A longtime staple, animal fats — both the kosher and non-kosher ones — have fallen into disfavor. But public opinion might be thawing.
There are new diets, such as paleo and keto; new community celebrations (the first-ever National Lard Day was December 8); and two recent cookbooks with animal fats in the title — “The Fat Kitchen: How to Render, Cure & Cook with Lard, Tallow & Poultry Fat,” by veteran Vermont author Andrea Chesman, and “The Last Schmaltz: A Very Serious Cookbook,” by Toronto chef and restaurateur Anthony Rose.
“I raised my own animals, and was so impressed by the good results you get from cooking with animal fats that I started looking into them,” Chesman told The Times of Israel. “I was very influenced by [the 2014 book] ‘The Big Fat Surprise’ by Nina Teicholz, [which looked at] how animal fats have been completely villainized in terms of their design. There was never any solid scientific basis for it. I stayed with them through their flavor and texture. I think it’s healthier for you.”
Each author came to their subject in different ways. Chesman has multiple cookbooks to her name, including 2015’s “The Backyard Homestead Book of Kitchen Know-How,” which inspired her to raise her own animals and use their fat in recipes from the traditional to the innovative. The latter category includes her duck-fat popcorn, which she calls “incomparably delicious.”
Rose co-owns numerous restaurants in Toronto, including the deli Rose & Sons, the Middle Eastern eatery Fat Pasha and the pescatarian delight Schmaltz Appetizing: Purveyors of Fine Fish. “The Last Schmaltz,” his first cookbook, is an homage to home-cooked Sabbath meals by his mother Linda (who wrote the foreword) and grandmother, and now-closed delis that young Rose would visit before baseball and hockey games.
Jewish cuisine figures prominently in both authors’ cookbooks. (There are non-kosher options in each, in addition to Chesman’s discussion of bear fat, which might be its own separate category.) A Yiddish word for rendered poultry fat, and also slang for something overly sentimental or campy, “schmaltz” inspired Rose’s co-writer Chris Johns for a title in different senses.
“There’s the schmaltz itself,” Rose said. “And I think it came across as not only fat, but very much the feeling of the book, it came across as very schmaltzy — a little cheeky everywhere, quite fun. All the recipes that were cooked from schmaltz. I’m quite schmaltzy, they say.”
Rose’s recipes include schmaltz herring, schmaltz hash and schmaltz latkes (he made 1,000 of the traditional potato pancakes for Hanukkah). “You can fry your latkes in oil or butter or whatever you want,” he writes. “My festival of lights includes schmaltz” — which “adds flavor, depth, and overall intensity to an already scrumptious dish.”
According to Chesman, the Yiddish definition of schmaltz — poultry fat — includes the geese that sustained her ancestors.
“In Eastern Europe, Jews raised geese,” Chesman explained, noting that Sholem Aleichem wrote a story about them (“Gendz,” or “Geese”). “They were particularly important for their meat, feathers, fat. They would usually start at Hanukkah time, using goose fat for all the latkes and other fried foods people make. They would hope goose fat would last until Passover for the matzoh balls.”
Chesman has recipes for both latkes (“I worked on that recipe a really long time,” she said) and matzoh ball soup. The latter is “traditionally made with chicken fat (or goose fat in the Old World),” she writes.
“Those Jews who came to America, they were in an urban environment, and did not raise their own geese,” Chesman said. “The US is a very chicken-oriented country. Chickens lent themselves to factory production. Geese and ducks are just not willing to be raised indoors the same way chickens are. Jews got to this country and started using chicken fat rather than goose fat.”
A bridge between the Old World and the New was Chesman’s grandmother, Esther Lewin, an immigrant from Warsaw.
“She ruled the kitchen, and everything she prepared started with a scoop of chicken fat,” Chesman writes.
Leftovers from rendered chicken skin were made into tasty cracklings, or gribenes in Yiddish. Gribenes are options in Chesman’s pate of gizzard confit, and her frisee and potato salad with chicken gizzard confit.
Rose praised the gribenes in one of his own Jewish recipes — chopped liver a la Sammy’s Roumanian (a nod to the New York steakhouse).
“Not a lot of people tried it like that,” Rose said. “I make it with all the crunchy gribenes, and onions, radish, spinach on top for the holidays. It’s a lot of work. Oh my God, it’s the best ever.”
