The Red Mug

Lisa Radding // Hoboken, NJ

The first thing I noticed in the freezer of my new college apartment was the red plastic mug. Although I had just moved in, my roommates, who were my good friends, had already lived there for a semester. When I struggled to fit my food into the stocked freezer, the mug stood out among the usual student staples: ice cream, French fries and pizza. I left it lodged in the door, but wondered about it.

“Erin,” I said to one of my roommates, passing her the Ben & Jerry’s as we played freezer tetris to fit in my recent purchases, “What’s in the red mug?”

“Oh, that’s bacon grease,” she replied, as if a mug of grease were as natural as half-empty ice trays or frozen peas.

“Of course,” I said, but was really thinking: Yuck! Why is there bacon grease in the freezer?! What are we saving it for? Why is it in a mug?

I grew up in a Jewish home where meat and dairy stayed separate and forbidden animals had no place. Since my childhood, I had never given treyf much thought. In fact, it wasn’t until freshman year of college, when I ate in dining halls with my non-Jewish friends, that I came so close to pork and shellfish. Now I was a junior, living in an apartment with bacon grease.

Although my four roommates and I followed different schedules and cooked separate meals, Sunday brunch was family time. Everyone stumbled into the kitchen with tales of the previous night. Erin made the best omelets to order, cooking one while assembling the next. Jessica gently folded her thin crepes around nutella, or butter and sugar. Tina vigilantly tended the cream of wheat, serving it at the perfect thickness. Courtney chopped potatoes and onions for crisp home fries. And I flipped pancakes, distributing chocolate chips and fruit in the fluffiest of cakes.

We didn’t eat each of these dishes every weekend. Rather, we would pool whatever ingredients were on hand each Sunday, limited by our budgets and the fact that studying and partying generally took priority over groceries. And sometimes as a special treat, one of my roommates would abandon her usual post to fry bacon. After that distinct and foreign aroma wafted through the apartment, she would collect the sizzling grease in the red mug. As the level of bacon fat rose, so did my curiosity.

One Sunday, as I reached into the freezer for frozen strawberries to add to the pancakes and saw the red mug yet again, I finally asked Jessica, “what are you saving the bacon grease for?”

And it was then that Jessica let me in on a truth well known to the rest of the American universe: that everything—especially breakfast, especially pancakes—tastes better cooked in bacon grease.

“So why don’t you ever use it?” I asked.

Jessica shrugged, reaching to shut the forsaken mug of grease back in the freezer while she stirred crepe batter.

Scattering the berries into the pancakes, I realized that there was something that made breakfast even more delicious for the girls in my apartment than bacon grease ever could: simply letting their Jewish roommate cook the pancakes in butter and eating them together as a family. In the year and a half that I lived in the apartment, the little red mug sat in the freezer, slowly filling with the grease we never used.

Lisa Radding is an Onomastician, an expert in names. Read about Lisa’s “Lisa Eats Everything” project on Alef: The NEXT Conversation.

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