Essential Kitchen Accessory of Appalachia
I happened into my 1904 built-in china cabinet this morning, while straightening the dining room in my old house. When I opened the upper-right door of the cabinet, I saw the dark-green glaze of the earthenware bowl used by my maternal grandmother for much of her life.
The object of my attention was a grease bowl. Before non-Appalachian readers and ‘foodies’ are taken aback, the grease bowl was used for the temporary, non-refrigerated storage of (mostly) bacon drippings. Why would anyone do that?
My maternal grandparents, my uncles and mostly every neighbor I had, raised at least one pig in a season. Bacon, sausage, ham or pork was on every menu. Canned, refrigerated or fresh, the meat was an essential staple, along with flour, leavening, lard and milk. Not just because my granddad wouldn’t touch chicken or beef (I never knew why), every meal had at least some pork product.
Bacon drippings were used to season cooked vegetables; and used to fry any meat product. Store-bought cooking oil only became a kitchen essential for my grandmother in the latter years of her life.
Now to the grease bowl. When the bacon drippings were poured from a hot skillet, the bowl was temporarily placed on the stove. After the contents cooled sufficiently on an enameled-metal, Hoosier-cabinet sideboard, any leftover bacon or sausage was transferred from a serving dish to an earthenware saucer and placed on top of the bowl. A pie safe, handmade by a great uncle, then received the bowl, along with a plastic bread bag of leftover biscuits from the morning. I cannot recall a day when this sequence of events did not take place.
As children and teens, my brother and I would invade my grandparents’ home, located a few hundred yards uphill from ours, head straight for the pie safe (after obligatory greetings and hugs for grandmother and a nod to grandfather) and voraciously graze whatever breakfast leftover remains were present there. A split-open, cold biscuit received the meat morsels.
Not a fan of unheated bread, grandmother would use the strongest epithet I ever heard her use,
“Oh, murder! You aren’t going to eat that cold are you?”
We always did.
Visitors to my grandmother’s tiny kitchen knew where to find a between-meal snack, at least until the biscuits or leftover meat ran out. Although there was a small refrigerator in the corner of the kitchen near the entry door, I have no recollection of the leftovers being anywhere but in the pie safe. So much for health-department pronouncements today on food safety.
The old grease bowl in the pie safe — with its larder of snacks for hungry kids — is a part of my Appalachian roots and younger years, as much as family members and friends. In a hard-scrabble world, food of any sort was the binder that tied us all together. Whether over a sit-down meal, or furtively snatched from an unguarded supply.