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September 18, 2023

Rendering Chicken Skin

By Harvey Silverman

There was always a jar of chicken fat in the refrigerator.

Interesting stuff, chicken fat. Used as a butter substitute for frying or as an ingredient in various recipes it allowed the observant, like my mom, to comply with the dietary law of not having both milk products and meat in the same meal. Solid but soft, a sort of wimpy yellow, with a flavor of greasy chicken bullion.

The contents of that jar, as in virtually all homes that had one, were homemade. The lady of the house saved and accumulated the fatty pieces of chicken skin and other fat removed before cooking the family's chicken dinner. When she had enough she slowly cooked it and poured off the fat.

But this is not a story about chicken fat. This is a story of gribenes.

Those pieces of chicken skin that remained in the pan were gribenes -- "grib-n-s" phonetically -- soft, somewhat chewy, greasy, wonderfully flavorful but tasting only mildly like chicken and best eaten with a slice of good rye bread and perhaps some chopped onion. They were a special treat irregularly available only in homes that produced chicken fat and never in a store

After I grew up and left home gribenes became a rare delicacy when I visited my folks. As more non-dairy substitutes for butter were developed there was less need for chicken fat, but my mom would sometimes make chicken fat and thus gribenes to coincide with my visit.

The last thing my mom, though frail, weak, and ill, made for me a few months before her death was a batch of gribenes.

I wanted to try and make gribenes and after finally accumulating enough chicken skin and pieces of fat I was ready to begin. It seemed to be simple and straightforward enough, but as I was to start I decided it would be a good idea to check a recipe -- just to be sure.

Where does one find a recipe for gribenes? Why, the Jewish Home Cookbook, of course.

The Jewish Home Cookbook was a fundraising effort by the ladies of the community. They 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 of the book to me and my wife, who was raised in the Christian tradition, when we were married forty years ago.

The 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 when my mom was still an infant, and their mom, with no education, unable to speak English, and with no welfare system as we now know it, could not fully provide for them. Later the Jewish Home became a nursing home and she, my grandmother, spent the final few years of her life there with a profound dementia.

More recently the Home constructed a new nursing home and assisted care facility and my mom's youngest brother resided in assisted living until the last year of his life when he moved to the nursing home. My dad spent the final year of his life there also with a profound dementia.

When I checked our copy of the cookbook I was surprised to find there was no recipe for gribenes. But several years ago, a new fundraising edition of the book was produced with new recipes and the contributors' names listed in a modern way -- "Jane Smith." My mom had, of course, given us a copy.

I checked the index and yes, there was a gribenes recipe. When I turned to it there was another surprise. The contributor was "Lillian R. Silverman." My mom.

So I made gribenes using my mom's recipe.

They were delicious.

Originally appeared in Hadassah Magazine.

Article © Harvey Silverman. All rights reserved.
Published on 2020-05-04
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
1 Reader Comments
04:33:53 PM
Your article prompted my wife to make some gribenes. Indeed, they are a tasty treat, and they are one of those foods that are laden with significance beyond their nutritional value.
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