The Mighty Return of Lard

Few things in life are as satisfying as a transformative and implausible reversal of history that carries with it stern justice for wrongdoing and sweet victory for the side of truth and human well-being. When it happens, the period in which the wrong persisted without correction fades into memory as a mere parenthesis in the forward trajectory of time — and this is true whether the period of error lasted a year or 10 or a hundred.

A beautiful case in point: the re-emergence of lard. It has happened with astonishing speed. Maclean’s ran a piece praising its use in the flakiest of pie crusts. Mother Nature Network has declared that it is no longer a four-letter word. National Public Radio ran a segment rehabilitating the food and pointing out that 100 years ago, lard was “a casualty of a battle between giant business and corporate interests.”

Finally, Gourmet Live, the cooking site with the highest traffic on the Web, announced:

“Not only does lard produce superior pie crusts, crispier fried chicken and crunchier cookies than vegetable shortenings like Crisco, which was introduced by Procter & Gamble in 1911, but its fat is mostly monounsaturated, like olive oil’s. Sourced properly (ideally, from a farmers’ market) or made from scratch, lard is the ultimate natural food.”

All of this in the last 30 days! This is indeed sweet victory, and it is a belated rebuke to that sanctimonious, socialist vegetarian Upton Sinclair, who in 1906 wrote The Jungle, a book that claimed that meatpacking workers sometimes fell into vats of boiling lard and only parts of the bodies were ever fished out.

Gross out! That book was said to have dealt a real blow to lard, at least according to NPR, though I also wonder if war rationing had something to do with the loss of favor for lard. In any case, in 1907, Procter & Gamble was awash in cottonseed oil for candles that was unmarketable due to the spread of the light bulb, so it came up with a new idea: a ball of fat called shortening.

The lard business was largely dead by World War II. I ran across a Milwaukee Journal editorial from February 1940 that expressed some sympathy for pig farmers and the lost market for their fat product, but it essentially told them to give it up, that lard was a lost cause and they needed to find some other use for their pig fat.

Some lost cause! More and more stores are carrying lard and displaying it proudly. To be sure, this might not be true in self-proclaimed “natural food” stores — which, as Marge Simpson says, “have a philosophy.” I asked for lard at my local philosophy-based grocery, and the guy looked at me with barely concealed disgust and said, “You are kidding, right?”

Hey, it’s their loss.

For my part, I never bought the whole anti-lard campaign. It is obviously better for pie crusts, but that’s just the start of it. It is better for biscuits, and even better when lard biscuits are themselves fried in lard. It is better for fried chicken. Better for pancakes. Better for cakes and muffins. And bread. And fried potatoes. Once you have a tub of the stuff around the house, you will be amazed how many wonderful things it can do. And as every lard-experienced cook will tell you, things come out less greasy than they otherwise would with corn oil or shortening.

It’s especially satisfying to see an emerging consensus that the rap against lard and fats in general is completely changing. I highly recommend a documentary called Fat Head that you can watch on Hulu. It is produced by Tom Naughton. Among many amazing points he makes, he documents a catastrophic turn in American diets that took place as late as the late 1970s.

It seems that Sen. George McGovern’s Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs held hearings on “diet and killer diseases,” out of which emerged Soviet-like Dietary Guidelines for Americans. We were told to eat less fat, that eggs were killing us, that meat was death, that we needed to live on grains and corn and so on.

These days, I’m not sure that anyone would pay much attention to such nonsense, but back then, it was a huge deal. School lunches all changed. The grocery stores shifted what they carried in response to a changed market driven by a gullible population. I vaguely recall this whole period, when burgers were mixed with soybean, corn was turned to sugar and we were all encourage to chow down on a steady stream of carbs while avoiding any food that once walked on legs.

If you think about it, it’s a bad sign for any government to back this or that form of diet. Talk about an intrusion into personal liberty. What we eat for dinner ought to be off-limits to the state, just as a matter of principle, in any free society. But in those days — kind of like these days — nothing was off-limits. So bad science and fanatical vegetarian ideology ended up getting control of the levers of power. It goes without saying that lard was deader than ever.

Ah, but sweet justice comes around! The beautiful thing about the market economy is that it is responsive to changing public tastes. A fat that was killed off 100 years ago can suddenly come back. There are producers ready to supply the market at a profit. The capacity of history to bend to the will of the consuming public is one of the many features of the market economy that government cannot replicate.

After all, take a look around at the silly things that government starting doing 100 years ago that it is still doing today: the post office, compulsory public school, the central bank, the income tax. We are stuck with all of this nonsense. Would that a change in public taste would cause these institutions to be replaced with institutions that extend from market choice. But no such luck: All this is forced on us at the point of a gun, which makes opting out rather difficult.

Change is a beautiful thing when its driving force is human choice. Our tastes change, and history changes with them. That’s the way it should be, but it can be this way only in a world of freedom, private property, trade and entrepreneurship. In short, we need global capitalism all over the world so that human choice permits mistakes to be corrected. In this world, the results are often delightful improbable: We are choosing lard again.

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