Grease Is the Word: Boomers Hit the Can

There are many things we boomers experienced that have since disappeared from the lives of most people today. One of these items is the kitchen grease can. While some may remember this utilitarian device with nostalgia, to others it was more like … “the horror! the horror!”

The idea of saving grease — namely, animal fat that has been rendered from meats in a frying pan — dates back centuries. For many cultures, it was an economical way to use and reuse every bit of an animal, especially in a time before refrigeration. At the time of the Great Depression, animal fat was the preferred method for frying. Lard, bacon grease, ground beef renderings, chicken fat and more were poured from cast iron pans into aluminum or steel cans designed for the purpose. You’ll find some of these simple, lidded cans in online auctions. The grease could then be reused directly from the canister to add flavor to simple meals and save budgets for cash-strapped families. When food rationing arrived during WWII, the process continued to be a necessity and the tradition lived on. By the time the parents of boomers established their own homes in the late 40s and 50s, it was natural for them to follow the ways their mothers had followed before them.

In Mister Boomer’s household, the grease can was most often a coffee can, usually a red Hills Bros. can. The Hills Bros. company had developed a method for vaccuum-packing coffee in 1900. Starting out in California, they pushed west into Chicago and the Midwest in 1920, so Mister B’s grandparents were probably familiar with the brand before his parents. He does not know, however, if his grandparents used the coffee can as a grease can.

Excess drippings — especially from bacon — were poured while still hot and liquid into the can, which was kept on the stove. As the grease cooled, it congealed into a shortening-like consistency, with a slightly yellowish-brown tinge. Mister B’s mother would scoop a teaspoon or two of the gunk into her cast iron pan before frying eggs on Sunday morning. Since the grease had not been strained, blackened burnt bits that had been suspended in the congealed stuff now ended up on the white areas of the frying eggs. Mister B is convinced that to this day, this visual, and knowing the process that created it, is what has contributed to his not liking fried eggs. The horror! The horror!

The grease can also had another practical side. After about a week, or when the can was sufficiently full, the entire can, with its congealed contents, could be tossed into the garbage. Very early on, people knew that grease and kitchen pipes were not a happy mix. It would be best not to pour the stuff down the drain. The repurposed grease can provided an easy, no-mess method of disposal. First, a used piece of aluminum foil could be stretched over the top. When the coffee companies started providing plastic lids to cap the can once it was opened, the lid could serve this purpose on the final journey of the grease can as well.

Somewhere around the mid-60s, the grease can disappeared from Mister Boomer’s family kitchen. He can only surmise that its demise coincided with two events in his home: his mother had returned to the work force part-time, and for the first time, paper towels were purchased and used in his kitchen. It’s entirely possible that it was a culture thing as well. After all, reusing grease had been a sign of austerity, and in the modern 50s and 60s, a housewife wanted to be thought of as contemporary and suburban.

So which is it for you, boomers? Does the grease can evoke nostalgic memories of flavor-added foods, or a horror that is best left in the past?