Our ancestors were afraid of many things they didn’t understand, conducting many a witch hunt and seeking out scapegoats. We like to think we’re different with our knowledge and scientific skills, but we do the same today. But instead of women with cats, we’ve gone after fat with a flaming pitchfork for the last forty years, pushing it off our plates and yet seeing it on our bodies more and more.
We’ve all heard the theories from Ancel Keys to the French Paradox to Paleo eating or Atkins around whether we should eating fat or not and its enough to make your head spin. We’ve certainly been sold the idea that low fat is better and products modified to fit that category are now abundant on our shelves to the point where it’s almost impossible to buy yoghurt that doesn’t say 0% on the label.
Some of that demonisation of fat has rubbed off on me, compounded by developing gallstones at the age of 18. Fatty food became my nemesis and a slice of cheese or side portion of chips could leave me in so much pain I ended up in A&E. Things didn’t improve much after I had my gallbladder removed and I was put on a low fat diet by my doctors to try to ease the discomfort. Fat was forbidden and I was encouraged to learn the fat content of all the things I ate. I dreamed of butter and triple cooked chips and I’d have sold my soul for whipped cream.
My gallbladder issues resolved slowly and I was allowed to re-introduce fat back into my diet gradually, but I remained suspicious of it as if it might strike back at any time. Learning to cook allowed me to experiment and see that fat wouldn’t attack me over the plate and I began to shake over that guilt from the food industry a bit. But the turning point came when my food budget shrank and I had to re-embrace the thrift that my grandmothers might have employed in their kitchens.
The cuts of meat I was eating were fattier and as well as being flavoursome, they left a legacy of bones and grease that could be used to add interest to soups and stews without adding actual meat. I discovered that preciously hoarded bacon fat could lift simple lentils into a feast or that lard rendered pastry perfect with little effort and that beef dripping makes Yorkshire Puddings the star of the show.
Soon my fridge became a shrine to solid animal fats. Along with blocks of butter, salted, unsalted and homemade to infuse with anchovies and herbs, there was creamy white lard, a jar of duck fat pinched from a friend, a kilner of goose fat treasured from the Christmas roast, schmaltz rendered down from each chicken I’ve cooked, bacon fat from the homemade rashers from Porcus and my own cure, beef and pork dripping bought from Morrisons, pork fat from those belly slices over the months and the cupboard always contains proper suet for dumplings. (I’m also envious of Mister North having used caul fat earlier this year.) Because these fats have to be melted down to use them and are packed with the taste of the place they came from, I find I use less than I did of vegetable oils and yet enjoy them more.
I also find they sate me and my hunger is less rampant. I’ve started buying full fat versions of dressings, mayonnaise and yoghurts where I can (don’t even start me on the slimification of the humble yoghurt) and without commiting to anything as rigid or faddy as Atkins, my appetite has stablised and by desire of to snack has eased. My body has changed shape for the better and I feel contented with my food. I’ve also saved money and waste, making my small shopping budget stretch much further and having to empty the bin less.
Fat has become my friend and few things thrill me more than seeing all those jars and blocks in my fridge and deciding what to use today (although the day I finally get to render my own lard according to Shu Han’s amazing instructions will knock it into a cocked hat). I feel that everytime I use a proper solid fat, a margarine fairy loses its wings…