Episode 335: Who Killed Lard? : Planet Money You rarely see lard on menus. There aren't shelves and shelves of it in every supermarket. In this country, we've sort of lost touch with the once beloved pig fat. On today's podcast, we ask — who killed lard?
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Episode 335: Who Killed Lard?

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Episode 335: Who Killed Lard?

Episode 335: Who Killed Lard?

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WIL WHEATON: (As Gordie Lachance) Well, all the kids - instead of calling him Davie, they call him Lard-Ass. Even his little brother and sister call him Lard-Ass. At school, they put this sticker on his back that says wide load. And they rank him out and beat him up whenever they get a chance.


JOHN LENNON: (Singing) When the night has come and the land is dark...


Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith.


And I'm Zoe Chace. It's Friday, January 6. And that was a scene from the movie "Stand By Me" at the top of the show.

SMITH: I know. It's a little weird. But there's a reason we're playing this cut. Because today we are going to talk about lard, the processed fat from a pig in a can. Everyone in America used to bake and fry things in lard. Now, of course, most people use butter or olive oil or vegetable shortening.

CHACE: Tastes change. People don't want thick, white, pig fat in a can to make their pie crust. But it turns out that lard didn't just fall out of favor on its own.

SMITH: Oh, no. There was a concerted effort by certain individuals and companies to make sure that lard seemed gross. In fact, they had to invent a whole new method of marketing and advertising to do this. So today, a mystery story - who killed lard?

CHACE: First, the PLANET MONEY Indicator from the well-beloved Caitlin Kenney.

Hey, Caitlin.

CAITLIN KENNEY, BYLINE: Hey. Today's PLANET MONEY Indicator is 200,000. There were 200,000 more jobs this month than there were last month. Where did the jobs come from? Well, retail, manufacturing, health care, food services and drinking places, otherwise known as bars.

CHACE: You're welcome.

KENNEY: The biggest increase, though, came in couriers and messengers. That's people who deliver stuff. I have to admit these jobs, though, are sort of a good/bad thing because they typically disappear in January. All those extra people that FedEx and UPS hires to deliver all the holiday gifts - by January, they just don't need as many employees.

CHACE: So this is actually very sad and also kind of annoying to me because when I saw the 200,000 number, I was like 200,000; that is big. It's a nice, round number. Can't this just be good?

KENNEY: No, no, no.

CHACE: You're saying it's bad?

KENNEY: No, I'm not. I'm not. Listen, it is a good number. This is a good report. Unemployment was at 8.5 percent in December. That's the lowest it's been since February 2009. And the other jobs that were added in health care and manufacturing, they're going to stick around. But the bottom line is if you take out those courier and messenger jobs, the economy still added way more jobs this month than it did last month. So this is good news. We are moving in the right direction.

CHACE: OK. Things are improving slowly.

KENNEY: Yes, exactly.

CHACE: All right. Thanks, Caitlin.

KENNEY: Thank you.

SMITH: Now bring on the lard.

So Zoe, I was invited a couple of months ago to something called a lard dinner. And a lard dinner was this whole multicourse event that was happening at this restaurant in Brooklyn called Bubby's. Ron Silver's the owner, and here's what was on the menu that night.

RON SILVER: Fried chicken in lard, we got baked beans with fatback, lard-fried potatoes and root vegetables that are baked in the oven in lard. We have roasted fennel that's been glazed with lard and sugar and sea salt, biscuits and fried pies.

CHACE: Fried pies. And the pie crusts are made with lard?

SMITH: And fried in lard, yeah.

CHACE: OK. So that, to me, sounds delicious. But I know some people feel kind of ill just hearing that menu.

SMITH: Yeah. You know, we've sort of lost touch with lard in this country. You rarely see it on menus anymore. There aren't shelves of it in every supermarket. And even Silver, at Bubby's, was reticent at first to start using it in his kitchen.

SILVER: Because I buy three or six whole hogs every week and I was throwing this beautiful leaf lard in the garbage.

SMITH: What's leaf lard?

SILVER: Leaf lard is - it's the best fat on a pig. And it's a long tube of fat that is between the loin and the kidney in a hog.

SMITH: Yeah, I can't imagine throwing that away (laughter).

