Why Animal Fat is Good for You

Fat Cubes

I love fat. Rich, unctuous marrow scooped from the bone. Thick, creamy slices of French butter on fresh baguette. I sauté my potatoes in duck fat, rely on snow-white leaf lard for my flaky pie crusts, and adore roast beef sandwiches drenched in pan drippings.

Allow me to introduce myself. I’m the Fat Lady. I worship animal fat. And before you say anything, no, my faith hasn’t made me fat. I can’t tell you my exact weight, as the only scales I own are in my kitchen, but middle-age spread has yet to appear, and I’m actually still wearing the clothes I wore ten years ago. (Aspiring authors, take note: writing cookbooks doesn’t make you rich–and doesn’t have to make you fat.) And I don’t have any problems with my cholesterol, either.

Yet when I start eulogizing fat, the reaction is unfailingly one of horror and disbelief. Most of you fear the marbling in your steak, the crisp fatty tail on a lamb chop, the crunch of a proper pork crackling. The myth that eating fat makes us fat is deeply rooted in Americans. You’re convinced that the fat will go straight from your lips to your hips and, only marginally worse, that it will kill you.

I’m here to tell you this fear is unfounded—not to mention unspeakably sad. As a chef and journalist, I know the incontrovertible importance of fat, how it’s essential not just for flavor and pleasure but, yes, your health. We’ve understood this for quite some time. Animals are fattened on a diet of grain. Humans, too, get fat on a diet of starch and sugar. Brillat-Savarin, Banting, Atkins, Scarsdale, and numerous other brilliant minds all have demonstrated that it’s carbohydrates—specifically, too many carbohydrates—that make us fat. Wanting to share this seemingly revelatory news with others, I wrote a cookbook pronouncing the glories and benefits of animal fat. Its title, not surprisingly, is Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, With Recipes. I thought it would be easy to convince the whole world. I mean, really, how difficult could it be to tell people they can indulge in sweet butter pastry filled with homemade salted caramel and expect to live to be 100?

Pretty hard, apparently. Social indoctrination runs deep. Which is why I figured television, a medium that reaches millions, would be an ideal way to spread the word. After all, if it can persuade people to pay top dollar for bottles of purified New York City water, surely I could convince them to eat pig. So in a three-minute spot, I extolled the virtues of fat, explaining its winning combination of taste, health, and practicality. I actually had the crew drooling at my description of flaky leaf lard pastry. As I left, the producer whispered in my ear, “If you’d been even a pound overweight, we wouldn’t have had you on.” Anger tinged with evangelism overtook me. “Fat doesn’t make you fat!” I shouted. “It’s delicious, satisfying, and filling. It’s carbohydrates, sugar, and overeating that pack on the pounds! Eat fat and lose weight!” I fulminated as I left the studio.

It’s hard being a fat evangelist. There’s so much work to be done.

One morning not long ago, the local radio show host was lambasting lard. I counterattacked with a barrage of evangelizing emails. The host eventually buckled and invited me on his show. As a token of my appreciation, I pressed a jar of creamy lard into his palm during the broadcast. “That’s saturated fat,” he gasped, turning paler than the contents of the jar. I patiently explained to him and his listeners that all fats are saturated and unsaturated, even his beloved vegetable oils. Unlike highly polyunsaturated vegetable oils, which break down and turn rancid when heated, animal fats are safe when exposed to high temperatures. “Cook in animal fat!” I proclaimed at the top of my lungs as he cut to commercial.

As with many evangelists, I’ve come to learn that the masses are often converted by a subtler, more surreptitious approach. So I’ve given countless sermons on fat…cunningly disguised as cooking demonstrations. I start with the taste, tempting my nervously squirming audience with sizzling, fatty slices of pork belly or chunks of potatoes cooked in duck fat that are surreally crisp outside, ethereally airy within. Usually, even the most fat-phobic surrender with their first mouthful of creamy deliciousness. This is when they realize the truth. Fat is flavor. I tell them to repeat this mantra if their fear of fat ever returns.

Yet the mere mention of animal fat tends to make some people go a little crazy. Once, a woman in my audience actually fainted. I thought she was simply swooning in ecstasy at the sight of the duck fat gurgling happily in my pan. Alas, no. The paramedics carried her away before I had a chance to tell her that just a year ago the Harvard School of Public Health and the Research Unit at the Oakland Children’s Hospital analyzed studies of animal fat and diet spanning 25 years and eight countries. They concluded that saturated fat is not associated with an increased risk of heart or vascular disease. Hallelujah!

Even after hearing all the evidence, some aren’t swayed. I recall one young man who confessed that he’d dearly loved his grandmother’s cooking—her crisp roasted chicken, her creamy mashed potatoes, her crumbly cookies—until he saw the amount of butter she used. That’s when he’d accused his granny of trying to kill him.

“But the taste?” I questioned.

“Sublime,” he sighed. Then he let what he thought were his senses get the better of him. “But all that butter is so bad for me.”

“No,” I retorted. “It’s good for you!” I explained in rather grandiose and scientific detail how butter, like all fat from ruminants allowed to graze on herbs and grass as nature intended, is brimming with properties that fight disease and actually prevent weight gain and depression. The sinner went straight to his granny’s for dinner that night.

