Lake Norman & Mooresville

Grandma's secrets: Bacon fat, sugar and (shhh) alcohol

When I was student-teaching, I lived with my grandmother for a semester. She is an excellent cook, and I would come home to treats such as fried apple pies, chicken pie (she's big on pies), mashed potatoes, and green beans cooked in bacon drippings.

Grandma lived through the Great Depression, and, like many of her contemporaries, she is careful with cash and staples.

When I began the semester, it was mid-January and she still had some fudge left over from Christmas. When, inexplicably, it was still there a month later, I took action. I packed a lunch as I did each day, added the fudge to my lunch kit, took it to school and threw it away.

I repeated this subversion several times over the course of the semester. Grandma would never have allowed me to waste what she considered to be perfectly edible food, no matter its age or state of decay.

I couldn't bear to let on that I differed from her in this regard, so off to school with me, and into the cafeteria trash bin, went blue biscuits and odd-smelling potatoes.

It was a secret that I kept from Grandma for several years, until I realized that Southern kitchens, like so many aspects of Southern life, are full of secrets.

Here are some that I'm willing to disclose.

There is a container of bacon fat (we call it drippings) somewhere in this space. It may be tucked away in the refrigerator (as it is in my kitchen) or, as in my mom's kitchen, sitting directly on the stovetop, for easy access.

Somehow, this fat never spoils. I think it's the salt content, or perhaps the frequency of use, that keeps it so well.

This fat goes on everything. So, if you think you're eating a vegetarian vegetable in a Southern kitchen, think again.

Sugar goes into everything: desserts, cornbread, slaw, tea, greens. Commercial outfits have discovered this secret to adding flavor to savory foods, which is why you'll find sugar in ketchup.

Every Southern house, no matter how tee-totaling, has alcohol somewhere. At my grandma's, it was the beer cans my grandfather kept carefully hidden in his wood shed. We all knew about it, but he had served in the Pacific during World War II, and nobody dared challenge his right to drink beer, even if it was of the devil.

In other Southern homes, well-meaning moms will use rye whiskey, mixed with rock candy, as cough syrup. But only in an (ahem) emergency.

There are many, many other secrets of the Southern kitchen, some of which I'm unwilling to disclose, most of which I'm not even privy to myself.

One that I haven't learned yet is how some mothers and grandmothers are able to feed guests at any time: a full, hot meal is ready within minutes, regardless of whether your visit was announced.

Somehow, I suspect that my grandmother's unwillingness to part with food is connected to her ability to produce such an on-demand meal. I think it's also the reason she's lived so long.

Surrounded by loved ones who ask only to share a meal, Grandma turned 85 this year, with few signs of slowing down.

Maybe all those vegetables - even with their fatty flavoring - have kept her strong. I don't know her secret, but maybe she'll share it with me one day, if I promise to keep it.