SILVER: Well, it seems funny. But for thousands of years, this was the thing that people cooked with.

SMITH: And for Silver, this wasn't necessarily an ethical decision or anything. It was a business decision. He sells a lot of pies. And there is no way around it. He says it - and I got to agree - pie crusts taste better when they're made with lard. But putting lard into a pie crust is one thing. This meal really pushed the limits of lard tolerance for me because they passed around these appetizers, lard spread onto bread.

CHACE: Like a lard tapenade, if you will?

SMITH: Yeah, exactly. And so I was sitting beside a friend of mine. His name is Dan Pashman. And he's the host of this great podcast called The Sporkful that's all about food. And he could not get enough of these lard spreads.

DAN PASHMAN: The buttery start and then the crispy, salty finish is just a really - a delightful experience.

SMITH: I feel wrong. Like, I feel weird about this.

PASHMAN: You'd spread butter on bread, right?

SMITH: I would absolutely do that, yeah.

PASHMAN: So why is spreading lard any crazier than that? Butter is essentially fat.

SMITH: The longer we sat at this dinner and the more lard we ate, Dan and I started to rethink what lard was all about. I mean, it's not just that lard fell out of favor in America. Oh, people rarely use lard. No, no, lard is loathed. Lard is vilified.

PASHMAN: I think it's interesting that the word lard has become this sort of generally derogatory term associated with fat and disgustingness. If we think about Lard-Ass, the character from the movie "Stand By Me," I mean, you know, he didn't want to be called Lard-Ass.

SMITH: You know, it's funny because if you had called him Flaky-Pie-Crust, that's awesome.

PASHMAN: Yeah. I mean, who's going to argue with that? If you had called him Delicious-Morsel-Of-Bacon-Ass, you know, that would've been lukewarm, you know? But I mean, Lard-Ass is something nobody wants to be called.

CHACE: OK. Robert, let's deal with this like a mystery story. So we have this once-beloved food product, lard, tragically not with us anymore. Lard is dead. So who killed it?

SMITH: All right. First, we should know something about the victim, about lard itself. It's white. It's creamy. It's made from pig fat. And people have been using some form of pig fat as long as there have been pigs.

CHACE: OK. So I'm picturing a colonial woman in her apron, and she's roasting her pig on a spit and just capturing the fat in a little tin cup for her cooking, right?

SMITH: Yeah. I mean, that probably happened hundreds and hundreds of years ago. But let's look back a hundred years ago, a simple century ago. Now, at that point, lard wasn't this homemade product, you know, you made by roasting a pig. I mean, this was a big business. Lard at the turn of the last century was packaged and sold by slaughterhouses.

WILLIAM SHURTLEFF: These people, when they, you know, packed their pork, had a lot of lard leftover.

SMITH: That's William Shurtleff from the SoyInfo Center. He's an expert on the history of oils and fats. Take my word for it. And he says commercial lard was essentially repackaging the stuff that would've gone into the trash bin. So it was a brilliant business. And this was not your friendly neighborhood butcher doing this. The meatpacking industry was huge at the turn of the century. Think Chicago. Think slaughterhouses. And they marketed the hell out of lard. It was in every household, and there really wasn't an alternative. Like, nobody questioned using lard - until a certain book came out, "The Jungle." Our first suspect in the killing of lard is author Upton Sinclair.

CHACE: So "The Jungle" - it's a novel about the meatpacking industry that came out a hundred years ago. And although it was fiction, Sinclair famously did all this research into all the gross, weird stuff that happens in the meat industry.

SMITH: It is a horrifying book if you read it. And the section on lard was so memorable. All right, give it to us, Zoe.

CHACE: OK. This is about the cooking men who cook the lard.

(Reading) They worked in tank rooms full of steam and in some of which there were open vats near the level of the floor. Their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats. And when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting. Sometimes, they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out into the world as Durham's Pure Leaf Lard.


SMITH: So terrible.

CHACE: That is so good.

SMITH: Now, it is not clear how much of this actually happened. I mean, "The Jungle" was officially a novel. But it was this hugely popular book. And once you read that description, you can't unread it in your mind. People just freaked out.

