Great Harvest Challah bread, which Jackie got a loaf of as her contribution to food for workers at the Spinners and Weavers Guild Show and Sale, but which didn’t all get eaten, turns out to make outstanding garlic bread. Who knew?
People have almost certainly been cooking with lard since the domestication of pigs close to 10,000 years ago. Along with butter and olive oil, lard must be one of the oldest “processed foods” around.
When I was writing my post on whether or not saturated fats would kill us all, I discovered that “grocery store” lard is often bleached (bad) and often partially hydrogenated (terrible). So it occurred to me that I probably ought to try to get some less-processed lard.
I asked at a local butcher, but they said they didn’t sell lard. Then I asked at the University of Illinois Meat Lab, which said that they didn’t make lard, but that they could set aside some pig fat for me, if I wanted.
Due to the room being a bit noisy, I hadn’t quite heard what they said, and had thought that I would be getting lard. But no: I got a couple of pounds of vacuum-packed frozen pig fat.
But that was okay. I read a couple of web pages on how to make lard, and went ahead and rendered it myself.
They had given me nice clean fat—just a modest amount of blood and connective tissue remained attached. I let it mostly thaw, cut it up into quarter-inch cubes, put it in a heavy pot with just a little water, got it just hot enough to simmer, and let it just barely simmer for a couple of hours so that the fat melted away from the connective tissue. Then I ladled it all through some cheese cloth and a colander (which kept the “cracklings,” i.e. lightly fried connective tissue, and let the melted lard drain through). I poured the melted lard into a mason jar, let it cool, and popped it into the fridge.
Now I have a couple of cups of snowy white lard that I can be sure has neither been bleached nor hydrogenated. (See photo at top. For color reference: Yes, the mason jar is purple. Long story.)
I don’t use much lard—mostly I just use it to touch up the seasoning on my cast-iron cookware, very occasionally to cook something where I don’t want a butter or olive flavor—so I expect this will last me a year or more. It was easy enough to do that I don’t think I’ll hesitate to render my own lard again when I run out.
As long as I was rendering fat I went ahead and re-rendered some beef tallow that I’d skimmed off the top of the sauce for a pot roast that I made a couple of weeks ago. I just melted it, cooked it long enough to boil off the watery bits, and then poured it through a strainer to get the bits of rosemary leaves and mushrooms that had clung to it when I skimmed it.
It’s kind of odd tallow, because it still has plenty of rosemary and mushroom flavor, and is red because of the tomato paste in the pot roast sauce, but it makes a fine fat for sauteing veggies, cooking omelettes, etc.
An interesting and important article about a researcher gathering data that seem to show that although more carbon in the air means plants grow faster, the result is plants with more sugar but less protein, minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients:
the protein content of goldenrod pollen has declined by a third since the industrial revolution—and the change closely tracks with the rise in CO2.
I am daunted by stuff like this recent article in Paleo Magazine: Does Coconut Oil Really Cause Heart Attacks? which makes the case that polyunsaturated vegetable oil is dangerous stuff to eat, and that the statistical associations that seemed to suggest that it was safer than saturated fat were an artifact of other dietary changes going on at the same time that the public was being pushed to switch to vegetable oils:
Though saturated-fat-intake data used in these trials are absent from most of the publications, historical data do show that the average person’s diet was higher in margarine and shortening than it was in butter, lard, and tallow. One must consider that most, or possibly all, of the 1970s-era studies showing a supposed benefit of adding PUFAs are actually evidencing the benefit of cutting out trans fat.
It is annoying that the research studies done to date do not seem to have been constructed to resolve this question, leaving us stuck trying to figure out statistical correlations and hypothesize about cause and effect based on how different fatty acids are metabolized in the body.
Lacking the skills with either statistics on the one hand and biochemistry on the other, I can’t figure this out for myself. And yet, it is literally a matter of life or death.
However, there is another way to get at the question, the strategy suggested by Michael Pollan in In Defense of Food. There are many traditional diets that have been eaten all over the world by millions of people for thousands of years, and the people who have eaten them have thrived.
There are also diets that were eaten by people who did not thrive—the standard American diet for one, but also many others. (In particular, it seems that many early agricultural societies go through a period when agriculture starts producing enough calories through a single staple crop to push the population high enough that it’s not possible to get the full range of necessary nutrients from other available foods. In the archeological record you see people shrinking and signs of various degenerative diseases not present in other populations.)
By looking at the vast range of diets that lead to thriving, I am convinced that it’s not that hard to eat a healthy diet, and that simply going for whole foods gets one most of the way there.
