Deep Fat

In the 1973 Woody Allen comedy Sleeper two characters from the future are discussing the dietary habits of the past:
Dr. Melik: “You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?”
Dr. Aragon: “Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.”
I thought of this because the other night I did something I haven’t done in a while: I fried chicken in bacon fat. It was delectable.
Lard has been rehabilitated. Mind, it isn’t health food. It’s still pure fat and loaded with calories and unwholesome when consumed in mass quantities. It’s just that it isn’t the pure poison that it was formerly thought to be. That position, at least in lipid terms, now belongs to trans fats such as we find in hydrogenated vegetable oils. I find it poignantly ironic that my grandmother, who died of heart disease at the age of 77, gave up lard years and years ago to instead fry everything in Crisco, thinking this to be the healthier alternative. Precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
My grandmother had a lot of bacon fat in the kitchen. My grandfather had bacon for breakfast just about every morning, except for a few years after his first, mild heart-attack when he consumed egg substitutes (there’s another bad food recently returned good) and those gawdawful engineered ‘breakfast strip’ products that tasted of salt, soy, and nitrate. A little of the bacon fat my grandmother collected went to season the green beans and black-eyed peas. But mostly it went into gravy for the cats.
Every morning my grandmother made a large skillet of what she called ‘cat gravy.’ There were a large number of feral cats on the farm–and a few tame ones. We grandchildren were responsible for the latter; when my grandfather reported the location of a new litter of kittens, we would find and handle them. One time when I was a teenager I encountered a grizzled old gray tom who instead of running, looked up at me and said ‘Mew!’ in a sweet little tenor voice. Turned out I had tamed, and forgotten, him years before. When I saw him, he was coming up to have breakfast at the gravy trough, but he stopped to beg me, as an old friend, to scratch him behind his battle-scared ears.
The cats knew there was bacon-fat gravy to be had every morning at about nine o’clock. They would start coming up from the barn about that time, gathering on the old cistern on which rested the small, shallow, cast-iron receptacle into which my grandmother poured the gravy once it had cooled. She said it kept them going when mice and rats were scarce. I think she did it because she just couldn’t bear to throw the rich, golden renderings of bacon away.
I did it myself for years: threw the bacon fat away. That’s after my first cholesterol reading came back in my late 30s and showed that my bloodstream had so much lipid in it that you could, in one colleague’s memorable phrase, ‘churn butter out of it.’ I’ve learned since that diet is only a small factor in this number, and that a congenitally overactive liver is much more to blame. Generic Zocor does an admirable job of keeping it in check, and gives me hope as I pass 50 that I won’t be repeating my grandfather’s coronary experience in five year’s time. Statins, and the recently lifting of the taboo against the fat of the pig, have brought my bacon fat jar back.
Julia Child said on more than one occasion (she wrote it in her magnum opus The Way to Cook, for instance) that we should not be afraid of our food. The key, children, is moderation. Moderation in all things, including in temperance. We don’t need to shun the things we love, we simply must avoid indulging in them to excess. So I looked out a smaller chicken when I planned this fried-chicken dinner, and I cut the split breast portions into two, for a total of four. As I bit into my steaming hot piece, moist and tender and every-so-slightly smokey in a way that set off the sharpness of the black pepper and the perfume of the sage, I could not have been happier. I’ll have to remember that.


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