SHURTLEFF: Well, that's exactly the type of thing that Upton Sinclair wanted to get across to people, you know?

SMITH: Really? He wanted us to be grossed out by lard?

SHURTLEFF: He definitely wanted to be grossed out by the entire meatpacking industry. You know, this was his agenda.

CHACE: All right, Upton Sinclair - he had the motive and the opportunity to kill lard. He certainly had the audience. This was a huge book. And actually, it prompted all sorts of food safety and labeling laws at the time. But if you think about it, there wasn't an alternative to lard yet. Right? I mean, that's what we talked about. So Sinclair - he couldn't have killed off lard if he tried, really.

SMITH: You couldn't have baked a lot of what you baked at the turn of the century without lard. There wasn't a replacement.

CHACE: Right.

SMITH: So the mystery goes deeper. Our second and third suspects are a candle-maker and a soap-maker, William Proctor and James Gamble.

CHACE: Ah, Procter & Gamble. Nice.

SMITH: Now, by the end of the 19th century, William and James had already passed away. But their company, Procter & Gamble, was going strong. In fact, it was really big. But it didn't make any food products. It made the same stuff that William and James used to make, candles and soap. Now, in order to make candles and soap, Procter & Gamble used cottonseed oil - cottenseed oil, you get from squeezing the little seeds that you pick out of the cotton before it becomes your clothing. But there was this problem.


SMITH: Turn of the century...

CHACE: The light bulb.

SMITH: ...The light bulb.

CHACE: (Laughter).

SMITH: The candle business was not looking like a good investment in the 20th century. And that left Procter & Gamble with a whole lot of cottonseed oil.

CHACE: OK. So we're in the same situation that the meatpacking industry was in...

SMITH: Yeah.

CHACE: ...Just a little - you know, a few decades earlier. They had to get rid of its pork fat. And Procter & Gamble had to unload cottonseed oil. Right?

SMITH: And they had a lot of it. And this was a problem. The answer, though, came from an unlikely visitor to Procter & Gamble headquarters in 1907. It was this German chemist named E. C. Kayser. And he shows up in Cincinnati. He goes to Procter & Gamble headquarters. He meets with the officials, and he holds out his hand. And in it is a solid white ball about the size of a tennis ball. I mean, it actually looks like lard. But it is not lard. And he says, this - this right here - this is cottonseed oil.

CHACE: Talk about a eureka moment, right? So he had turned a liquid oil into a solid.

SMITH: This was the answer. The cottonseed stuff was white like lard. It cooked like lard. But there was no pig involved. It was all vegetable. Now the process that Kayser helped perfect was something called hydrogenation, as in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.

SHURTLEFF: You can draw a clear line between the invention of hydrogenation and Crisco.

SMITH: We'll get to that brand name in a moment. But first, they had to perfect this product because it was apparently so hard you could hammer tacks with it. So this book describes how Procter & Gamble had this secret facility they built outside of Cincinnati. And it had frosted windows, and nobody knew what was going on inside. And they started experimenting with this hydrogenation process. And two years later, by 1909, they had a product. And they had a name for this new solid vegetable oil fat in a can, Krispo.

CHACE: I don't think that's right, Robert.

SMITH: No, no, no. That was actually the first name, Krispo. But it turns out that someone else had it. There was some sort of copyright thing. Anyway, they came up with a better name, Cryst - which, if you look at the way it's written, looks a little bit too much like Christ, so the story goes. So they combined their two failed names into Crisco. Lard, for the first time, had a real competitor.

CHACE: This isn't yet, though, some kind of evil conspiracy to kill lard. What this is is economics. Right? It's a very popular product. Somebody else makes a competitor. People change over because they like it more, it's better or whatever.

SMITH: It wasn't quite that easy because, when you think about it, Crisco had to change everything people thought about fat. Crisco was made in a lab. And - you know, that sounds normal now. But back then, we did not eat things made in labs. We only ate things that our grandparents ate. So a hundred years ago, Crisco seemed weird, and lard was the natural, normal product you would use. So in order to get people to try Crisco, Proctor & Gamble had to really change people's heads. And luckily, people were still thinking about Upton Sinclair's book - and the people who fell in the lard.