Yet traditional animal fats like schmaltz have been overshadowed by vegetable-based oils, most of them relatively new discoveries — with the exception of olive oil, according to Chesman. She sees this trend as worrisome.
She breaks down the discussion to the composition of animal fats and vegetable-based oils: the long-frowned-upon saturated fats, and different kinds of unsaturated fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. She writes that “it is important to understand that each animal fat is made up of some saturated and some unsaturated fat, and most of that unsaturated fat is the so-called good kind — monounsaturated fat.”
A chart in her cookbook offers comparisons: Olive oil is 77 percent monounsaturated fat. But corn oil, which she sources to the early 20th century, is only 28% monounsaturated fat and 59% polyunsaturated fat.
“In terms of human evolution, polyunsaturated fats are a brand-new introduction to our diet, widely accepted,” Chesman said. “Because they’re so cheap, they lent themselves to industrial commercial production. In fact, a lot of evidence began to accumulate that polyunsaturated fats are what’s unhealthy for us. They cause all sorts of inflammation. Heart disease is an inflammatory disease.”
“I think that what’s important to note is that all of these illustrations of animal fat are high in monounsaturated fats just like olive oil,” she said. “For example, chicken fat, we’re told chicken fat is bad for you, it’s just saturated fat. In fact, only 30% is saturated fat, and 45% is monounsaturated fat … a greater proportion is monounsaturated fat, like olive oil, than saturated fat. So if animal fats are what’s bad for us — I don’t think that’s true — if it is, chicken fat is not as bad as we were made to believe.”
Yet experts at American research universities remain skeptical of animal fats based on their saturated fat content.
“As a preventive cardiologist, I do not recommend eating foods cooked with animal fats,” said Erin D. Michos, the associate director of preventive cardiology at the Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where she is an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology. “Saturated fats raise blood levels of LDL-cholesterol, which is … shown to be directly related to cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks or strokes, in a causal fashion.”
“Generally, vegetable oils are better for you than saturated fats,” said Jeremy Furtado, a senior research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “There’s a reduced risk of cardiovascular outcomes.”
He did say that “the consensus regarding saturated fats is a little bit controversial at the moment,” citing a 2014 meta-analysis of 21 previous, separate studies “all put together into one large study that found no evidence of increased risk of a heart attack or other cardiovascular event relative to consumption level of saturated fat.”
“It kind of called into question past research,” Furtado said. “It’s a bit of a difficult situation, because nothing we eat is in isolation.”
According to Furtado, every fat people consume contains a mix of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Even very highly touted plant fats have some measure of saturated fat. In past studies that associated saturated fats with increased cardiovascular events, saturated fats may have simply been a marker of intake, and meat products — especially red meat — were potentially the actual factor in cardiovascular disease.
“Nobody eats spoonfuls of lard,” Furtado quipped. “It’s separate from meat … It’s possible saturated fat is more of a null finding, with no increased risk of cardiovascular disease.”
He still recommended plant-sourced fats — monounsaturated fats and, in contrast to Chesman, polyunsaturated fats — found in “olive oil, corn oil, that sort of thing, associated with protection against cardiovascular disease.” He said that these fats are “still better.”
Yet the academics and the cookbook authors seem to agree on one thing: Times are changing.
“Twenty years ago, people said, ‘Don’t eat fat, eat all carbohydrates,’” Furtado reflected. “Now, it’s ‘no carbs, eat fat instead, protein.’ The message coming out is that we shouldn’t focus on eliminating an entire macronutrient, a good quality macronutrient, a quality very close to what is found in nature, used by our ancestors. The idea of the paleo diet, I suppose the excessive consumption of meat is no surprise.”
“There are kind of a lot of diet trends of eating animal fats, avoiding polyunsaturated fats,” Chesman said, listing the paleo diet as an example. “The whole low-fat diet of the past two decades has been thoroughly disqualified.”
“More people should be using animal fat,” said Rose, who is on the paleo diet himself. “All these studies they do, they come around and go around.”
“I’m able to kind of, not necessarily bring [animal fat] back, but use it in everything we do, help us as chefs,” Rose said. “Number one, we use the whole animal. Number two, we use something that we don’t waste. Number three, it’s good for you.”
Stay tuned for a lively — and tasty — debate in the new year.
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