Nobody in my family ever talked about being thrifty in the kitchen, probably because thrift was so ingrained in the house I grew up in that wasting food — or anything else — was simply not a concept.
My mother, like her mother before her, felt it was positively sinful to throw food out. And she loved learning other women’s tricks for getting the most out of whatever they’d bought to feed their families. I remember when I was a teenager, watching my friend, Gina, cracking open eggs to make meatballs, and was surprised to find her using her index finger as a miniature spatula, to make sure every drop of egg white had been dislodged from its shell. My mother had never seen that particular trick, and when I told her about it, she adopted it there and then, only sorry to have wasted who knew how much egg white in her past.
My mother would practically weep if she discovered that something had gone off in a back corner of her fridge, and thrift is probably why she avoided having leftovers hanging around in the first place, since none of us much liked eating leftovers. She normally cooked just enough so that the four of us could finish every last bit at each meal; it kept her fridge empty of stray bits of food that she just might forget to set out a second time before they’d gone bad.
What did this thirst for thrift mean? Bacon at a weekend breakfast always meant bacon fat in a tall jar at the back of the fridge, to be used whenever, for sauteeing potatoes or adding flavor to a stew. A glazed ham on our holiday table meant an eventual ham bone, and without fail a thick, split pea soup flavored with that bone. Thanksgiving meant an eventual turkey carcass, and without fail, a huge soup pot filled with turkey broth, and eventually a turkey-flavored onion soup. An occasional roast beef ordered from Gabriel’s Meat Market on Bridgeport, Connecticut’s East Side, meant my favorite treat — my father’s roast beef hash.
Sometimes my mother would get the three main ingredients ready for him: cutting potatoes into small cubes, soaking them in two or three changes of cold water till the starch came out of them, and drying them on clean dish towels; dicing a couple of big onions; chopping the leftover roast into tiny cubes or grinding it on her old-fashioned hand-cranked grinder that she clamped onto our kitchen table. Her preparations meant that when he came home from work, supper could be on the table fast.
We still have the big cast-iron skillet that used to help give the hash its flavor and texture. My father would set it on the flame and get it hot, add a couple of tablespoons of bacon fat or freshly rendered pork fat to the pan, then dump the washed and dried potatoes into the skillet. As long as the pan was hot enough and the potatoes had been washed and dried, they would sizzle and sputter but rarely stick, and he would stand at the stove, shaking the pan back and forth to keep the potato bits rotating and cooking evenly. When they were half done, he’d toss in the onion and the meat, plenty of pepper and salt, any leftover juice or gravy from the roast, and keep the contents of the pan moving constantly, stirring and shaking the pan, until the onion had just begun to soften.
At that point, he’d use the back of a fork to press the hash firmly into a compact patty covering the bottom of the skillet, and he’d let it cook for a few minutes, until a tasty crust would form on the bottom. Then he’d take a spatula to loosen the hash, pop a big platter over the top of the skillet, and quickly turn the skillet upside down so the hash slipped out onto the plate. My brother and I liked to watch that step more than any other, not only because it meant dinner was ready, but because nobody could ever predict whether the hash would slip out neat and clean, or end up half stuck in the pan, eliciting a few choice words children were not supposed to hear.
I’m not at all sure that the neat, clean version of the hash tasted any different from the hash that stuck to the pan, but I always preferred the stuck version, spiced with a healthy pinch of frustration, as well as with the usual salt and pepper.