this post...
Two visits in a week, I am truely blessed.(I really mean it)
Thanks for playing, and have a Kick Ass Week-End

Elisabeth said...

It's a wonder how much the now demonised fat was once a staple and wonderful addition to everyone's diet. How times change. Thanks for a great trip down memory lane.

Shadow said...

isn't it amazing how our eating habits have changed over the years. yet, now that we are eating healthier food, obesity is more common than ever... can you explain it??? must be the activity levels. no more walking (for fun or to and from places), working (physical work), that kind of thing???

joanny said...

I really enjoyed your editorial on the changing eating habits of most Americans over the last 50 + years.

My fathers favorite foods, you described (spam bacon fat, etc.) My mother was an excellent cook as was my Aunts and Grand mothers, they learned & taught me much as what you described the way you learned.
Nice walk down memory lane.

nice FF 55,

joanny

magiceye said...

such a lovely post!

Zed said...

What a great blog. Growing up in South Africa does not sound too different from your childhood. Tho my Mother was a terrible cook! Only discovering way past 60 that she was the most awesome jam and preserve maker. I am now a chef and the chef of the family. Have a beautiful week end. x

Brian Miller said...

we still have the crock of bacon grease on the stove, well in the fridge now...intriguing though that no one really worried about it then...

hpicasso said...

"you over there"...oh, that's me, sorry, I was in the clouds

G as my witness, there's a can of bacon drippin's and a 12" cast iron on my stove right now !

Peace, hp

thank you for stopping by

Magpie said...

I see hearts in the clouds of your photo and the words of your post.
What fond memories - smells - your story provoked. Have a wonderful weekend!

izzy said...

Oh yes thanks! love hash and eggs- bacon fat was as you say a staple. (Now my hubby refrigerates it for popcorn.)
My brother actually suggested I put whole milk back in my diet. I am scrawny!
So glad for this post, thanks.

Ami Mattison said...

I'll admit I miss my grandmother's cooking in which even the vegetables were infused with bacon fat and other such greasy run-off. Great 55 and great accompanying essay!

Kristin H. said...

I love this post. I really, really do.

And I love fat.

Thanks for the memories, C. :)

lime said...

i can smell it sizzling and now i am remembering the container that sat on my grandparent's counter for the same purpose of collecting the fat. wonderful remembrance. thanks :)

The Bug said...

We had a grease pot too - but my mom would clean it out every now & then (she was a new cook when she got married so I guess she didn't know any better). We ate spam & chicken fried steak & hamburger helper & shake & bake chicken - and fish sticks with hush puppies & grits! Our green vegetable was often cole slaw (I AM from the south after all). There's a spam casserole my mom used to make that I love to eat even now. I might have to make it this weekend - but I'll probably substitute turkey spam. (cubed spam, ketchup, mustard, pork n' beans mixed together with dollops of corn bread on top).

TALON said...

Loved your 55.

Your post brought back memories. My mother still keeps some bacon fat handy - swears it's the only way to fry a tasty egg.

NanU said...

What a wonderful story!
My grandfather always had a skillet of bacon fat on the stove. Bacon & eggs for breakfast: the skillet was simply never cleaned, but sat there for whatever was to be fried for lunch or dinner.
Couldn't have been too bad for him, as he lived to 104. (though likely working in the orchards from dawn to dusk had something to do with that too)

hedgewitch said...

I liked your poem--it was extremely good. I also liked your digression on the culinary arts. Sounds like your family may have been some of those who fled to the California Garden of Eden from the dustbowl. My husband's family stayed, and he cooks just like that--the best biscuits and gravy EVER. But even up north, my swedish immigrant grandmother always saved and used the bacon fat. No one in their right mind back then would have wasted good money to buy something they could get for free from frying bacon.

Titanium said...

This one brings back some good old farm memories, from the growing-up years. With the kind of dawn-to-dusk manual labor we kids cranked out, it's no wonder we could eat bacon grease with everything and still be skinny little rails.

I found, much to my horror, that carrying over the same diet to city life had some, uh, disastrous effects.

Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Chris.

Alice Audrey said...

I can hear the slap and hiss. Well done.

dustus said...

Really like how you directly address the reader and draw attention to the sounds of the scene at the same time. Very cool 55.

Jannie Funster said...

My grandmothers made their donuts from used bacon fat and reused it!

And did they used teh broken abalone for guitar decorating?

xoox

Titus said...

Oh, good one! That seeding of china in the sky in the very first line. And then the evocation of sound at the end.

We were a dripping family. Dripping is beef fat, drained off after roasting the joint. Always stored in blue and white bowls in the fridge, eaten on toast by my father and the very best for frying breakfast - and bubble and squeak!

Monkey Man said...

Everything tastes better in bacon fat.

RNSANE said...

Reading this, I felt like I was back in the South, on my aunt and uncle's farm in Smith Station, Alabama. I can see that crock for the bacon fat, sitting to the side of the stove and I can taste all those good things we ate. Our cornbread was made with cracklins in it and yellow squash was cooked with onions, sauteed first in chopped bacon and its fat, so were green beans. We ate all kinds of beans - limas,butter beans, black eyed peas, crowder peas, etc...cooked with fat back, ham hocks, simmered on the stove for hours and, of course, all greens - mustard, turnips, collards, had fat back and ham hocks, too. Fresh buttermilk biscuits were the order of the day, with gravy, or fresh cane syrup, thick as can be, which you had mushed with butter to spread on the biscuits. Maybe it wasn't healthy eating but it tasted so wonderful.

Rhymetime(aka Pat) said...

Oh you miss fat, while how about that.
But you won't miss this cat, as I have no fat.
Nope just skinny at that, with a very nice hat.
But I can still eat what I want, although I'll be nice and not taunt.
But too much of some things makes be poo, was that too much information for you?
Anyway enjoyed the read this time too, be back to see you.

Totalfeckineejit said...

Fat, Mmm my favourite.Damn you heart attack!

Scott M. Frey said...

i enjoy when you share your memories...

booth my parents worked, I grew up on lots of tv dinners, microwave foods and so forth lol

Syd said...

I grew up eating southern food. It is a wonder that I survived. I didn't eat spaghetti until college. I didn't know what olive oil was until graduate school. I was a culinary blank. And now I like cooking and appreciate fine food. We are now cooking only the heart healthy stuff. Life has changed so much.

Jinksy said...

We used to have beef dripping saved for the same purpose. I liked it best on hot toast - yum!

Marla said...

I love this. Absolutely love it. You have described some of my own memories of growing up on the Central Coast.

I have a confession. I still keep a jar of beautuful, brown, bacon fat in the cupboard.

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