So this was their moment. And they milked the negative associations of lard for all it was worth. Here, I'm going to show you some quotes from a cookbook that Crisco put out.

CHACE: All right. "The shortening used in all baked foods, therefore, should be just as pure and wholesome as if you were eating butter on bread." OK.

SMITH: See how they did that? Pure and wholesome. When you read this thing, they use the words pure and wholesome over and over and over again. It's digestible. It's clean. Here's another quote. "The stomach welcomes Crisco and carries forward its digestion with ease."

CHACE: (Laughter).

SMITH: So you see, Procter & Gamble was ingenious. And they did another great thing. They sent out samples of Crisco to domestic science experts and hospitals. And then they later advertised the fact that hospitals and schools use Crisco. And now I'm quoting again from the cookbook, "where purity and digestibility are of vital importance."

CHACE: Well, it sounds like a didactic cookbook. But it also just sounds like a basic advertising campaign. Right?

SMITH: Well, yeah, because that's the way advertising is done now. But at the time, all this stuff was pretty new. I mean, they revolutionized a field that we now call branding. As good as their products may be, they were fantastic at selling them - at marketing, advertising and branding. In fact, Procter & Gamble was an early adopter of radio advertising, and they pushed the hell out of Crisco.


SANDY BECKER: This is Sandy Becker saying keep cooking with Crisco.


BECKER: It's all vegetable.


BECKER: It's digestible.


SMITH: And then they did the same thing on TV. Lard did not stand a chance. Now, Shurtleff, our food guide, says that lard didn't die overnight. People didn't flock away from it. But there was a slow poisoning of public opinion.

SHURTLEFF: By relentless advertising, you gradually change the culture.

SMITH: And I should make this clear. There are still plenty of places in the world and plenty of cultures that still use lard. I mean, if you have a delicious tamale here in New York City, the odds are it is so good - they won't tell you this - but it is so good because of whipped lard. But here in the United States, mostly the vegetable products, the vegetable oils, the vegetable fats won. Lard became an insult.

CHACE: Lard lived by the marketing and died by the marketing.

SMITH: Elementary, Zoe Chace, elementary.

CHACE: (Laughter) But Robert, the thing is - is this really so bad? I mean, you know, that's the business. And lard actually isn't really good for you. It's filled with saturated fat. So - so what?

SMITH: Yeah, that's exactly what my wife said when I told her I was going to a lard dinner.


SMITH: But, you know, as the story turns out in the end - I think everyone knows this - the pure and unadulterated Crisco didn't turn out to be so good for you either. That whole partial hydrogenation thing the German guy came up with created trans fats which, it turns out, clogs your arteries. And Crisco ended up having to go back to the lab and take those trans fats out.

CHACE: So how did you feel after the lard dinner? Was it delicious?

SMITH: You know, I felt fine. But as pro-lard - as maybe you can tell - I am, I did not eat large portions. I was still a little bit afraid. I mean, this is the marketing effect on me. And, you know, I was sitting next to a guy, Samuel Cohen (ph), who is a doctor. OK, he's not really a doctor, but he's almost a doctor.

SAMUEL COHEN: As a second-year medical student, my almost-to-be-official opinion about lard is that lard is no worse for you than any other kind of animal fat. It's similar to butter, similar to bacon. But in general, it's really everything in moderation. As long as you're not eating tubs of lard all the time, it's not really any worse for you than anything else.

SMITH: And I should say that he does add that olive oil is way better for you. You should eat a balanced diet - blah, blah, blah. He's going to be a great doctor.

But I got to tell you, lard is having a comeback. I'm starting to see lard - you know, lard-fried potatoes - on very fancy menus around New York. I don't know if it's gotten across the country. I don't know if it's going to get to where they're healthy in Los Angeles. But this, I feel, is the beginning of a new story of lard. It's become kind of a little bit of a gourmet item.

CHACE: Bring it.


LENNON: (Singing) And darling, darling, stand by me...

CHACE: As always, send us your thoughts, your impressions, your recipes. Send us an email at planetmoney@npr.org. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter. I'm Zoe Chace.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith. Thanks for listening.

LENNON: (Singing) ...Stand by me. If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall and the mountain should crumble to the sea, I won't cry. I won't cry...

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