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Food culture is always changing. Certain ingredients become fashionable then disappear. But no rise and fall is quite as dramatic as the story of lard, the processed fat from a pig. A century ago, lard was in every American pantry and fryer. Now, it's rare to see it, even mentioned on a menu.
Robert Smith from NPR's Planet Money team brings us the story of a hundred-year-old food mystery: Who killed lard?
ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Let's begin with a description of the victim: white, creamy, made from pig fat. And here's what you can do with lard.
RON SILVER: Lard fried potatoes and root vegetables that are baked in the oven in lard. Fried chicken in lard. We have roasted fennel that's been glazed with lard and sugar and sea salt. Biscuits and fried pies.
SMITH: Ron Silver is the owner and chef at Bubby's Restaurant in Brooklyn. And on one night, recently, he changed his menu to reflect the bounty that is lard. He called it the Lard Exoneration Dinner.
SILVER: It seems funny, but for thousands of years, this was the thing that people cooked with.
SMITH: Now people mostly use olive oil or butter, vegetable shortening. Sure, you can still find tamales and pastries made with lard, but that's rarely bragged about. Lard didn't just fall out of favor. Lard was pushed. It was vilified.
At the dinner, I sat next to Dan Pashman who hosts a food podcast called "The Sporkful."
DAN PASHMAN: The word lard has become this sort of generally derogatory term associated with fat and disgustingness. If you think about, Lardass - the character from the movie "Stand By Me," I mean, he didn't want to be called Lardass.
SMITH: So how can something once beloved become an insult? For the answer, we have to go back a hundred years. Lard wasn't some boutique homemade ingredient back then. It was big business. The lard industrial complex was based out of slaughterhouses in Chicago.
WILLIAM SHURTLEFF: These people, when they packed their pork, had a lot of lard left over.
SMITH: That's William Shurtleff from the Soyinfo Center. He is an expert on the history of oils and fats. He says nobody thought twice about buying lard until a certain book came out, "The Jungle." Our first suspect in the killing of lard is author Upton Sinclair.
"The Jungle" was technically fiction, but it's hard to forget the section on lard. Sinclair talked about how workers would fall into the boiling vat and no one would notice for days until they found the bones. Readers freaked out.
SHURTLEFF: Well, that's exactly the type of thing that Upton Sinclair wanted to get across to people.
SMITH: Really, he wanted us to be grossed out by lard?
SHURTLEFF: He definitely wanted to be grossed out by the entire meat-packing industry.
SMITH: Oh, but Upton Sinclair alone didn't kill off lard by himself, because there really wasn't an alternative for frying and baking. For that, we have to turn to two other suspects: A candlemaker and a soapmaker, William Procter and James Gamble.
A hundred years ago, the company they founded had a little problem. The Procter & Gamble Corporation owned a bunch of cottonseed oil factories, oil that they used to make soap and candles. But with the invention of the light bulb, the candle business wasn't looking so hot. So what to do with all the extra oil?
In 1907, a German chemist, E.C. Kayser, showed up at Procter and Gamble headquarters and he had an answer. He showed them a marvelous invention. It was a ball of fat. It looked like lard, it cooked like lard, but no pig was involved. It was hydrogenated cottonseed oil.
SHURTLEFF: You can draw a clear line between the invention of hydrogenation and Crisco.
SMITH: Crisco - vegetable shortening, designed in a lab for one purpose: to replace lard. Now, remember, people were already queasy after Upton Sinclair's novel. Procter and Gamble exploited that with an ad campaign that touted how pure and how wholesome Crisco was. They wrapped it in white. They claimed the stomach welcomes Crisco. Procter and Gamble perfected the modern art of branding with Crisco.
(SOUNDBITE OF A CRISCO AD)
(SOUNDBITE OF FANFARE)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's all vegetable.
(SOUNDBITE OF FANFARE)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's digestible.
(SOUNDBITE OF FANFARE)
SMITH: Well, poor lard didn't stand a chance. By the 1950s, even scientists were piling on, saying that saturated fats cause heart disease. Lard was already fully disgraced when new research started to emerge in the last 20 years, that partially hydrogenated vegetable oil contain trans fats that clog arteries. So much for all those Crisco health claims a hundred years ago.
Which brings us back to that Lard Exoneration Dinner. Ron Silver at Bubby's says it is intimidating to fight back against 100 years of negative press. But some chefs, like him, are trying to get it back on the menu.
SILVER: I'm proud of it. And so I'm waving my lard flag.
SMITH: Just try the pie crusts, he says, then decide.
Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.
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