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Edward Bottone: Fat For LifeEdward Bottone
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Fat For Life

by Edward Bottone

Do I look fat in these jeans? Of course you do! We are a nation of fatties. But what do you really know about fat? By the time we’re through, “A minute on my lips; a lifetime on my hips” should sound like a love song.

We have eaten our way to the top. Or at least back to the top. More than a decade ago we claimed the title of the fattest people in the industrialized world. By 2022 80% of Americans will be overweight or obese, predicts Dr Youfa Wang (Center for Human Nutrition, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She further states that by 2030 nearly a trillion dollars will be spent on health care to ameliorate obesity related health issues. In his book, Fat Land (Houghton Mifflin), Greg Critser drops the blame on the door steps of boundary free, supersizers of the food industry. But not on fat. Where and how will it end? The surprising thing is that being fat isn’t about the fat that we eat.

The fear of fat, fat loathing, fat obsession is a new thing, spawned in the era of flat chested flappers and the belt-tightening Depression. Good timing, that. Up until then, except for times of famine, a robust physique was indeed a thing of beauty; a paragon of luxury. Fat, before it was made sinister, was desirable. The once positive aspects of fat linger in phrases such as, a fat check, fat cat, fat city, chewing the fat, killing the fatted calf, the fat of the land and other phrases indicating the concupiscence of corpulence. Then the tide turned.

Then we were told that fat was out of fashion and that fat made you fat. The food industry backed it up with new products: reduced fat, no fat, fat free. Everything fat free came with a license to eat more and we did. And got fatter. By now we have been so long bombarded with fat phobic fear mongering that much of it is accepted wisdom. But what do you really know about fat? Would it astonish you that it is something you can’t do without? Fat is one of two foods you must have to live — fat and salt. Aren’t we lucky that they so often occur together.

Fat, the fat we cook with and eat, is good for you and I sing its praises. Our body needs fat. That’s right — fat supports cellular growth, the immune system, the brain and our hormone producing endocrine system would struggle to function without it. The low fat, no fat era of the last half century has made us heavier not healthier, and in the process has taken a lot of the pleasure out of eating.

Fat is flavor. There is no denying it. Take all the fat from a piece of meat and cook it. The result is a dry, flavorless chew toy. Used to be everyone knew that fat and protein tasted good and were good for you and that starches and sugars made you fat. We feed grain to cattle, against their nature, to make them fat; we don’t feed them fat to fatten them up. Same goes for most livestock and poultry. Same goes for us. It is not about the fat we eat — really. The success of the Aitkens diet (which I don’t endorse) is because it gives free reign to eat loads of fat and protein and eliminates starch and sugar. A old idea made new by exaggeration. And it works — if only temporarily.

In her new book, Fat (10 Speed Press), Jennifer McLagan shares fat facts before convincingly showing us, through recipes, text and sidebars, the goodness of fat. A quick bite of science from Fat: every fat is a combination of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Depending on the disposition of their hydrogen molecules the fatty acid can be saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated. Saturated fatty acids can be found in lamb and beef fat: monounsaturated in pork and beef fat. Animal fats contain small percentages of bad polyunsaturated fat. Polyunsaturated fats when paired with trans fatty acids by hydrogenation become solid a room temperature. Saturated and monounsaturated fats found in animal fat are good. Polyunsaturated, trans fats, bad. The one natural trans fat, good for us, occurs in butter; my favorite fat.

What could be more all natural than butter? It has one ingredient — cream. That’s it, twenty one pounds of cream makes a pound. Butter is a source of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and important trace minerals magnesium, zinc, chromium, selenium and iodine.

Tub of lard is now a derogatory phrase; but I wish I had one. Pork fat, fat back, bacon, lard, leaf lard (for that flaky pie crust) are all good fats containing approximately 11% polyunsaturated fat. Wrap almost anything in bacon and voila — ecstasy. It is not for nothing that pork belly is is the cutting edge chef’s new favorite.

Goose, duck, even chicken fat also good (with between 11 and 13% polyunsaturated fat). What makes a terrine de foie gras transporting? Fat. Duck (or for that matter pork) rilletes? Fat. A duck deprived of its fat would fall flat. Cook potatoes in duck or goose fat and you’ll never want them any other way. Eastern European Jewish immigrants used to spread chicken fat (Schmaltz) on rye bread and lived to tell the tale.

Beef fat is also good (4% polyunsaturates); bring on a well marbled, sizzling rib roast and a bit of Yorkshire pudding, please. Unctuous beef marrow, Osso Bucco lovers take note, has a mere 6% polyunsaturated fat.

Fat in its natural state is not the enemy. You need it and you love it. It makes all food taste better and even feel better. You crave it. The key is to use it well and to eat well. To eat well is to eat real food made by you, or someone you trust ,from primary ingredients and not too much.

As one who has still not completely come to terms of being a life long fatty I do take solace in the words of Max Vanderveer, editor, critic of the fictitious gourmet magazine, Epicurus (played by the outsized Robert Morley) in Who is Killing The Great Chef’s of Europe, one of the great food films of all time. When confronted by his doctor that he must stop eating or die he sets him straight: I am what I am precisely because I’ve eaten my way to the top. I’m a work of art created by the finest chefs in the world. Every fold is a brush stroke, every crease a sonnet, every chin a concerto. In short, doctor, in my present form I am a masterpiece.

And he was. No one ate finer food, more raffiné repasts. He just ate them too often. Everyone knows that calories make you fat. Too many in and not enough expended. Calories from good, tasty fat are different from carbohydrate and sugar calories. We may be a nation of fatties but it is not because of an overindulgence in glorious gorgeous fat. Eat a little less; eat much better. Put fear of fat behind you. Eat fat for flavor. Eat fat for life.