Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Book Review: Fat

The flap reads: "For all of history, minus the last thirty years, fat has been at the center of human diets and cultures. When scientists theorized a link between saturated fat and heart disease, industry, media, and government joined forces to label fat a greasy killer, best avoided. But according to Jennifer McLagan, not only is our fat phobia overwrought, it also hasn't benefited us in any way. Instead, it has driven us into the arms of trans fats and refined carbohydrates, and fostered punitive, dreary attitudes toward food - that wellspring of life and pleasure."

This book intrigued me when I first heard about it. A product of the low-fat diet craze and a culture that reveres skinniness, I wondered what kind of alternative information Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes might contain. As it turns out, quite a bit, but as I read through the introduction, I realized that the information wasn't new to me. Having read Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions, which blew my mind with its very alternative information, the idea that animal fat in all its forms, and even offal for that matter, is actually healthy was something already on my radar. However, after reading Nourishing Traditions, I wasn't quite convinced that I should start indulging in lard and suet and tallow. But McLagan's Fat, in addition to containing a lot of very useful scientific information about the different types of fatty acids and their breakdowns - all in layman's terms - has convinced me that there is value in something I usually throw out: the drippings from my roast chickens and the fat left in the pan after I fry up some bacon.

McLagan spends a lot of time explaining how and why fat has been maligned in the past few decades, and also goes into detail about how fat works in baking, cooking, and on our tongues. Fat is flavour, and as animal fats have disappeared from our diets, so has a significant amount of flavour. This book is also full of recipes using the star ingredients of her four chapters, butter, lard, poultry fat, and beef and lamb fats. Every page has some tidbit of fatty information, either a quote or some trivia or a historical anecdote.

As for the recipes...I'm going to have a hard time finding a family meal in here that my dad will touch with a ten foot pole, though he will be thrilled to hear there is a steak and kidney pie recipe. I was happy to see a recipe for Cornish Pasties, something I love and have always wanted to make. Now I have some motivation. The recipes run the gamut from desserts to salad dressings, soups and fancy stuff like fois gras (something, though the author endorses, I still do not). There is even a popcorn recipe with a sweet and salty butter coating in the butter chapter that appeals to me, and who doesn't love shortbread?

In this day and age, where everyone strives for sustainability our food systems, it makes perfect sense to me to do as our ancestors did and use all parts of the animal - fats in particular. When you think about it, how processed are the vegetable oils (other than olive) we use daily? Pretty processed. As Fallon's book points out, McLagan makes the case in Fat that our current obesity epidemic is actually caused by these very refined vegetable oils and our overly refined carbohydrates - not natural animal fats, which had been used for thousands of years by the people who came before us.

That's two books with the same message. Perhaps it's time for me to listen.

McLagan also has a book called Bones, which I'll now be on the lookout for.


Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

An interesting book and conclusion!



Meg said...

Lots of interesting info. I agree about the fat our ancestors consumed and the processed fats of today!

Captain Karen said...

How interesting. It's true though, isn't it? We've omitted all this supposed bad animal fats from our diets and replaced with something equally bad (or worse) that's not natural. hmmm, something to be said for bacon and it's delicious drippings... Nice review! I'm intrigued and will have to check it out.


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