Of the long and ever-growing list of foods, food ingredients, and food additives you never thought would return to the marketplace or earn a second look from consumers—think: diet soft drinks sweetened with saccharine and unpasteurized dairy products—one item in particular seemed like the least likely candidate for reputation rehabilitation: lard.
Lard, the rendered pork fat that was once a staple in millions of U.S. kitchens and pantries, is one of those rare comestibles whose mere mention is enough to trigger scrunched-up noses, sour expressions, and mock gag reflexes. That’s largely because, after years of reading about the danger of saturated animal fats, many of us have developed a kind of reflexive repulsion to lard.
Can you blame us? Writing in the journal Preventive Medicine in 1991, three researchers from Belgium’s University of Leuven noted that, based on mortality rates from 36 countries, “significant correlations were found between dairy and lard fat intake and total breast, prostate, rectal, colon, and lung cancer.”
Nearly two decades later, a team of European researchers writing for the Journal of Cell Science asserted, “Western diets rich in saturated [animal] fats cause quantitative and qualitative changes in plasma lipid levels, leading to obesity and insulin resistance.”
Pronouncements like those are enough to consign any ingredient to culinary banishment. And that’s exactly where lard’s been for decades. So what are we to make of an event like the Lard Exoneration Dinner, held at Bubby’s restaurant in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood in November 2011, where chef Ron Silver trotted out pies, biscuits, chicken, clams, and other foods prepared with lard? And what about headlines like these: “Loving Lard,” “Put the Lard Back in Your Larder,” and “Lard: The New Health Food,” the latter from none other than Food & Wine?
What you might take away is the sense that fat, even in its most reviled forms, is undergoing a kind of renaissance now that an influential chorus has come to its defense. The Mayo Clinic notes that dietary fat supports a number of vital bodily functions. A heart study from the Harvard School of Public Health noted that dairy fatty acids are good for us. And writers such as Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat, have pointed out the number of flawed studies that informed many of today’s misperceptions about fats.
Now, I’m not recommending that any restaurant chain make fat the centerpiece of its menu or even any single new menu item. Warnings about the dangers of “bad fats,” including heavily saturated and trans fats, are still worth heeding. But at a time when fat’s role in our diets is being scrutinized more carefully, it’s worth asking: How can restaurants use fats more effectively (and judiciously) on their menus?
Consider using signature fats for specific applications. Sure, you can fry foods any number of ways. Lots of oils and shortenings will serve to make foods hot and brown. But we needn’t be so utilitarian about it. Different oils and fats impart different tastes, and fat, in the end, can be more than a cooking medium: It can be a flavor-delivery vehicle.
Are there opportunities for quick serves and fast casuals to find unusual oils or fats that could help generate new menu offerings? My bet is there are. If KFC, for instance, added just a drizzle of schmaltz, which is rendered chicken, goose, or pork fat, to the top of its cooked chicken or a roasted potato, the resulting concoction could prove irresistible.
High-end restaurateurs have fried french fries in duck fat for years as a decadent treat; there’s no reason to think a similar approach couldn’t work in moderation at the quick-serve level. Mexican chains also could consider using a judicious amount of real lard in their refried beans and highlighting the authenticity this move confers. Dessert and pastry operations even could consider using lard in pie crusts. And the list goes on.
Branch out. Vegetable oils have been a staple of fast food kitchens for decades. But today the number and variety of options available are almost dizzying: Nut and seed oils, including those made from pistachios, avocados, grape seeds, and walnuts, feature prominently in specialty foods shops, and are beginning to trickle out to more mainstream settings. And omega-enriched oils could be valuable in bakery and “better for you” fast food chains.
Consider the condiment possibilities. Fats and oils can be valuable in other contexts, as well. Think how different and how much more interesting certain condiments can be with the addition of a novel oil. Olive oil mayonnaise, tartar sauces with avocado oil, salsas with pumpkin seed oil—all would take on striking new flavor characteristics with a change in the principal fat. What’s more, using Southeast Asian staples such as coconut oil to stir-fry vegetables or rice bran oil in the deep-fryer could lend a little ethnic intrigue to standard-issue products.
The bottom line is, fats and oils have always had a place on restaurant menus. Maybe now in 2012 it’s time to make their role on the menu a point of pride, rather than a bone of contention.