By Nikki Miller-Ka | FoodAndWine.Com
Troy Warren #foodie-all
This vessel holds a world of flavor—just don’t get too fancy.
Even if you don’t cook, prefer to eat, or know how to spell the word bacon, you still have a bacon grease jar in your home. It may resemble a jelly glass. It may be in the shape of a tin can. It may very well look like a coffee mug, ceramic bowl, or a tumbler from that sorority thing eight years ago. But all of these things could potentially be turned into a bacon grease jar.
I grew up in a household with a grandmother who was born into a family of farmers and sharecroppers during the Great Depression. The door of our modern refrigerator was lined with bottles of sauces and bags with crumpled tops and folded edges. Tucked in between things were balls of aluminum foil, all misshapen and filled with bits and pieces of leftovers from meals. Crusty ends of cornbread kissed and blackened by an iron skillet, shriveled strips of chicken breasts, shards sticking out revealing a magenta strip of bone where the marrow had been scraped clean. These refrigerated parcels were one step removed from the bacon grease vessel on the back of the stove. Saving those bits of food and the spent bacon grease was like saving pieces of time and history.
Saving those bits of food and the spent bacon grease was like saving pieces of time and history.
I am one generation removed from waking at before daybreak to complete farm chores before the school day. My day in grade school began at 5 a.m., but only in order to catch the city bus across town to get to my bright and shiny parochial school. Some mornings, my grandmother would cook me eggs and toast to fortify me against test anxiety and the chilled air outside. She would set a cast iron skillet on the front left burner (her favorite, I asked) and pick up a small can from the back of the stove that resembled Aladdin’s lamp. From the spout, she would drip just the right amount of the glistening, straw-colored elixir into the pan. Creamy and taupe, it would melt and slide across the skillet with languid motion before receiving a baptism of beaten eggs.
I don’t know if we ate a lot of bacon, but she never threw away the drippings, and that can was the gift that kept on giving. Bacon grease went into so many of our meals: home fries, fried chicken, collard greens, fried cabbage, cornbread. The can was always on the back of the stove and remained there year-round. No other item lived there, not even the tea kettle which fought for equal billing with the percolator.
There aren’t many items that have security clearance to live on the surface of the stove. A spoon holder is acceptable, but you can also use the heel crust of bread or a piece of paper towel for that. A trivet is okay, but you can also just fold up a dish towel to put your pot to rest. The bacon grease jar can be a repurposed vessel or can, jar, preferably see-through so you can see how much you have. I personally feel as if it has to be metal or glass. The only prerequisite is no plastic because you don’t want it to melt. It’s nice to have a lid but you can fashion one out of aluminum foil or plastic wrap.
“Put some respect on this vessel,” says Derek Kirk, founder of soulPhoodie, an online community that celebrates Black food and beverage culture. “It contains the king of cooking oils, held in culinary reverence for generations, earned a place of status in the kitchen.” He grew up in a household in Knoxville, Tennessee, where the bacon grease can was a ubiquitous vessel.
On Kirk’s commerce site, soulPhoodiestore.com he sells a t-shirt with a photo of a bacon grease jar, which is a statement in itself. The bacon grease can pictured there is the one passed down to him from his mother when she passed away five years ago. His canister is used exclusively to hold Benton’s bacon drippings, a notoriously intensely smoky pork product.
Monica Riney and her four brothers launched the Bacon Up bacon grease brand three years ago after frying turkeys in bacon grease for over 30 years at family gatherings in Western Kentucky. Bacon Up is a commercial product that is triple filtered to get the microparticles of bacon out, packaged and sold in over 1800 retail grocery outlets in the U.S.
“Our love of sharing food at the family table continues to bring us together,” says Riney. “We’re always sharing on phone calls and in videos what we made with Bacon Up this week.” The packaging looks a lot like a tub of butter, but the 14-ounce rectangular receptacle supposedly fits perfectly on the back of the stove.
“A lot of product research went into everything from the product itself and the packaging,” says Joe Bissmeyer, Monica’s brother and Bacon Up co-founder. “When we were trying to find the right amount, we found that if you use a scoop a day, it’s a 30-day supply.”
While Bacon Up retails $7 for 14 ounces, it doesn’t replace the nostalgia, love and ritualistic nature of capturing your own bacon grease in a specific vessel for specific uses. It does, however, provide window dressing for those who need it. I firmly believe that bacon grease doesn’t belong in a jar or vessel that you’ve purchased specifically for that purpose. There’s something not right about that. Try as you might, that commercial transaction doesn’t fit in with the rest of the aesthetics and soul of the kitchen that cares about saving and honoring flavor. No matter the shape, size or monetary value placed on the bacon grease repository, one fact remains: the bacon grease jar is a vessel to which reverence should be paid.