Re­claim­ing fat’s place of honor

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

Abook whose cover has the word “fat” printed in big black let­ters along some raw lamb chops thickly banded with that very sub­stance is clearly not a diet book. But “Fat: An Ap­pre­ci­a­tion of a Mis­un­der­stood In­gre­di­ent,” is none­the­less very much about diet, and au­thor Jen­nifer McLa­gan has strong views about it.

To put it briefly, she thinks we’re get­ting it all wrong. We’d be much bet­ter off putting some se­ri­ous an­i­mal fat back in our meals in­stead of think­ing that buy­ing low-fat this and that and cook­ing in oil is do­ing us much good.

This sounds pretty rad­i­cal. In fact, Ms. McLa­gan is a tra­di­tion­al­ist. She hap­pily re­calls her 1960s child­hood in Aus­tralia, when her fam­ily used lard and meat drip­ping for cook­ing, and but­ter for toast and bak­ing. Now a trained chef and food stylist liv­ing in Canada, she still uses the fats she grew up with, plus also ren­dered fat from chicken, duck and goose. And no, she is not fat. She’s a pro­po­nent of smaller por­tions and more ac­tiv­ity as the road to weight loss for those who need it. She’s also very def­i­nitely a pro­po­nent of eat­ing more an­i­mal fats. As she notes:

“To­day, most peo­ple live more seden­tary lives, driv­ing in­stead of walk­ing, and eat­ing pro­cessed or take out food more of­ten than freshly cooked. As our lifestyles changed, we gained weight and it was easy to blame fat. Fat, we rea­soned, was why we packed on the pounds and got ill, so we banned an­i­mal fat from our lives. But­ter and lard dis­ap­peared from our kitchens, and we cut the fat off our meat. We’ve re­placed tra­di­tional an­i­mal fats with veg­etable oils, and we gob­ble up ev­ery­thing with a low-fat la­bel. We’ve sac­ri­ficed all that taste and plea­sure, yet we haven’t lost weight or im­proved our health.”

This, of course, is a gen­er­al­iza­tion. Some in­di­vid­u­als could well have lost weight by cut­ting down on fat. None­the­less, it is un­doubt­edly true that North Amer­i­cans, for all their de­vo­tion to low-fat di­ets, are more obese than say, the French, who hap­pily eat but­ter and treat goose and duck fat as culi­nary trea­sures. Like­wise, the slen­der Chi­nese are de­voted to pork and its fats. So have Amer­i­cans got it wrong?

Ms. McLa­gan thinks so. She notes that car­bo­hy­drate foods have been rec­og­nized as weight pro­duc­ers for cen­turies, and still to­day, an­i­mals are fed a grain diet be­fore slaugh­ter to make them heav­ier. Fat is not only not nec­es­sar­ily the prob­lem for the over­weight, it is es­sen­tial for us all. Ev­ery cell in the body needs fat; it sup­ports the im­mune sys­tem, pro­tects the liver, and pro­motes beau­ti­ful skin and hair. Without it we feel tired or de­pressed, and it’s easy to turn to a car­bo­hy­drate pick-me-up for con­so­la­tion — though the short­term mood mod­i­fi­ca­tion means long-term weight gain.

Un­til re­cently the ben­e­fits of fat were well ap­pre­ci­ated. In­deed, the 19th-cen­tury French gas­tronome Jean-An­thelme Bril­lat-Savarin, noted that “Ev­ery thin woman wants to grow plump.” Things changed in the 1950s when sci­en­tists made the con­nec­tion be­tween coro­nary heart dis­ease and high lev­els of choles­terol in the blood. Since choles­terol comes only from an­i­mals, the link to an­i­mal fat was also made, and thus be­gan the con­ver­sion to veg­etable oils in many kitchens, and the switch to mar­garine. We now know that but­ter is more health­ful than mar­garine, and to some ex­tent Jen­nifer McLa­gan be­lieves that an­i­mal fats have bet­ter lipid pro­files than veg­etable fats, pro­vid­ing the var­i­ous fatty acids needed by the body in proper pro­por­tions.

As she notes, “The re­la­tion­ship be­tween what we eat and how our bodies re­act to it is very com­plex.” She pro­vides a lot of in­for­ma­tion about nu­tri­tional pro­file and the bal­ance of sat­u­rated and un­sat­u­rated fats in the an­i­mal fats she de­scribes, but her book is not a sci­ence text­book. Per­haps her most com­pelling ar­gu­ment in fa­vor of fat is his­tor­i­cal: Hu­mans have been eat­ing an­i­mal fat through­out their his­tory and peo­ple in many other coun­tries con­sume it without the health con­se­quences as­cribed to it in Amer­ica. Her points are well worth con­sid­er­ing.

So are her dis­cus­sions of food. “Fat makes ev­ery­thing taste bet­ter, and eat­ing fat is sat­is­fy­ing so we eat less and out de­sire to snack is re­duced,” she writes. She pro­vides lengthy chap­ters on four types of an­i­mal fat: But­ter, lard, poul­try fats, and beef and lamb fats. She de­scribes the nu­tri­tional and culi­nary char­ac­ter­is­tics of each fat, and then gives a se­ries of recipes us­ing it.

Mouth-wa­ter­ing is the only way to de­scribe the recipes. Many of them are for tra­di­tional fare such as but­ter-rich short­bread from Scot­land, Roast Beef with all the Trim­mings from Eng­land, Chicken Kiev, In­dian But­ter Chicken, French fries made in lard, roast goose and so forth. Other recipes in­tro­duce lit­tle­known dishes. There’s an un­usual Aus­trian Kugel­hopf made with ba­con bits in­stead of the typ­i­cal dried fruits, for ex­am­ple. Braised Pork Belly from Malaysian chef Cheong Liew is a hot and sweet and gin­gery — and it’s cooked in lard, but not a lot of it. Mar­malade Pud­ding is made with suet — and it’s a treat for mar­malade lovers. But­ter­poached scal­lops are easy and so de­li­cious. Spicy But­tered Pop­corn is a chipo­tle-in­fused vari­a­tion on a same-old treat. Ms. McLa­gan ad­mits the only way she can en­joy rutaba­gas — a fa­vorite of her hus­band’s — is by mash­ing them with parsnips, or­ange juice and but­ter.

Th­ese and the many other dishes ex­plored in the book make it a de­light for cooks. The pic­tures en­tice too. The com­bi­na­tion of tra­di­tional dishes from many coun­tries with new cre­ations — Brown But­ter Ice Cream is just one — is likely to get any­one scurrying into the kitchen. Ms. McLa­gan’s ad­vo­cacy of an­i­mal fat as a vi­tal in­gre­di­ent that should not be a bo­gey­man has con­sid­er­able merit. Cer­tainly, the surge in obe­sity dur­ing the very years that food conglomerates have been de­vis­ing lowfat foods should give us pause. Any­one in­ter­ested in nutri­tion or con­cerned about their weight or won­der­ing whether all those lus­ciously tasty fats should re­ally be off-lim­its will be fas­ci­nated with this book and its many in­sights.

Claire Ho­p­ley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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