Yet even with science, taste, and superior pastry to back me up, the disbelievers are many. So I’ve taken to a grassroots approach, converting skeptics at every opportunity. I lecture anyone fortunate enough to sit next to me in waiting rooms and airplanes. I snatch low-fat magazines from the hands of fellow subway commuters. I slip fatty-fat fat recipes to complete strangers. I’ve even stared down a room full of angry, fat-phobic dieticians. And when I see unsuspecting shoppers with low-fat items in their baskets at the supermarket, I redeem them by exorcising that evil, fat-fearing spirit that lurks within. It usually goes something like this:

“Don’t you know that fat is essential for your brain and bones?” I ask, incredulous.

They look at me as if I’m crazy. I persist.

“Many of the vitamins our bodies need are absorbed only with fat. Go back and get some full-fat milk and yogurt.” I say with authority. “It tastes better, too.”

This usually works.

One convert at a time is my motto. Although I’ve turned many into believers, I still have my work cut out for me. I won’t stop until the whole world loves and appreciates animal fat. Well, maybe not vegetarians. It’s not that I dislike them. I just think they’re misguided. Maybe I can’t help everyone.

Are you a fat-phobe or fat fanatic? Tell us your thoughts below.

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Comments

  1. Thanks to Jennifer’s book, I’m learning to praise the lard! I also just rendered my first batch of lard. To think that this was common place not too long ago, and it took me 44 years to do it for the first time myself. If it weren’t for books like Jennifer’s, I feel that we would lose all this great knowledge to the fat phobics.

  2. Did you know there’s actually a diet book called “Eat Fat Lose Fat”, written by Dr. Mary Enig, a world-renowned biochemist and nutritionist, and Sally Fallon, author of “Nourishing Traditions”?

    I have eschewed liquid vegetable fats for years, except olive oil. In my frig. I currently have jars of home-rendered lard, French duck fat, and the requisite jar of bacon fat, along with several kinds of butter, including homemade raw milk butter with sea salt. Oh, and to toot my own horn, cholesterol, triglyceride and other tests are better now than they were 10 years ago (now in my fifties). Even my college-bound kids have their own stock of lard and duck fat to cook whatever kitchen chemistry experiment they’re into.

    Thanks for a great article. We should all be eating like our grandparents or great grandparents!

    1. I’m familiar with them both too Wendy, and the Weston Price Foundation. Your refrigerator is a real treasure trove. The only liquid fats I have are olive oil and a nut oil. Glad to learn your kids are real fat lovers as well.

    2. Just jumping in here. I know your comment is for Jennifer, WendyK, although I’ve had the pleasure of hearing both Mary and Sally speak, and I agree. Nature knows. Many thanks for the lovely reminder to replenish our larders, so to speak…and yes, duck fat does make everything better, doesn’t it?

  3. I would like to say that violently opposing fat is unfounded. Fat is a crucial aspect to the flavor of the animals we eat. However, one is wrong to “worship fat” if it means overusing it.

    For example- I love pasta and Italian dishes, but hate eating them at restaurants half of the time. Why? The chefs think that the more butter the better. That is certainly not true, and the dishes end up so rich that they are not enjoyable to eat. In addition, these abominations end up tasting like butter instead of the other ingredients. A pad of butter enhances a tomato sauce and gives it a silky dimension, a stick of butter kills it.

    Let’s look at salt. Salt is the chief seasoning across most dishes. It is used to accentuate the flavor of a food. Salt makes a duck breast taste more like a duck breast. But, as soon as you can taste salt, the salt has made the duck breast taste like salt. The same applies to oil, lard, drippings, etc, etc.

    I enjoy your enthusiasm but your stance seems a bit too whimsical to seriously address the correct balance between intoxicating decadence and remarkable simplicity in cooking. Again, I agree with you that it is a silly aspect of our culture that people are so damn touchy about eating the fat of something natural, then turn around and each processed foods laden with ingredients our body does not compute- things like MSG, high fructose corn syrup, aspartame… the list goes on.

    At the opposite extreme- it is also a fallacy that fat should be thrown at every possible food. There is a certain threshold of excellence for each individual preparation that should be honored in terms of fat. Just like the Maillard reaction in toast: there is just the right amount of heat and time that will make something golden, but past that point, the flavor quite literally turns to ash.

    1. Italians cooked tomato sauces with pork fat and olive oil, not butter. I could never get my spaghetti sauce like my mom’s until I started adding in some fatty cuts of pork. I regrettably noticed that Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” took her old recipes and removed the saturated fat! Now, I’m looking for original versions of her first two cook books that had the lard in them!

        1. Hi Claire (and David),
          unfortunately Hazan’s books are unavailable here in Italy, as far as I know they were originally published in the USA and never got translated and published here, so I can’t help you with those politically incorrect recipes 😉

          good luck with your search!

    2. Christophocles, I didn’t suggest overusing fat. I want everyone to realize the importance of good animal fat to flavor, taste, satisfaction and their health. I want them not to fear fat. I want to rid the world of the low-fat mentality and the belief that low-fat foods filled with additives are better for them. Just because I advocate fat doesn’t mean I think you should add large amounts of it to everything you eat.

  4. I so agree with you! My dad is a great cook and he always uses a mixture of pork belly/shrimp/fish sauce to saute with aromatics when cooking Filipino food. I used to omit this crucial first step, and my food never tasted as good as his. Now that I’ve taken the plunge in using pork fat in cooking, my food is very close to tasting as good as my dad’s.

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