Almost two years ago I made some lard. It lasted pretty well (I don’t use much), but I noticed recently that it was almost gone. So I requested a couple of pounds of pork fat from the meat lab, got 2.4 lbs, rendered it yesterday, and now I have almost a quart of fresh, milky white, unbleached lard.

Sun shining through a lily flower.

I went for a long-for-me, 7.22-mile run this morning, and listened to a podcast about light therapy.

(I go back and forth on listening to podcasts during runs. When I listen I feel like I miss out on being fully embodied in my physical activity. When I don’t listen I fall behind on stuff I really want to listen to. Today I listened.)

The podcast had Paleo Magazineʼs Ashleigh Van Houten interviewing Scott Nelson, the founder of Joovv, talking about the health benefits of exposing your skin to red and near-infrared light. I’d heard about this, but had assumed it was some woo-woo new-agey thing. Turns out it’s probably not. There’s been a huge amount of research on the benefits of exposing your skin to red light in the 660-nanometer and near-infrared light in 850-nanometer range.

(There was apparently a lot of research funded by NASA back in the 1990s when they had to use lasers to get light of just the right frequency. Nowadays LEDs make it easy to get the intensity and frequency of light that you want.)

So, I’m out on my run, listening to Ashleigh and Scott talk about all the health benefits to your skin (of the red light) and to deeper connective tissues (of the near-infrared) and thinking that it all sounds really cool, but knowing that I’m probably never going to want to spend even hundreds, let alone thousands, of dollars to buy a device that will shine bright red light on my skin.

At around the mid-point, maybe 4 miles into my run, I paused for a drink of water out of the fountain in Morrissey Park, thinking it was pretty hot for just 8:40 AM . Which made me think of this giant glowing orb in the sky, which was shining down on me with pretty intense light at a wide range of frequencies, most definitely including red and near-infrared.

Turns out, sure enough—the energy in the red and near-infrared frequencies of sunlight is right in the range of therapeutic doses shown to have health benefits.

Of course, full sunlight is full of other frequencies of light, including blue (prone to mess up your circadian rhythm if you’re exposed too close to bedtime, but just what you want to get your circadian rhythm set correctly if you get your exposure in the early morning like I was doing), and ultraviolet (dangerous in excess, but the UV index was zero when I started my run at 7:40 AM and probably didn’t reach 5 before I was safely back indoors). So you need to treat sunlight with respect. But I already knew that.

I have mentioned before that I feel better when I spend a lot of time outdoors, and have speculated that sun exposure is part of the reason. (Along with time in nature, moving more, appropriate quantities of community and solitude, etc.) The information about red and near-infrared light exposure seems to lean a bit in the sunlight direction—but with the welcome news that it’s not just the vitamin D that helps make me feel better, which means maybe I can feel great without having to expose myself so much to the deadly actinic rays of the sun.

Maybe there are non-deadly actinic rays!

Eating low-carb has been a useful tactic for me—when I watch my carbs, my allergy symptoms are greatly eased—but that doesn’t change the more fundamental truth of Michael Pollan’s basic rules: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

That first rule is the most important, and would be very nearly enough all by itself, if followed strictly. Probably the way in which “low-carb” helps me as a tactic is that it eliminates whole categories of “foods” which fall short of being food, but which were in my diet for so long, and which I enjoy so much, that I’m otherwise inclined to eat them anyway.

By “food,” I’m referring to industrially produced food-like substances. And, of course, it’s not so simple as that. Twinkies and Doritos are out at the far end of the “ultra-processed” spectrum, but what about the near end? I used to eat a lot of children’s breakfast cereals—which with all the fiber removed and large amounts of sugar added are clearly ultra-processed. But what about more grown up breakfast cereals—processed, but made from whole grains, maybe with a bit of fruit or nuts added? What about granola?

Really it’s just about impossible to eat food without processing. A green salad is pretty minimally processed, but I like my lettuce picked, washed, cut or shredded into bite-sized pieces, and drizzled with a bit of olive oil and vinegar (each of those latter two somewhat processed in its own right). Maybe if you get down on the ground and chomp down on a live lettuce plant you could say you were eating unprocessed food.

I started thinking about this when I saw a pair of lists—processed foods and unprocessed foods—in “Nutrition Action,” a publication which aims to be evidence-based, but which has some striking idées fixes, particularly as relates to low-fat, as illustrated in these lists: generally unremarkable, except that they bizarrely included 2% milk as an “unprocessed” food.

Now, raw milk from a single cow is arguably unprocessed. Mix it with the milk of another hundred cows, pasteurize it, and homogenize it and I think it’s already a bit of a stretch to call it just minimally processed. But to then remove half the milk fat and call that “unprocessed” to me is a bridge too far.

With ragweed season in full swing, my allergy symptoms have clicked into high gear. I’ve belatedly gotten back on very low-carb diet and am already (after just one day) feeling much better.

This time I’m trying to keep more of an “eat food” perspective on the whole thing. I don’t want to fear fruits, just because they’ve got carbs. (I am staying away from fruit juice, at least until I’m sure I’ve got the inflammation fully back under control.) I’m being even more cautious of grains, but not hesitating to include a little rice. I haven’t eaten any lentils yet, but I won’t hesitate to include them either.

I don’t want to say it’s not the carbs, because it is. But with a very few exceptions (like honey and potatoes) it’s only with ultra processing that it becomes at all appealing to eat excess carbs. If I eat food, I’m not going to have to worry about the carbs.

Here’s a photo of Jackie minimally processing some okra for the gumbo pictured at the top of this post

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.

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.

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.)