Made my own lard

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.

Saturated fats may or may not kill us all

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.

Gathering garlic mustard

I’ve been occasionally joining Jackie when she does stewardship workdays at natural areas around the county as part of her Master Naturalist work. They’re fun, and they fit in very well with my shift away from exercise and toward movement. Our work Sunday, clearing garlic mustard from the South Arboretum Woods, is a great example.

(Garlic mustard is a nasty invasive, largely because the first-year growth leafs out very early, and covers the ground almost completely. Native plants emerge a little later in the spring, by which time they can’t get enough light to get going. The upshot is that the understory loses most of its natural diversity, becoming just a vast carpet of garlic mustard.)

What we did Sunday was make our way through the woods, spotting and then pulling up all the second-year garlic mustard. (It’s a biennial. The first year is the low ground cover. The second year it puts up a flowering stalk and produces seeds. If you can get the flowering stalks before they set seed, you can make a dent in the local garlic mustard density.)

What struck me was how similar our activity was to “gathering” à la hunting and gathering. It was physically similar—walking through the woods, and then squatting, bending, reaching, and pulling. It was also mentally similar—doing exactly the same pattern-matching that someone seeking to gather edible or medicinal plants would do.

I suspect that both of these aspects of this activity enhance the well-known beneficial effects of “forest bathing” (aka spending time in the woods).

The area we were clearing has a lot of downed branches, big and small, some partially or completely hidden by the ground cover, making for a complex walking surface—more good stuff for both the body and the brain.

Of course, volunteering for and participating in a stewardship work day produces all sorts of additional benefits—in particular, doing something good for the local communities (both the human community that uses the space and the natural community that inhabits it) is rewarding, as is making social connections with the other volunteers and engaging together on a common effort.

Every time I do one, I am reinforced in my desire to do more stewardship workdays, despite my slothful nature.

(The picture at the top is another view of the Cecropia moth that Jackie spotted while we were there.)

Original opulence via simple living

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.

Anybody who talks about natural movement needs a picture of themselves squatting on a fallen tree in the forest.
Anybody who talks about natural movement needs a picture of themselves squatting on a fallen tree in the forest.

Eating native food

This great article in Al Jazeera America hits a whole bunch of my interests: healthy eating, decolonization, sustainability, preserving culture:  Eating indigenously changes diets and lives of Native Americans. Basically, more than one group of researchers who are also Native Americans have decided to look into seeing if they could eat the way their ancestors ate.

Reinhardt, a professor in the Native American Studies program, was helping to serve up fry bread, Indian tacos and other offerings at the annual First Nations Food Taster, a fund-raising event for the Native American Student Association, when he had an epiphany: “Would my ancestors even recognize this as food?”

If you, like me, are a fan of Michael Pollan’s work, there’s a lot here to find interesting. There is considerable overlap with the “paleo” diet (although the researchers set their time threshold at 1602, rather than the dawn of agriculture) and with the locavore movement (with different locales for different Native American researchers).

The article touches on all sorts of question: Do we even know what they ate? Are the plants and animals still available? Is such a diet healthier than a modern Western diet?

Interesting as the food issues are, the issues having to do with decolonization are at least as interesting, as are the issues having to do with sustainability.

Thinking about paleo, with bonus anecdote

I have been on-and-off reading about “paleo” diet and exercise programs (also called “primal”).

I think there’s a lot to paleo, on an evolutionary basis. On the other hand, there are an awful lot of post-paleo lifestyles that have proven to be entirely successful, in the sense that generations of people have eaten all manner of particular diets and been healthy. (Native Americans ate corn, beans, and squash. Scots ate oats and kale. Lots of people ate rice and lentils.) Given that, and the fact that paleo diet programs doesn’t match well with what I like to eat, I’ve only paid a bit of attention to them. Basically, I’ve let them reinforce my preconceived notions.

I have a similarly divided appreciation of paleo exercise programs, but there I think I’ve worked out what was bugging me.

The half I agreed with is that very short bursts of very intense activity should be a key part of an exercise program. I’ve only made limited moves to incorporate this insight into my own workouts, but only because those sorts of intense bursts are hard.

I suspect it would be a really good change to compress my current 20-minute lifting workout into 10 minutes, which I could do if I really hustled between machines and counted the first set of the three leg exercises that I do as a warm-up.

To do so would require some additional mental toughness. It’s really hard to jump off the leg extension machine with your quads burning, and then jump on the leg curl machine and make your hamstrings feel the same way, and then hurry on to the leg press. Taking an extra thirty or forty seconds between machines to recover is a lot easier. (Not to mention inevitable, if you’re working out in a fitness center where you have to adjust the seat and set the weights on each machine.)

The half I disagreed with is the half that seems to dismiss endurance exercise.

Now, it may be that my reading of paleo exercise programs has simply been so cursory that I missed the paleo version of endurance exercise. But it sure seems to me like a large fraction of the paleo folks don’t merely dismiss endurance exercise, they actively disdain it.

That puzzled me, because it seems to me that the paleo human was the quintessential endurance machine.

As I say, I think I’ve come to understand the objection, which is that you can’t do high-intensity endurance exercise unless you eat loads of carbs. The paleo folks think you should do endurance exercise, as long as you keep the intensity level at a level where you can perform on a low-carb diet. Further, they seem to think that the appropriate level supports walking or hiking, but doesn’t support endurance running.

That’s crazy, although it’s understandable. The modern way of training to run is all about prompting the body to mobilize glycogen stores, by depleting those stores and then eating a high-carb diet to replenish and boost them.

That is not the only way to run. You can also engage in endurance activity powered mainly by fat stores.

Begin bonus anecdote:

When I was in high school, I decided to bicycle to Saugatuck, see a play, camp out overnight, and ride home the next day. I didn’t have a cyclometer in those days, and have always claimed that the distance was 75 miles each way. Google Maps tells me that my route (or very close to it) is 69.3 miles. Close enough.

I knew nothing about carb or fat metabolism. I made no plans to get food along the way, and in fact ate very little.

I headed out early in the morning, did just fine for a bit more than the 36 mile I was used to riding, and then bonked at about mile 40. (Bonking is what cyclists call it when you exhaust your body’s glycogen stores. It’s the same thing marathoners call “hitting the wall.”)

I was exhausted. My speed dropped from 14–17 mph down to 7–8 mph. And it stayed there.

That’s the important part of this anecdote. It stayed there. I rode another 30 miles or so that way. I rode it at less than 8 mph, but I rode it. I got up the next morning, still exhausted, got back on my bike, and rode a few miles to a breakfast spot and ate my only proper meal of the whole trip. It didn’t help much. I rode the whole way home at 7–8 mph.

End bonus anecdote.

If you haven’t trained your body to use fat stores for endurance activity, you’ll be pretty slow—as I was on my ride. And you’ll never be fast the way someone who has trained to build up glycogen stores can be. But with a modest amount of training, you can be plenty fast enough to run.

There are times when it is convenient to be able to run for an extended period. If you want to have that capability, you need to run—and not just occasional short sprints during your walks.

We don’t have much direct evidence of what paleolithic humans actually did, but I have no doubt that, in addition to walking a lot, they ran a lot. The human body is just too well adapted for long-distance running for it not to have been a key capability over an evolutionarily long period.