Over the last couple of days, I’ve rendered two batches of pig fat.
We had a lot of it because, back in the spring, we bought a pig from a nearby farmer. We split it with our neighbors but they weren’t interested in lard so, although I had only half a pig’s worth of meat, I had a whole pig’s worth of fat.
Rendering lard is easy. You just cube it or grind it and put it over low heat in a heavy pot with a little water. Stir it now and again. A couple hours later you have little bits of cracklings (a.k.a. deep-fried fat, something I thought was impossible) floating in liquid lard. Strain it through a coffee filter and you’re done.
I ended up with eight jars of beautiful, pure white lard in my refrigerator, half from fatback and half from miscellaneous bits. (For some reason, the leaf lard either didn’t make it into my freezer or was mixed up in the miscellaneous bits.) I was feeling all smug and farmwife, having made something useful out of the part of the pig that most people throw away.
There was only one fly in my ointment: lard is not good for you.
Just how not good is an open question. Lard became Dietary Enemy #1 back in the ‘80’s, when nutritional gospel had it that all fats were bad. We’ve learned something about fat since then, and some fats – mono- and poly-unsaturates – have been given the thumbs-up by nutrition scientists. Trans fats, meanwhile, have taken over the top slot on the Dietary Enemy list.
What’s at issue is plain old saturated fat and its connection to heart disease. While the evidence is not unequivocal (and has been discussed elsewhere on Starving), the consensus in the medical community is that there is one. Lard is about 40% saturated fat. It is also, like all fats, high in calories.
The real problem, though, is what lard begs you to do with it. It is supposed to make the best pie crusts, hands down (a proposition I will be testing in short order). Lard is the key to crispy fried chicken, flaky biscuits, succulent confit, and puffy empanadas.
Basically, lard is for baked goods and deep-fried things. Let me loose in those two categories and in no time I will weigh as much as my car. Not for nothing do they call it “lard-ass.”
Which brings me to a problem I’ve been having with the whole sustainable food ethos: the wholesomeness paradox.
Somehow, eggs from our own chickens, butter from cows we visit, and meat from free-ranging lambs seem like they have to be healthful. How can they not, when the animals have good lives, and are raised, milked, and slaughtered by conscientious people who take stewardship of land and livestock seriously?
And it’s not just animals. Last week my friend Mary and I made a big batch of blackberry jam. Homemade preserves sound like they’re wholesome, but they’re mostly just sugar.
Have you ever been to one of those pick-your-own apple orchards? It’s a crisp, sunny, fall day, and you bring your kids to pick fruit and take a hayride? Next to the stand where you can buy pumpkins and gourds, they’re making cider doughnuts. Now, the last time you went into a Dunkin’ Donuts was during the Clinton administration, but somehow these doughnuts seem okay.
I’ve got news for you. The operative word in ‘cider doughnut’ isn’t ‘cider.’
Humans have been believing what we want to believe since long before David Hume declared reason to be slave to the passions. Most of us like to eat foods made with meat, cheese, cream, and eggs, and so it is easy for us to tell ourselves that contented cows, frolicking goats, and free-ranging chickens produce foods that are good for us.
It’s been easy for me, at any rate. I’ve noticed more meat and cheese creeping into my diet, and now that we have an endless supply of eggs, anything could happen.
While it’s certainly true that products from animals that run free and eat grass have a different, and probably more healthful, make-up than products from animals that are confined and eat corn, bacon is still bacon. Cheese is still cheese. And the essence of a healthful diet is still getting most of your calories from plants.
Anyone need some lard? I’ve got plenty to go around.