Fat Book

An Appreciation of Fat

Fat. Butter, pork fat, beef and lamb fat. Jennifer McLagan, a Toronto-based chef and author, is taking exception to the commonly-held belief that fat is to be avoided. I had a chance to ask her some questions about the use of fat by chefs and on the Toronto scene.

Her new book, Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes by Jennifer McLagan, makes a compelling argument that fat has been at the center the human diet for all but the last 30 years of so. I agree that avoiding it mostly leads to subbing in carbs and trans fats which are far worse for your health.

Furthermore, not all fat is created equal. There is a difference in the fat that comes off grass-fed (how we used to, and should raise animals) and grain-fed animals. So instead of fearing fat you're better off spending the time and effort finding a good source of meats. I like how McLagan alludes to a healthy person needing to eat healthy animals.

Your book seems to be getting quite a bit of mainstream media attention despite the obviously taboo subject (see: cover). Besides being a great book, what do you attribute this to? Is it that other writers such as Michael Pollan have laid some groundwork for people to re-evaluate their low-fat ideals, that people are frustrated with conventional dietary wisdom not working for them personally, or are people just intrigued by your ideas because they intuitively know that fat is flavor (and want more of it!)?

I think the title gets people's attention and then they can't believe that someone would dare to sing the praises of animal fat. I'm not the first to suggest we think again about animal fat. Weston A Price Foundation (notably Mary Enig and Sally Fallon) has long supported animal fats and warned of the dangers of vegetable oils. Ms Fallon also has a very popular cookbook Nourishing Traditions. Food has become very political with writers Nina Planck and Michael Pollan challenging people's relationship to their food. Chefs and people who cook know the importance of fat to the flavour of their food. That is what primarily interests me about animal fat - its flavour.

Regarding cooking with olive oil: I've heard considerable disagreement between some who argue olive oil is unsaturated enough that it really shouldn't be heated versus advocates who say this isn't true - it's smoke point is quite high and its vitamin E content prevents oxidation. Where do you weigh in on this one?

My book deals with animal fat not olive oil. I suggest that anyone who is interested in olive oil read Mark Kurlansky's article on the subject in this November's Bon Appetit magazine.

You're a well-renowned chef that knows what it's like "on the inside" of fine cuisine, locally here in Toronto, and internationally where you have worked in London and Paris. Do you think traditional knowledge of how to use animal fats is a lost art among many top chefs, or is it an affliction mostly affecting non-professionals? For example, in the book you touch on how olive oil is great, but perhaps a bit over-relied on by some. And even with chefs featured in the media (ie. Food Network) they seem to completely stay away from animal fats in favor of olive or vegetable oils.

All good chefs know the power of butter to add and carry flavour in a dish as well as deliver great mouth feel. I am afraid in chef schools now, with the paranoia about animal fat, they are not being taught about them or how to render and use them. It is easier, quicker, and cheaper to reach for the vegetable oil or worse a hydrogenated commercial fat. People believe it the fat is liquid at room temperature it is better for you. Not true. Polyunsaturated fats are very fragile and break down quickly when exposed to light and heat.

In my book I point out there is a greater choice of olive oil than there is butter. I think this is a shame. I do not understand why so many restaurants with cuisines not even remotely near the Mediterranean serve only olive oil on the table. It's an affectation. Bring back good butter and what about some flavoured pork fat.

I've had a heck of a time finding palm oil in Toronto grocers or health food stores. Do you think palm oil and coconut oil have their place in high-heat applications or is tallow/lard just superior for almost anything you might need these for?

I do not use palm and coconut oil. I deep-fry in lard because it is the easiest for me to obtain and sometimes in beef fat when I can get it.

Do you have any hot tips on grocers, restaurants, or shops that might be flying under the radar but offer some hidden gems that fit in to some of the recipes in your book?

I think Torontonians who like to cook are well aware of where to get quality meat and ingredients. The number of good butchers has increased in recently, as has the number of smaller suppliers. The best news is the growing local market system that is putting small suppliers and the consumer together.

We recently celebrated Thanksgiving. While you say pork fat is king in terms of flavor, what bird is king? What bird did you serve this thanksgiving?

Pork is not the king in terms of flavour, pork provides many different fats which are neutral in flavour making it a very flexible and useful fat in the kitchen, that is why I call it "the king".

I was in Paris for Thanksgiving. I always go at this time just so I can avoid cooking a turkey. I didn't grow up with Thanksgiving and have never embraced it. My favourite bird to roast for special occasions is goose. Not only is it delicious and rich, it yields large amounts of great fat that you can use for cooking.

City governments, such as New York City, are introducing measures to force restaurants to list all ingredients in their menu items. Good idea? If this were applied to higher-end restaurants would diners be put off by the use of butter and/or animal fats without the re-education necessary in this regard?

Why do you want to know all the ingredients in a dish? Already in some restaurants it takes you longer to read an item on the menu than to eat it. I go out to enjoy myself and experience the chef's cooking. If I am that interested in a particular dish I can ask about it. As for the use of animal fats and butter - the informed diner would be happy to know that the chef is using them rather than some cheap vegetable oil.

Related links:
- Read additional interview questions and book review at Modern Forager.
- Jennifer's Blog
- Recent interview with salon.com.

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