Whenever I start to wonder about the concept of ancestral memory, all I have to do is debone a chicken. My great-grandfather was a poultry wholesaler, allegedly the first in Detroit to sell chicken by the part instead of by the bird. I feel quite certain that he could dismantle and debone a chicken blindfolded and in two minutes flat, maybe less, without wasting a single sliver of meat. When I debone a chicken, it takes ten minutes, maybe more, and the cuts are jagged and ribbons of meat still cling to the bone. I’m sure if he could see me (and the waste) he would look away in secondhand embarrassment. Definitely proof that acquired skills are not transferred through genetics.
But maybe, given that he was an immigrant, he would have much rather had a great-grandchild who sits in front of a computer all day instead of mucking out chicken coops. So my ignorance of poultry is really a manifestation of the American dream! (Blah, blah, blah, bootstraps, chicken fat, chicken feathers, inherited wealth, America!) Still, I feel that, in our quest for Americanization, certain things have been lost besides the ability to debone a chicken. Namely, gribenes, also known as grieven.
Gribenes (pronounced GRIB-e-ness) means “scraps” in Yiddish. They are essentially poultry cracklings, pieces of goose or chicken skin rendered in their own fat—with an onion and some salt added for flavor—until they’re crispy. Eastern European Jews used them the same way Southerners use bits of bacon: for flavor, for texture. Gribenes found their way into kugel and matzo balls, chopped liver and salads, and between slices of bread for a sandwich. They are also delicious on their own.
The preparation is simple, as long as you can round up enough chicken skin. (I peeled the skin off a dozen chicken thighs and took the extra skin and fat from a spatchcocked whole chicken; if I’d planned it out sooner, I would have started squirreling bits away a few weeks ahead of time.) Cut the chicken skin into pieces, toss them into a hot frying pan, add salt for savoriness and onion for sweetness, and let the whole thing sit for a while until the pieces of skin are crisp and brown, like the best part of fried chicken. (Once you drain them, you’ll also get a decent supply of schmaltz, or chicken fat.) They are dangerously addictive, and I’m mad that I’ve lived my whole life up to this point without them. I’ll bet my great-grandparents had gribenes. What other wonderful things did time and assimilation take from us? Why did we give up gribenes of all things when tzimmes was available?
In The Encyclopedia Of Jewish Food, the scholar Gil Marks theorizes that gribenes fell out of fashion because Jews in America suddenly started worrying about cholesterol and fat and overall health.
I’m not buying it. Chopped liver got to stay. So did corned beef and pastrami and bagels loaded with cream cheese and chicken soup with a thin layer of schmaltz. Jews still eat fatty brisket on holidays with babka and honey cake for dessert. We torture our digestive tracts with matzo every Passover. Clearly when it comes to our ancestral soul food, we are occasionally willing to sacrifice our digestive systems and overall health. As we say, once in a while, what could it hurt?
Here’s what I think happened: Jews discovered bacon.
Bacon is, of course, different from gribenes. It has a smoky flavor while gribenes is merely crisp and salty. It’s easier to acquire: you can just buy slabs of it at the supermarket instead of searching for chicken skin. It cooks faster. It doesn’t fill your house with the smell of chicken fat (a source of self-consciousness for Americanizing Jews and a strong selling point for Crisco). Crucially, it is not kosher.
By all accounts, including Marks’, the decline of gribenes happened in the mid-20th century, after World War II. That also happened to be the period when more Jews assimilated and secularized and decided that they would not be smited into oblivion by God and their ancestors if they stopped keeping kosher and started eating bacon.
I can’t find any statistics about the number of Jews who kept kosher in, say, 1950. But even by then, that number was slipping. “In 1949, in the [Orthodox Union]’s fiftieth anniversary yearbook, one of its authors pointed to the rejection of kosher practice in America as the cause of degradation of American Jewish life and the root of the ‘spiritual chaos’ that subsumed Jewish homes,” Jeffrey Yoskowitz, founder of the Gefilteria and a major voice in the Jewish food renaissance, writes in Gastronomica. By 2013, when the Pew Research Center created its definitive “portrait of Jewish Americans,” just 22% of its survey respondents reported that they kept kosher at home. (The Berman Jewish Databank survey from 2017 that looked at 100 metropolitan areas found that 12% was about average.)
If Jews were free to eat bacon, which was so much easier and more convenient and American, then why would they eat gribenes? If they still felt an imperative to keep kosher, there was always turkey bacon, invented sometime in the late 1940s or early ’50s according to food historian Andrew F. Smith.
But why, I say, can we not have both? Gribenes and bacon together side by side, except in kosher situations. How about a GLT? Gribenes and eggs! Gribenes on hot dogs! Gribenes as a bar snack! (This is not entirely unprecedented: some old-school Jewish restaurants, most famously Sammy’s Roumanian in New York, used to have gribenes on the table as an appetizer.) Jews have always adapted their food to the countries where they happen to be living. There is no reason why we can’t do that for gribenes.
The beautiful thing about gribenes is that, unlike lox or pastrami, they’re pretty simple to make at home. The only difficulty is the chicken skin supply chain; now I have another reason to regret that my family is no longer in the poultry business. But if Southerners can hoard their bacon grease, we can surely hoard our chicken skin. I’m going to keep a little baggie in my freezer. And maybe every few months I’ll fry myself up some gribenes. Because, quite honestly, that’s about as often as my body can handle it.
Serves four, probably, but can easily be devoured by one gluttonous person (and a dog) in a single afternoon.
- Chicken skin and fat (Most recipes call for one pound, but if you don’t have enough, don’t worry)
- Kosher salt
- 1 tsp. water
- 1 onion, thinly sliced
Dry off the chicken skin and, with a knife or poultry shears, cut it into bite-sized pieces. Preheat a skillet over medium heat. When the skillet is hot, toss in the chicken skin. Add a pinch of kosher salt and a little bit of water.
Cook, stirring frequently so the gribenes don’t stick to the pan and burn, for approximately 30 minutes, until the chicken pieces start to curl and turn golden and are swimming in schmaltz. Add the onion and cook for about 5 minutes longer, until the onion also starts to turn golden.
Drain the schmaltz from the pan. The easiest way to do this is to put a sieve over a glass jar and pour the contents of the pan into it. Reserve the schmaltz for another use, like making latkes or smearing on toast to eat with your gribenes.
Pour the gribenes back into the pan and continue to cook over medium-low heat, stirring regularly, until the onion is caramelized and the chicken skin is crispy but not burned.
Drain on a paper towel and salt to taste. Eat immediately.