I am convinced enough that, despite being a picky eater from way back, I have been expanding the range of things I eat more and more, trying to add whole foods and delete processed foods. I give a nod to paleo eating—speculating about what cavemen ate and how they prepared it is at least fun and may even offer some useful guidance on how to eat, especially for people who have dietary issues that they’ve been unable to resolve with simpler strategies—but I have not given up dairy or grains or legumes.
Trying to eat whole foods has significantly increased the amount of saturated fat in my diet. I just about don’t use polyunsaturated vegetable oil in my own cooking—it is, after all, a quintessentially processed food—and I eat very little food cooked by other people (except Jackie).
I suppose the fats I do eat and cook with—olive oil, butter, and lard—are all “processed,” but those processes (pressing, churning, rendering) are processes that people have been using for a very long time indeed. The number of people who have eaten those fats and thrived over the past 5000 years (that we know of, and probably a multiple of that in fact) is large enough to give me some confidence that these foods are safe to eat.
So far that’s the best I’ve been able to come up with.
Me (talking about putting sauce on pizza crust): And when I say spreadulated, I actually mean spreadificated.
A friend of mine posted to her Facebook page recently criticizing a whole category of ageist comments along the lines of “You’re only as old as you feel.”
It caught my interest in particular because I’d been mentally composing a post about how I just turned 58, but I’m not suffering the aches and pains that supposedly go along with getting old. My friend’s post reminded me that referring to this as “feeling young” is problematic. And yet, I find that I come down on the other side of this issue. Sure, there is a certain irrefutable accuracy to say that your age is the current year minus your birth year, but age is many things besides a mathematical calculation—at a minimum it’s a social construction, and also perhaps a collection of biological circumstances.
It’s true that what I mean—and what perhaps I should say—is I feel good. Better, in fact, than I’ve felt in years. I’m stronger, more flexible, and more agile than I’ve been in longer than I can remember. I move with more ease, more power, and more control. I have more endurance. I’m certainly more comfortable in my own skin.
A lot of this is just good luck, of course—good genes, avoiding serious injuries and serious illnesses so far.
Beyond good luck I credit my movement practice for most of the rest. Taiji. Walking and hiking. Running (merely an adjunct, but one I enjoy in particular). After years of lifting with machines to little noticeable effect I now do almost all my strength training with bodyweight exercises and am having much more success. (The main exception to pure bodyweight exercise is doing kettlebell swings for my high-intensity interval training, which I ought to write about because it seems to be doing some good, and is also quick and fun.) Push hands I wrote about recently. Animal movement ditto. So new I haven’t had a chance to write much about it yet, I did yoga for the first time last week.
But to bring this back full circle, I’m not so sure that it’s wrong to talk about “feeling young.” My friend is right—growing old is a privilege not everyone enjoys. It is indeed better than the alternative: dying young. But just as I can see her objections to denying age (as if refusing to acknowledge it meant something), I object to denying one’s felt experience. If someone says that they “feel young,” does an appeal to mere arithmetic justify correcting them?
Certainly I am not the only person to feel this way. There are always people trying to express health and fitness in terms of age. There are websites that will suggest a guess as to your physiological age vaguely based on your weight and your activity level. Various practitioners of various disciplines will measure specific things ranging from your maximum heart rate to the length of your telomeres and use the results to calculate a biological age.
They’re all pretty dubious, but I find that I do not object in principle to thinking and talking about concepts like health, fitness, and vitality in terms of age. Even though there are many unhealthy young people and many old people who are fit and vital, I think the notion resonates in a useful way.
As for me, I feel good. I also feel younger than I’ve felt in years.
If you’re interested in foraging, your best source of information is going to be a local forager who knows what’s available in your area at different times of year. You next best would be a book by a local forager. Third best, but better than nothing, would be FM 21-76 the (not copyrighted, because it’s a U.S. government publication) Army Field Guide to Wild Edible Plants.
Just from her title I was pretty sure that Christa Whiteman’s post Living simply: reclaiming sanity + authenticity would be right in my sweet spot, and I was not surprised to find more than a little overlap with what I’ve been saying for years at Wise Bread. I’ve talked about living a life of “luxury and splendor,” but recovering our “original opulence” sounds good too.
Christa suggests three starting places: food, movement, and stuff—adding that the proper course to take is a spiral, coming around to the same points over and over. She is right—where you start means little—and yet, her course is so completely different from my own I thought it might be worth pondering those differences to see if they told me something useful about what I’ve been doing, and about how I’ve been writing about it.
As anyone who has read my work at Wise Bread knows, I’m all about the power of frugality as a tool for living a life of full of exactly what you most want: Basically, I started with the “stuff” piece. I probably have a hundred articles on various aspects of figuring out the difference between needs and wants, covering your actual needs, identifying and focusing on those few wants that matter most deeply to you, and dealing with others who care how you satisfy your wants.
