This is Lena.
One of the hardest parts of genealogy is all the things you can never know. Of all the facts I know about Lena — her birth, marriage, and death dates, her children, her livelihood, where she lived in 1920, 1930, 1940 — I still know very little about what she was like. When we recently got a chance to meet one of her nephews (now ninety years old), his stories were invaluable.
Lena didn’t have a terribly easy life. She immigrated to Chicago from a small Ukranian shtetl in the early twentieth century to keep house for her father and brothers (after her older sisters all got married). Once she herself got married, her husband was a “skirt hound” who lost his job for gambling his milk route money instead of returning it to the dairy. She ran a candy store for decades, while raising four children; this becomes more impressive in context of the unemployed gambling spouse and the Great Depression. She eventually died of some combination of diabetes, Alzheimers, and cancer that led to heart failure. But what stood out for me in her nephew’s memories most was the fact that whenever somebody visited, she “always had a pan of salami frying in chicken fat, and a big pot of coffee on the stove.” (And just to be clear, that isn’t a coffeepot of coffee. It’s a pot of coffee. A stewpot, in fact.)
So today’s retro recipe was never written down anywhere, and is quite a departure from our typical corporate-based recipe weirdness.
Chicken fat — or, in Lena’s native Yiddish, schmaltz — was the traditional kosher fat (before Crisco came along). It’s almost impossible to find commercially nowadays; Google “buy schmaltz” and the first page of results is just other people asking “where can I buy schmaltz,” no actual stores.
Making your own is difficult, not because of the rendering process (remember when we made lard? it’s that easy) but because you need a lot of chicken skin to cook down. I’ve generally gotten about one cup of fat from four cups of skin, and so even saving (and freezing) all the scraps of skin every time we make chicken, it takes a while to get enough to be worth rendering. I’ve actually started buying bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts and deboning them myself; they’re cheaper per pound, the skin turns into schmaltz, and the bones and scraps turn into chicken stock.
This generally leads to a long discussion of where exactly all this schmaltz was coming from back in the day, because considering how many chickens it takes to get a moderate amount of schmaltz — that’s an awful lot of poultry to be able to cook regularly. Or maybe chickens were just very fat a hundred years ago.
Lots of chopped up chicken skin, into the pot.
After a few minutes, it’s already starting to glisten.
After a few more, it’s starting to swim. See that golden puddle?
I usually give a batch this size a good twenty minutes to release as much fat as possible. When the skins are all shriveled up and browned, you’ve made grebenes (the chicken version of pork cracklin’), and a big puddle of schmaltz. (If you want to eat the grebenes, feel free, just salt them well and don’t tell your cardiologist. Also, wait for most of the schmaltz to run off before trying one, because they taste a lot better when they’re not soaking in grease… ironically.)
The schmaltz can go in a jar and be refrigerated for quite some time.
I like schmaltz better than lard because it’s just so pretty — in fact, it looks much like butter. (Which brings to mind schmaltz pie crusts — I’ve gotta try that some day.)
Now, frying salami in schmaltz is something I’ve never tried. (Frying salami in anything, come to think of it.) So, we’re guessing that a couple tablespoons of schmaltz will be enough for all the slices. We’re also trying a couple different types of salami to see which might turn out better.
Once the schmaltz was melted, it was time to put in the salami, and I realized I had no idea how this was supposed to work. One slice at a time? All the salami? Keep it flat, or stir it around like bacon?
Dropping in a slice, it immediately started to sizzle and crisp up around the edges. Which was really cool and everything, but I couldn’t imagine frying enough salami to feed people if I had to do it one slice at a time. There’s a candy store to run, after all.
So the next batch was as many slices as we could fit in the pan. That looks more efficient!
Fried salami is an absurdly greasy food, but it tastes pretty good. The texture is much like bacon, but the flavor isn’t at all smoky. (The choice of salami really doesn’t matter: once it’s fried and crispy you can’t tell much difference.) Piled on bread, add some lettuce and tomato, and yum.
Thinking of her family eating that on a regular basis makes me cringe, though — all those lipids, especially when I’ve also got a lot of death certificates describing arteriosclerosis and other heart problems? But this was an incredibly fun gastro-genealogy experience, and we’re glad we tried it!