Whatever Happened to Lard? Where Did It Go and Why?
by Curt Kittelson, Meat & Seafood Production Supervisor
Within our highly developed infrastructure of industrially produced foods and grocery distribution, products are always waxing and waning in popularity. Lard, or rendered pork fat, is one that has run the gamut over the years. As a cooking fat, shortening, or spread, lard competes with alternatives including butter, oils, margarine, and other cleverly marketed vegetable fats. All along, lard has maintained its integrity by being minimally processed, and in fact, it predates the Western world’s industrial food system. In other words, my grandmother Alice cooked with it, so omnivores, you should, too.
Once lard was the only fat available to fry or bake anything. On the wood-burning stove on which my grandma cooked, there was always a big can for bacon grease, which was used for frying everything. It was good. It was rendered pork fat from bacon; how could that not be good? It was prevalent at the grocery store in my younger years, too. In my first jobs, I recall building large displays of one-pound and three-pound green-and-white boxes of Armour Star Lard around the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter holidays. These days, there is no need to wait around for specific holidays because lard from local hogs is consistently available in Seward Co-op’s Meat and Seafood department!
Lard is pig fat, once heated, the solid turns to liquid. Rendered pork fat is lard. It stands out from other cooking fats because of its high smoke point, resulting in little smoke when heated. Lard has more unsaturated fat, less saturated fat and less cholesterol, pound for pound, than butter. Plus, it contains no trans fats! And everyone knows the best pie crust comes from good-quality lard.
How did lard fall out of favor?
In the early 1900s, William Proctor was a candle maker. James Gamble was a soap maker. Together, they were Proctor and Gamble, and their company used a ton of cottonseed oil for making soap and candles. Once businesses and residences across the country benefitted from a spectacular new invention, the light bulb, this candle-making company felt the effect as sales dropped dramatically. Suddenly, they needed a new use for the huge quantities of cottonseed oil upon which they were sitting.
In 1907, a German chemist walked into Proctor and Gamble holding a ball of a white, creamy substance that looked like lard. Except it was not lard. This ball was cottonseed oil and the chemist had perfected a process called hydrogenation. This is the beginning of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Proctor and Gamble, along with the German chemist, had created Crisco. Proctor and Gamble also was one of the first companies to understand the importance of branding. Crisco is a food product made in a lab, and like many other processed fats, a far cry from lard, a natural food.
With Crisco branded in a clean blue canister as a healthful, good-for-your-arteries, digestive helper, what chance did lard have? Prior to Proctor and Gamble, German chemists, and hydrogenation, lard was as common as butter. People even ate lard sandwiches, based on the whole head-to-tail mentality that everything must be used. And today, the head-to-tail notion is back in vogue — as is lard.
I am a butcher. My dad was a butcher. I come from a long line of meat eaters. But do I eat lard? Yes. Because when antibiotic- and chemical-free fat from around the kidney (leaf lard) of a pasture-raised hog is put in a pot with a little water and slowly rendered, it is a beautiful thing. The resulting fat can be used for many applications in the kitchen.
Here at Seward Co-op, the Berkshire/Duroc pork we sell is some of the best pork to be found anywhere. Pastures A Plenty farm in Kerkhoven, Minn., supplies this clean protein from what I like to call “happy pigs.” Our staff renders the kidney fat and packages leaf lard in house. We also receive back fat from the same hogs and grind it through a coarse plate. For those who wish to render their own lard at home, the back fat is available in five-pound bags for $4.99 per pound. The leaf lard sells for $5.99 per pound.
I fry my eggs in leaf lard every morning. I use the same lard to keep my wife’s grandmother’s cast-iron pans oiled. Sure, I still use olive oil, but the Seward Co-op leaf lard is my go-to fat. I support my co-op, I support the wonderful folks at Pasture’s A Plenty, and I am using a healthier, clean fat, as opposed to a genetically modified vegetable fat coming from who knows where. There is less processing and no hydrogenation, versus what’s in the green box or the blue Crisco package. Maybe Grandma Alice was onto something, or she just knew a good thing when she used it.