I wrote quite a bit about food, too—about how to eat at the intersection of cheap and healthy. I’ve just now reread a few of those posts and I’m pretty pleased with them, even if I’d write them differently now.
Christa’s third piece is about movement, and that is where my writing at Wise Bread falls short. In fact, I’ve really got exactly one post that’s right on topic. The editors gave it the unfortunate title of Get a Great Workout for Free With 11 Simple Moves, but it’s straight-up natural movement advocacy. Before that, I had some good stuff on how walking and bicycling for transportation were frugal and healthy, but it had a pretty limited perspective.
I think I need to write some more pieces on both food and movement for Wise Bread. I can certainly write a new Wise Bread post on how to eat paleo on the cheap. (Not that I eat a paleo diet, but there’s a lot of overlap between what’s expensive in my diet and what’s expensive in the paleo diet.) Maybe I can also write some more movement pieces. What should be the focus, I wonder. The frugality of natural movement for exercise? The frugality of staying healthy? Or the luxury and splendor of being a fully capable human? I guess I’ve done that first one. Hmm.
I was eating my lunchtime salad, and on a whim (because it was a chill, blustery day) decided that I’d really like some soup. So I grabbed a can from the cupboard and heated up some Campbell’s tomato soup. I didn’t check the label, because, you know, tomato soup. What would be in it? Tomatoes, broth, maybe some onion, and salt, right?
One sip, and I was shocked to find it tasted sweet.
My first thought was that eating low carb had sensitized me to the taste of sweet, and I guess it has (I’d always perceived Campbell’s tomato soup as salty in the past) but it’s not just that.
After that one spoonful, I looked at the label. A 1/2 cup serving of soup has an astonishing 20 g of carbs, 12 of them from sugar. The number two ingredient is high fructose corn syrup!
I know I shouldn’t find this as surprising as I did. If it’s processed food, of course it’s going to have high fructose corn syrup. I just hadn’t thought of it, because even a week and a half into eating low-carb, I hadn’t needed to get into the habit of checking labels.
Jackie cooks almost all our meals (although I’m cooking a good share of mine, while I’m doing the low-carb thing). We rarely eat processed food, but we keep some on hand so we can satisfy just this sort of sudden urge.
The upshot is that I haven’t had to get in the habit of checking the nutrition labels, because most of what we eat scarcely has labels—because we eat food, not industrially manufactured food-like substances.
I ended up eating about three tablespoons of the soup, and then putting it in the fridge. Maybe we can make some use of it, putting the odd spoonful here and there into some dish that needs a little tomato and little salt—and a little sugar.
When I thought about what Jackie and I might do for Valentine’s day, the idea of going out to a restaurant didn’t appeal. Fixing her something special seemed like a better idea. After pondering for a while, I came up with a plan for a collaborative feast, which seemed even better.
A bit of history: Just a few days after we started dating, Jackie said that she was tired and thought she’d go home early and spend an evening resting. I didn’t want risk letting her get away, so I proposed that she could come home with me and take a nap, and that I’d prepare dinner while she slept.
She was dubious but agreeable, and that’s what we did.
I don’t really remember what I fixed. Mainly what I remember is that Jackie was astonished—and remarked on it more than once to other women—that I actually succeeded in producing a meal entirely on my own: “I just slept!” she said. Which always seemed odd to me, because I’d been a bachelor for close to ten years at that point; it didn’t seem so remarkable to me that I could manage to cook a meal.
As best I’ve been able to reconstruct what I must have served, I think it would have been Rock Cornish game hens with Uncle Ben’s wild rice on the side. They were both staple items that I kept in my kitchen. The hens were purchased frozen, and could be quickly thawed in the microwave. Uncle Ben’s was also something I often had a box of on hand.
So, for Valentine’s day, I thought we’d recreate that meal, with some adjustments for the way our eating has evolved over the years.
I searched on the web for some recipes that were supposed to be like Uncle Ben’s, then used them as a model to create a recipe that I thought would be as much like the original as I’d actually want to eat. (I call it Uncle Phil’s long grain and wild rice.) We went to the grocery store and bought a rock Cornish game hen. (We got a fresh one, rather than frozen; because it was larger, we just one one rather than two.)
Jackie made us salads. (I don’t remember, but I probably served salads that first time as well. I was eating a lot of salads right then.) She also made stuffing for the bird. (I’m pretty sure I didn’t stuff the birds that first time. I didn’t know how to make my own stuffing, and not having store-bought stuffing on hand is probably why I served Uncle Ben’s as the starch course.)
I stuffed the bird and roasted it, prepared the rice, and made gravy.
It was a wonderful feast.
After we’d eaten our fill, we finished butchering the hen, then boiled up the carcass for soup.