In Shopping for Food on March 17, 2011 at 5:48 pm

Week 30, kind of

A few months ago, after teaching a cheese class, I was approached by one of the students — it turns out she’s one of the organizers of the Bucktown Apple Pie Festival, and she wanted me to enter and write about the contest. She pressed her card into my hand and whispered conspiratorially, “Winning’s all about the crust. You’ve got to get that proportion of lard to butter just right, you know?”

“Oh, I know,” I said knowingly, even though I had no idea what I, or she, was talking about. I’d never used lard before, never even seen it; it seemed both antiquated and totally British, and I was pretty sure I’d never be able to find it for sale. Plus it’d been years since I’d bothered to make a pie crust, placing it, at some point, squarely into the too-much-trouble-to-bother-making-from-scratch category. (Other items in that category include potstickers, croissants, and tamales. [Lobster and crab, incidentally, I place in the too-much-trouble-to-eat category. The work-to-food ratio’s all wrong.])

But then I went up to Harvestime in Lincoln Square, where I like to stare curiously and fearfully at the offal in the meat department cases (cow tongues are really gigantic), and I saw it: a bunch of blocks of lard stacked on top of the stainless steel meat counter. (It was Armour Brand, which I looked up online because I was pretty sure Armour also made hot dogs and I thought making the hot-dog-and-lard connection was kind of genius, and would make a good bit of blog trivia. It turns out that Armour has a pretty fascinating and strange history that I won’t go into here. But suffice it to say that the lard I bought is connected to Chicago, the origins of labor unions, Breck girls, Dial soap, Greyhound busses, and military food poisoning.)

With the words of the apple pie contest lady whispering through my head, I bought the lard; I had to; I had to win the contest, even though I hadn’t made a pie crust since I was 16. (The Last Crust was for an apple-cranberry pie that I baked for my dad’s birthday. When I unveiled it, he wrinkled his nose — the slightly more polite adult equivalent of that finger-pointing-down-the-throat gesture — then said: “Cranberries? Nothing worse in the world than cranberries.” I took the pie to school, where the science teachers I TA’ed for fell on it like jackals. One told me, after hearing that my dad had rejected a homemade pie, “Boy, I wish you were my daughter.” I swear I’m not making this up.)

So the lard came home with me, and because as soon as I got home I lost interest in making pie and winning pie-making contests, it sat in my freezer for a couple months. But it nagged at me and fell on my foot every time I went in there searching for popsicles, so I did what I usually do when I don’t know how to make something: I scheduled a pie-making class. Nothing like the prospect of public humiliation to make you want to learn to do something really, really well.

But before I get to the lattice crust pie I made, which surrounded a bunch of apples liberally dosed in Chinese five-spice powder and merits a blog entry of its own, let’s explore lard a bit:

Made from rendered pork fat, lard fell out of favor about the same time it was decided that eggs were bad for your cholesterol, olive oil was superior to butter, and animal fats were what’s killing everyone. It’s been regarded as an unhealthy, unsexy cousin of butter, and the words “rendered pork fat” tend to be off-putting in the marketplace vernacular, so when a flaky pie crust is what’s at stake, most people reach for Crisco or other vegetable shortenings — but those shelf-stable butter substitutes are hydrogenated, meaning that they’ve got loads of trans-fats and will kill you with irony if not elevated cholesterol.

But lard’s actually not all that bad for you — inasmuch as something that derives 100 percent of its calories from fat can be “not all that bad for you.” It’s got more unsaturated fat than saturated fat, meaning it’s not as bad for your heart as you might think, and because it’s got a higher smoke point than lots of other fats, foods fried in lard actually absorb less oil.

(Understand that I’m not positing lard as a health food here. I’m just dropping science.)

With the increased interest in “real foods” — and by real,  what’s meant is minimally or unprocessed ingredients that were around long before hydrogenation, Red Dye No. 5 or high fructose corn syrup — and traditional cooking methods and recipes, lard’s actually enjoying kind of a renaissance these days. A few years ago, Britain actually experienced a lard crisis, which has to be one of the best descriptions ever for a nationwide ingredient shortage.

The British Lard Marketing Board, which warns that its website is ‘NOT suitable for weirdy vegetarians,’ is doing its best to keep lard visible. Literally. You can get t-shirts, coffee mugs (“Even Jesus Ate Lard!”), tote bags, mousepads and thong underwear from the Lardstore, their online gift shop. The BLMB website’s chockful of useful lard-centric trivia, songs, and scientific facts such as: Chips cooked in lard taste over a thousand times better than those cooked in namby-pamby oil.

Few recipes call outright for lard these days, with the notable exceptions of chocolard, which I hope to God is a joke, and lardy cake, a traditional British dessert that kind of seems like a croissant-pannettone-fruitcake mashup. It’s yeasted, studded with raisins and citrus peel, heavily spiced, and can be made in loaf form or shaped into swirls like cinnamon rolls.

Even most pie crust recipes don’t call outright for lard, which is a shame: using it in combination with, or instead of, butter in a pie crust recipe will, as my Bucktown Apple Pie contest co-conspirator said, produce an outstanding pie crust — one that’s super-flaky and crispy, and that audibly shatters when you cut into it with your fork. And making a killer pie crust’s much, much easier than I’d remembered — as in, it takes about all of five minutes. Visual, though not audible, proof to follow next week(ish).

  1. My grandmother made her pie crusts with lard and because I can’t ever get the exactness of baking down I never asked her to teach me, but I LOVE LOVE LOVE refried beans made with lard and will do anything in my power to get them when I go to Texas. I’m thrilled to know where to buy it.

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