Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Simple Pleasures of Grammels

Katherina Colombo, my Grandma, was born in 1929 in Olaszfalu, Hungary, when the world population was 2 billion. Olaszfalu had a population of about 1500. Grandma grew up without electricity and all of the things that come with it. Wood and kerosene (for lamps) were the only fuels, muscle and sun the only other means to do work. Nothing was wasted on her family's farm. How could it be, when they knew, firsthand, the hard work required to provide everything they needed? As I try to figure out what I want my life to look like, or when I try to picture what life might be like for humans in the future, I often talk to Grandma. She is the strongest and most resourceful person I know. At the age of 87, she’s more capable and aware than most.

About a month ago, my friends Kevin and McNeill gave me two gallon bags of pig fat from last year’s pigs. They kindly offered their advice on rendering the fat into lard for use in cooking. When I told Grandma that I had the fat, she immediately said, “Bring it home, I know what to do wit it!”* By home, she meant back to New Jersey, when I was visiting for the holidays. I was happy to have some personalized instruction.

On Christmas morning, when my family was opening gifts, Grandma called and asked for the pig fat. We had planned to do the rendering the next day, but I heard her say to my Dad that it can’t all be done in one morning. I think she was just eager to get started! She drove down to pick it up. That night, when I got to her house, that familiar house with the familiar sights and smells, there were already 3 containers of lard on the old, but impeccable, yellow counter top. And, of course, there was a bag of the associated “Grammels” - a new word that I learned. More on that below!

Heating and mixing

The next morning, I woke up late in Grandma’s guest bed, where I used to sleep as a child. I mostly still fit in the top mattress of the trundle bed; the roll out mattress on the bottom is a bit small for my frame these days. When I entered the kitchen, the cubed fat for the second batch was already in the pot. “You have to use a tick medal pot, odderwise it will burn. We used to have bick pots (she drew a three foot diameter circle with her hands). Stirred dem wit a bick stick like ah, how you call it, oar.” Any freezer burned edges or otherwise undesirable pieces were put in a separate bag. “No waste,” she said. These pieces would have been used to make soap, but Grandma said she would feed them to the birds over the next few weeks.

Then, there are the Grammels - the bits of crunchy food that are left over once the rendering is done. Grandma hand pressed these; I removed them from the press and put them in a bowl. “I like dem wit a liddle bit of salt.” She popped one after the other, recounting stories of her relatives and how much they loved Grammels. “When you mek eggs, cut these up and put dem in there, you doan even need oil.” I could see that the Grammels were bringing back memories!

Pressing oil from the Grammels

Grammels! (and the yellow counter top)

It turns out, rendering is mostly a matter of heating fat without burning it. Though fat has been rendered for eons and will continue to be, it’s possible that no one will be doing it as Grandma does. Now I know her way, and continuing the tradition is one of the many ways I will always remember her.

Grandma and I sat at the kitchen table and talked, just like we always do, about how crazy the world is, how engrossed people are in their electronics, how extravagant the holidays can be. We discuss the merits of eating pig fat, and how her father used to eat handfuls of Grammels and always stayed lean and healthy. Grandma and I were very much on the defensive the whole weekend when we told relatives that we were going to render and cook with pig fat. Surely, our arteries would be instantly clogged! I love hearing Grandma’s stories of the old country ways that fly in the face of modern wisdom. She asks how work is going, and I express my usual frustrations that the environment is degrading while I sit in a cubicle. I can’t help but think that the world would be a much better place if more people could make and enjoy the simple pleasures of Grammels.

The lard

*I must give credit to my sister, Brianne, a far better writer than I, who came up with these spellings to capture Grandma’s accent in a piece she wrote about Grandma’s life up until about the age of 25.


  1. I enjoyed this essay. The old ways were wise.

    1. Thanks for reading, Rob, and glad you enjoyed! I agree and am incorporating many of them into my life.

  2. My daughter spent two years in Moldova. Her stories of how they live today sounds like your grandmas. The village had a herd of cows. Each family only having one or so cows. The take turns taking the cows to pasture every day and returning them to the individual barns each night.

    1. Hi, Dennis! Sounds like your daughter had a unique experience there! There are certainly people around the world living the 'old' ways. I'm particularly fascinated by the very few groups throughout the world who live largely without agriculture or agricultural products. They live the ways that have worked in their ecosystem for thousands of years. So many of us live like space invaders these days, largely out of tune with our ecosystems or even understanding that we are part of one. Those that are intimately involved with producing their own sustenance are way more in tune with this way of being.