Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 38 Issue 7, June 12 - 18, 2008
now in our 38th season

Nana Gardner and Bacon Fat

by Maryjane Mojer
Executive Chef, Bartlett's Ocean View Farm

My grandmother, Anna Gardner, was the chef at Nantucket Cottage Hospital for years, (and years.)  In her days, there were less rules regarding, well, pretty much everything, but especially regarding the food service industry.  In fact, it was probably not even referred to as the food service industry at that time, and probably just called cooking.  Go figure.

It was not unusual for fishermen to drop off a couple of bass or blues and to find them either on the menu for the patients or as part of the much looked-forward-to staff meals.  On occasion, a venison roast would appear and become part of the fare.  Sunday was my favorite day to go visit Nana at work, as that was the day she would roast off several turkeys for the week.  Out of the eight or ten big birds would come many meals, soups, stews, sandwiches, salads, and so on, as well as picking for the grandchildren and other distinguished visitors.

For quite some time, she lived in an apartment that was actually in the hospital, just about where the Physical Therapy section is now.  She would spend her off time crocheting and taking care of her African violets, and I think all of her grandchildren were fortunate enough to have an afghan made to their color specifications by her.  Mine, which I still have, is hot pink and purple.  I loved it when I was eight, and still do at forty-eight. 

When she moved to her house on Joy Street, next door to the family house called Poet’s Corner (where my Aunt Mahala and Uncle Prince lived with Peter the parrot), I would occasionally have the treat of spending the night with her.  Her dearest friend, Hazel Thomas, had one room, and Nana had the other.  My cousins Judy and Linda had beds upstairs, but I always slept on the couch.  The upholstery on the couch was gold and brown and had a liberty bell pattern all over it.

Bedtime with Nana was certainly by 8:00.  Her alarm would go off at 4:00 a.m. and her day would begin.  It was always hard to fall asleep because I would be so excited at the thought of getting up at such a ridiculously early hour.  I remember that, although I looked forward to those rare nights and early mornings with Nana, I vowed never to have a job where my alarm clock had to be set to go off before the sun came up.  Now, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Nana would start the morning with coffee, bacon, and eggs.  She drank her coffee from a jelly jar.  I have tried, but my hands, though well used and use to heat, are simply no match for her asbestos fingers, and a glass jelly jar with fresh coffee is pretty darned hot.  Her arms and hands had the same kitchen tattoos (burns and nicks) that my own do, and the greatest compliment my Uncle Jack ever gave me was when he said that my hands looked like hers.

She always cooked her bacon in the oven, and I do, too, as do my kids.  A sheet pan (with sides) sprayed with a bit of pan spray, the bacon laid out evenly.  I preheat my oven to 400 degrees and it takes about twenty minutes. No spatter, no turning, all the bacon done at the same time and able to cook large quantities at once.  My kind of cooking.  Nana would take the pan out of the oven and drain the bacon on paper towels leaving the bacon fat in the pan.  Every so often, to guild the lily, she would cut a hole in the toast, drop it on the sheet pan right into the bacon fat, and slip the egg into the hole. Usually, however, she would crack an egg into a bowl, (or two if I was there) and pour the egg into the bacon fat.  Back in the oven with the pan, for four or five minutes; just enough time to toast the bread.  Out of the oven, the egg onto the buttered toast, and breakfast is served.  Heaven.  She had an aluminum can that she kept on the stove, and that’s where the bacon drippings went.  Bacon fat, just a bit, went into most of Nana’s home cooking.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it found it’s way into the food she served at the hospital.  She knew a good thing when she saw it.

Turkey bacon, while thoroughly enjoyable and consumed in large quantities when my family is all home, really lacks the fat, which apparently is the point of eating it.  We do cook real bacon from time to time, but I don’t keep the fat, nor do I cook with it.  This whole effort to eat healthier and feel well can sometimes cut into food memories and a really great meal.  We keep “in moderation” as our mantra, and, while there are great, delicious recipes for things without bacon fat (or duck fat, an addiction for another day,) every so often I give in.

The first of the hothouse tomatoes are just about ready, and I have the bacon (the real stuff) and the mayonnaise just waiting.  The Portuguese bread will be bought fresh, that first day.  In the meantime, there are a few green tomatoes lurking about.  I brought a few home yesterday and for dinner tonight, we’ll have oven fried chicken, succotash, and fried green tomatoes. I’ll use bacon fat every step of the way, whole eggs to dredge the green tomato slices in, and I will enjoy every, single bite.  I will take the time today to walk an extra mile, if for no other reason than to appease my guilt for my caloric and fat overload, but the guilt will be short-lived and the nod to Nana and her cooking will make up for any pangs I may feel. 

Fried Green Tomatoes

You will find as many recipes for Fried Green Tomatoes as there are cooks. This one works for me.

  • 2 cups flour, seasoned with one teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 4 eggs, beaten with 2 tablespoons water and 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 3 cups seasoned breadcrumbs mixed with one cup cornmeal

I have some cast iron pans that I use for certain recipes.  This is definitely one of them.  Preheat your oven to 300 degrees.  Place a sheet pan in your oven.  I line mine with a brown paper bag and will store the tomatoes in the oven until we’re ready to serve them.

If you don’t have a tomato shark, treat yourself to one.  It’s a small, toothy melon baller type gadget and is just the thing for coring out tomatoes.  I’m not big on kitchen gadgets that only have one use, but this one is so small and handy, it’s worth owning.

Core out six tomatoes.  Slice them each about a quarter inch thick.  Using your basic breading method, dredge the tomatoes first in flour, then in egg, letting the excess drip off.  Next, dredge them in the bread crumbs.  Set them aside as you go, until all of the slices are coated and dredged.

In your skillet, pour about two tablespoons of vegetable oil.  To this, add a tablespoon of bacon fat.  In small batches, add your dredged tomato slices. Brown well, turn, brown the other side and remove to the oven.  I like to lightly salt them as soon as they come out of the skillet.  This is a dish to be shared and most definitely one to cook with your grandmother.

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