For better or worse, cooking and eating habits establish their roots during our childhood. I was the beneficiary of lots of good habits, many of which I carry with me today and try to instill in my own children. Then there is the bacon grease cup.
At my age, most of the images of my childhood are as much based on the repetition of the story telling as the actual memory. Now and again, I see or hear something that brings a memory to the front that never would have emerged without the trigger image. The bacon grease cup.
When I came downstairs to have breakfast each morning before school, I would smell bacon cooking, and I would see the bacon cup. Ours was a small porcelain cup about the size of a mug, but with no handle, whose originally-intended use I am unsure of. There was a rooster painted on the front. Each and every day my mother would cook a hot breakfast, most days involving bacon (except for Sunday, which was a day of rest not only for the Lord, but for my mother, who took the opportunity not to cook but instead allowed us to eat sugar cereal, I believe as a bribe for getting up to go to church).
Everything we ate in our house was prepared in the manner my father preferred it. For cantaloupe and watermelon, that meant cut in slices with liberal doses of salt. For meat, (outside of bacon), that meant rare to the point of being bloody in the middle. For hotdogs, it meant being put underneath the broiler until burnt. For bacon, it meant fried in a cast iron skillet to a crisp.
Once the bacon was removed, there was a cast iron skillet full of grease. It was hot mostly-clear liquid with small chunks of something-or-the-other left behind. As clear an image of any from my childhood is the image of my mom picking up that cast iron skillet, leaning it to the side and pouring the grease into that cup. She’d put the cup on the oven ledge, where, within a half hour time, it would become a clouded hunk of solid lard.
Nothing greased a pan better. My mother would stick a butter knife into that cup another three or four times throughout the day to grease pans and keep the food flowing for our large family. A few years ago, I was talking with a friend who also grew up in the Midwest and I heard him mention his mother’s “bacon cup.” It was the first time I realized my family hadn’t invented reusing bacon grease for the rest of the day’s (and next day’s) cooking. We weren’t special, this is what was done.
Two years after graduating from college, I was in between jobs and took a part-time position as a waitress in a German brewpub. One of the most popular dishes was the spinach salad with warm bacon dressing. In my first day of training, I learned one of my duties as the first waitress to arrive would be to plug in the slow cooker that held the warm bacon dressing. It was an electronic version of the old bacon cup. The dressing would turn solid overnight when we unplugged the slow cooker, and in the morning I’d warm it up and miraculously it would turn back into the restaurant’s most popular salad dressing.
I have the old bacon cup with the rooster. During one of my visits home, I saw it shoved in the back of an old storage cabinet. Even Midwestern mothers who learned to cook in the 1950s change with the times. It’s long been replaced by a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, which left the old cup eligible for adoption. It reminds me that one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is not only the gift of healthy eating, but the gift of love that comes with a hot home-cooked meal, even if it leaves behind a little grease.