Family Matters: Under My Skin
There was always a jar of chicken fat in the refrigerator when I was growing up.
Interesting stuff, chicken fat. It is solid but soft, a sort of light yellow, with the flavor of chicken boullion. Used for frying or as a butter substitute in recipes, it allowed the observant, like my mother, to comply with the Jewish dietary prohibition against mixing milk products and meat in the same meal.
The contents of that jar were homemade. The lady of the house saved pieces of skin and fat removed before preparing the family’s chicken dinner. When there was enough, she would slowly cook it and pour off the liquid.
But this is not a story about chicken fat. This is a story about gribenes.
The bits of chicken skin that remained in the pan after pouring off the fat are called gribenes—grib-n-s, phonetically. Somewhat chewy and greasy, gribenes are wonderfully flavorful (though they taste only mildly like chicken) and are best eaten with a slice of fresh rye bread and, perhaps, some chopped raw onion. They were a special treat available only in homes where chicken fat was saved—never in a store.
After I grew up and left home, gribenes became a delicacy to be enjoyed with a visit to my folks. As more nondairy substitutes were developed, there was less need for chicken fat, but my mom would sometimes save some and thus make gribenes as a treat for me.
In fact, the last thing my mother, frail and ill, cooked for me a couple of months before her death was a batch of gribenes.
After she passed away, I wanted to make gribenes for myself. It seemed straightforward enough. I accumulated the chicken pieces, but as I was ready to begin cooking, I decided to check a recipe—just to be sure.
Where does one find a recipe for gribenes? Why, the Jewish Home Cookbook, of course.
Jewish Home Cookbook, published in 1956, was a popular fundraising effort by the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Jewish Home for Aged in Worcester County, Massachusetts. It offered many wonderful family recipes, each of which had the contributor’s name attached in the style of the day—“Mrs. John Smith.” My mom gave a copy to me and my wife, who was raised in a Christian home, when we were married 40 years ago.
Jewish Home began a century ago, primarily as an orphanage. My mom’s three older brothers stayed there for a time after their dad died of pneumonia and my mom was still an infant. My grandmother, with no formal education, unable to speak English and with no welfare system as we now know it, could not fully provide for them.
A few years later, Jewish Home became a nursing home, and my grandmother, who suffered from profound dementia, spent the final few years of her life there.
About 15 years ago, Jewish Home built a new nursing and assisted-living facility and changed its name to the Jewish Healthcare Center. My mom’s youngest brother resided in assisted-living until the last year of his life, when he was moved to the nursing home. My dad, who also had profound dementia, lived there in the final year of his life.
When I checked our copy of the cookbook, I was surprised to find no recipe for gribenes. But in 1995, the book was reprinted as a fundraiser for the center. It had new recipes and the contributor’s name listed in a modern way—“Jane Smith.” My mom gave us a copy of this edition, too.
I checked the index and there was a gribenes recipe. When I turned to it I found another surprise: The contributor was “Lillian R. Silverman.” My mom.
1. Cut the skins into pieces 1/2- to 1-inch thick. Place in frying pan and add the chopped onion.
2. Cook slowly over low heat, stirring occasionally.
3. When the contents turn a medium to deep brown, pour off the liquid into a glass jar and refrigerate when cooled. The remaining pieces in the pan are gribenes.
Gribenes may be eaten warm or cold and make a great appetizer for the Sabbath meal
Harvey M. Silverman is a retired physician living in Manchester, New Hampshire.