- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 28, 2008

AN APPRECIATION OF A MISUNDERSTOOD INGREDIENT, WITH RECIPES

By Jennifer McLagan

Ten Speed Press, $32.50, 226 pages

REVIEWED BY CLAIRE HOPLEY

A book whose cover has the word “fat” printed in big black letters along with some raw lamb chops thickly banded with that very substance is clearly not a diet book. But “Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient,” is nonetheless very much about diet, and author Jennifer McLagan has strong views about it.

To put it briefly, she thinks we’re getting it all wrong. We’d be much better off putting some serious animal fat back in our meals instead of thinking that buying low-fat this and that and cooking in oil is doing us much good.

This sounds pretty radical. In fact, Ms. McLagan is a traditionalist. She happily recalls her 1960s childhood in Australia, when her family used lard and meat dripping for cooking, and butter for toast and baking. Now a trained chef and food stylist living in Canada, she still uses the fats she grew up with, plus also rendered fat from chicken, duck and goose. And no, she is not fat. She’s a proponent of smaller portions and more activity as the road to weight loss for those who need it. She’s also very definitely a proponent of eating more animal fats. As she notes:

“Today, most people live more sedentary lives, driving instead of walking, and eating processed or take out food more often than freshly cooked. As our lifestyles changed, we gained weight and it was easy to blame fat. Fat, we reasoned, was why we packed on the pounds and got ill, so we banned animal fat from our lives. Butter and lard disappeared from our kitchens, and we cut the fat off our meat. We’ve replaced traditional animal fats with vegetable oils, and we gobble up everything with a low-fat label. We’ve sacrificed all that taste and pleasure, yet we haven’t lost weight or improved our health.”

This, of course, is a generalization. Some individuals could well have lost weight by cutting down on fat. Nonetheless, it is undoubtedly true that North Americans, for all their devotion to low-fat diets, are more obese than say, the French, who happily eat butter and treat goose and duck fat as culinary treasures. Likewise, the slender Chinese are devoted to pork and its fats. So have Americans got it wrong?

Ms. McLagan thinks so. She notes that carbohydrate foods have been recognized as weight producers for centuries, and still today, animals are fed a grain diet before slaughter to make them heavier. Fat is not only not necessarily the problem for the overweight, it is essential for us all. Every cell in the body needs fat; it supports the immune system, protects the liver, and promotes beautiful skin and hair. Without it we feel tired or depressed, and it’s easy to turn to a carbohydrate pick-me-up for consolation - though the short-term mood modification means long-term weight gain.

Until recently the benefits of fat were well appreciated. Indeed, the 19th-century French gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, noted that “Every thin woman wants to grow plump.” Things changed in the 1950s when scientists made the connection between coronary heart disease and high levels of cholesterol in the blood. Since cholesterol comes only from animals, the link to animal fat was also made, and thus began the conversion to vegetable oils in many kitchens, and the switch to margarine. We now know that butter is more healthful than margarine, and to some extent Jennifer McLagan believes that animal fats have better lipid profiles than vegetable fats, providing the various fatty acids needed by the body in proper proportions.

As she notes, “The relationship between what we eat and how our bodies react to it is very complex.” She provides a lot of information about nutritional profile and the balance of saturated and unsaturated fats in the animal fats she describes, but her book is not a science textbook. Perhaps her most compelling argument in favor of fat is historical: Humans have been eating animal fat throughout their history and people in many other countries consume it without the health consequences ascribed to it in America. Her points are well worth considering.

So are her discussions of food. “Fat makes everything taste better, and eating fat is satisfying so we eat less and out desire to snack is reduced,” she writes. She provides lengthy chapters on four types of animal fat: Butter, lard, poultry fats, and beef and lamb fats. She describes the nutritional and culinary characteristics of each fat, and then gives a series of recipes using it.

Mouth-watering is the only way to describe the recipes. Many of them are for traditional fare such as butter-rich shortbread from Scotland, roast beef with all the trimmings from England, chicken Kiev, Indian butter chicken, french fries made in lard, roast goose and so forth. Other recipes introduce little-known dishes. There’s an unusual Austrian Kugelhopf made with bacon bits instead of the typical dried fruits, for example. Braised pork belly from Malaysian chef Cheong Liew is a hot and sweet and gingery - and it’s cooked in lard, but not a lot of it. Marmalade pudding is made with suet - and it’s a treat for marmalade lovers. Butter-poached scallops are easy and so delicious. Spicy buttered popcorn is a chipotle-infused variation on a same-old treat. Ms. McLagan admits the only way she can enjoy rutabagas - a favorite of her husband’s - is by mashing them with parsnips, orange juice and butter.

These and the many other dishes explored in the book make it a delight for cooks. The pictures entice too. The combination of traditional dishes from many countries with new creations - brown butter ice cream is just one - is likely to get anyone scurrying into the kitchen. Ms. McLagan’s advocacy of animal fat as a vital ingredient that should not be a bogeyman has considerable merit. Certainly, the surge in obesity during the very years that food conglomerates have been devising low-fat foods should give us pause. Anyone interested in nutrition or concerned about their weight or wondering whether all those lusciously tasty fats should really be off-limits will be fascinated with this book and its many insights.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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