Well of course I love food, right? I’m fat! Food and fatties go together like french vanilla ice cream and blackberry pie (lattice-top, if you please). I must be fat because of my love for food. It couldn’t be that I love food because I am fat. Or maybe that even when I’m skinny, I still love food. I wake up in the night thinking of boudin noir. I dream of flaky perfectly grilled fish. I wax frighteningly poetic over pot roast when asked for restaurant recommendations. I relentlessly devour food products left in my path, goatlike. When I’m bored, I cook, and try to come up with something new and interesting. I pack the Joy of Cooking (old version, thank you) on trips, to reassure myself with directions on how to skin a rabbit. I plan and execute elaborate dinner parties with a dizzying array of intriguingly paired dishes. I cry over a remarkable salad. Farmer’s cheese gets me all steamy. I live, in short, for food.
Everyone knows people who love food are fat. It’s a default.
I ran into a slender food loving acquaintance just yesterday. We paused to have a chat about fish conservation (it’s becoming a theme, can you sense it?) Luckily for me, he’s a man who loves food so much that he cooks it for uncultured masses and sells it to them. It’s terribly convenient.
And I thought of him for a moment as I hunched ferally over leftover fettuccine (think a rich paprika cream sauce, with spring peas and onions). I growled over my recycled cardboard box when one of the cats cruised over to assess the situation, and I thought oh god, I’m totally living up the fat person stereotype. I’m hunching over a box of cold fettuccine and wolfing it down alone in my cat scented house after a long work day.
Fun fact: according to Jeffrey Steingarten, us fatties are actually more discriminating about food than you bonies. If deprived of food for a day, skinny people will generally fall upon whatever fare is put in front of them. Fatties, on the other hand, will pick and choose. And wait to eat, if there’s nothing to our liking. So there.
So food and fat. There’s a big relationship there, and I want to talk to you about the fat in your food.
Fat is tasty. It’s a hardwired response in our bodies, from the Starving Time. Especially for us ladies. Got to fatten up to feed the baby, dontcha know. It takes a great number of calories to feed the human body and brain: fat is a rather handy source. And even though now few people in the first world are starving, we still have a hearty appreciation for beignets, french fries, deep fried turkeys, rich desserts, and other fat things. Especially the fat, sweet ones. Indeed, sweetness stimulates the appetite (which is only one of the many reasons you should avoid sweetened breakfast foods).
There is supposed to be a part of the brain that monitors food intake and says “hey, enough is enough.” This part of my brain is fully functional–but my appetite trumps my hunger. (And yes, there is a difference between the two.) Some studies suggest that grossly obese individuals may be lacking some of the wiring that says “stop! stop for the love of god or I’ll explode!”
But I don’t even want you to consider this right now. I want you to think about fat in a pure form, fat as meal component, because I’m tired of reading studies about why I’m fat, and how horrible fat is for you, and fat is the devil.
As anyone who eats creme brulee can tell you, nothing this divine could possibly be the work of the Dark One.
There are two main fat camps in the world of natural eating: animal derived and plant derived.
The plant derived fats are, of course, oils. Olive oil plays a crucial role in Mediterranean cuisine. This ferociously bitter fruit is the source of a divine nectar, whether drizzled on tomato and mozzarella salads, used as a bread dipping condiment, or serving as the base for a saute. There are a myriad of delicious nut and seed oils: peanut oil makes a good pad thai, sesame oil when drizzled on cold buckwheat soba is a glorious thing. Flax oil is popular among the health food set, and a stroll along the oil aisle at Harvest reveals a dizzying array of pressed oils. Sunflower. Corn. Bran. You name it, it’s there.
Plant oils are generally cheaper than animal derived ones–your french fries are likely fried in a vegetable based oil (unless you are eating the divine boar frites at the Mac house). You probably use it to oil pots and pans when cooking (stir fry, anyone?) When you think frying, you most likely think plant oils.
But plant oils are good for so much more, because each has a unique flavour and nutritional profile. Have you ever gone oil tasting? Discover the difference between Greek and Italian olive oils, the reason extra-virgin costs more, the joys of almond oil in your salad dressing. Consider the humble vegetable oil as a food elevator–because delicious food can be made even better with the judicious application of, say, truffle oil. Plant oils are also good for you. Far better, in fact, than animal based fats.
And, of course, the most fantastic single food creation of all, the avocado, is high in delicious, sweet, tangy, rich fat. That, of course, is why it tastes so fantastic.
Animal based fats are also quite delicious. I made a spectacular quiche on Thursday which started with a base of deliciously rendered bacon and vegetables fried right in the fat. Butter makes it better. Buttermilk scones spread with rich European butter are a beautiful thing. Cod liver oil is an infamous cure all. The fatty part of the tuna is the most scrumptious. Milk is delicious. Meats with a fine balance of fat and muscle cause spasms of delight–and we all know how boring lean meat tastes. There’s no fat…or flavour. Some old ladies swear by lard in pie crust.
Animal fats, unfortunately, tend to store nasty things. So you need to be careful about your animal fat sources. Try to buy organic sustainably and humanely raised animal products not only for the animals, but for yourself. Fat is used as an indicator for toxins and chemical spills, because trace poisons show up so readily in it.
But don’t let this stop you from enjoying a delicious short rib, a rich omelette, roasted chicken crispy with fat and juices. While not as good for you as plant fats, animal fats still have some nutritional merit–and they taste mighty fine.
We must stop being afraid of the fat in our food, because it’s what makes food so delicious. Take pride in a well prepared, handsome meal featuring delicious artisan foods, and fats. We have a symbiotic and sometimes difficult relationship with fat, we humans do. But like that slightly wild girl you dated in college, your thoughts keep coming back to it.
Grease is a whole different matter. Few things are as bad as greasy pizza, soup with clumps of fetid murk floating in it, and other foul creations which have become overwhelmed with fat. No, indeed, I am not an advocate of rampant fat sprinkling, or fat for fat’s sake (although if you haven’t tried lardo, you should–you might know it by the name of “white prosciutto.”) But I want you to cast your mind back on some of the most delicious meals and food memories of your life, and here are some of mine:
Fried octopus rings spritzed with lemon in Molybos.
A single rich chocolate beignet on a cold rainy night at the Bistro.
A gratin at Chez Panisse featuring mushrooms, splendid housemade pasta, rich cream, and scrumptious cheese.
Avocado spread onto Beaujolais bread on a sunny afternoon at the river.
Bitter oil cured olives nibbled under the cypress trees on Xhios.
A seared ahi, so tender, delicately encased in a crumb crust, on the beach at Kauai.
All of them feature delicious fats, some in moderation and others in libation. But every one found that perfect, delicious, fine a balance and stuck in my memory. You note that steamed vegetables and salad don’t make the list. Certainly those things taste good, and I love me a good salad. But those sorts of foods don’t form a visceral, delicious memory that you will remember for years to come. And we should be eating every meal like it’s one to remember, because it is.
Don’t throw away your food experiences on bad food, indifferently prepared. Don’t waste valuable trencher time with sub-par cooking. Demand food perfection and beauty with every meal, even if it’s eaten alone out of a cardboard box, because food is delicious, and you should love it. Cherish it, even. Try new foods you haven’t eaten before. Go out on a limb with culinary experiments, and broaden your horizons. You might discover a new love (as I did with okra only last year).
Most particularly, embrace the fat. Love the fat. Live the fat. Welcome it back into your life–I promise you, it won’t hold a grudge.