The epic collapse of lard as a mainstay of the American diet is really unique event in the history of the American table. Its presence today is flickering, almost ghostly. Not so long ago, lard was a staple, a basic food; today the great majority of us have never had lard in our kitchens. Lard’s fate resembles that of terrapin or prairie chicken, but its virtual disappearance from the American menu was not caused by loss of habitat or the near extinction of its sources. The demise of lard was the result of a very complex series of changes in the processing and marketing of pork and vegetable oils over a 150 year period, combined with cultural shifts in our ideas about food. First, lard lost its habitat in the marketplace, then, it was cast out of our minds.
Fine, you may say, barbershop quartets, phrenology, and the medical use of leeches have undergone similar declines. Better information and better alternatives have resulted in the abandonment of many stupid practices. Surely this is also the case with lard, a frightfully unhealthy, repellent, and morally contemptible substance that became a metaphor signifying obesity in combination with ignorance. Surely butter, vegetable shortening and vegetable oils are always better and healthier alternatives to lard. And margarine. [Oh, well, that part of the narrative had to be revised a few years back when margarine, the healthy alternative to butter, was indicted for manslaughter.] But that is getting ahead of the story.
An important part of this narrative is that one rather small constituency did not entirely abandon lard, at least in theory. Lard’s reputation among cooks and bakers as a shortening and a medium for frying has never really been eclipsed by its rivals. There isn’t really well informed opinion that butter yields better tasting pie crusts or biscuits than lard. There really isn’t well informed opinion that canola oil produces better tasting fried chicken or potatoes. Lard has been expelled from these functions not because cooks found clearly better alternatives, but for two separate if not entirely unrelated reasons. Lard became despised and lard, genuine lard, became nearly unavailable, even at a premium price.
Let’s summarize the reasons for the extreme marginalization of lard before getting into some of the details. 1) Perhaps the first thing to keep in mind is that traditional lard could never have maintained its dominant position as the most important shortening and frying medium once lower cost alternatives became available. There hasn’t been enough good lard to meet the demand for shortening and frying oil for at least a hundred years. 2) The only way large scale producers could even approach meeting consumer demand was to industrially process lard of diminished quality, and that, starting around 1850, is exactly what they did. 3) This poor quality lard required additives and adulteration to make it usable, particularly as baking shortening. Lard became “refined lard”, a compound of hog fat and highly processed cottonseed oil. 4) Early in the 20th century, it became feasible for the cottonseed and other vegetable oils that had been used to stretch and fortify lard to be manufactured into its replacement. Expensive marketing campaigns were conducted to make this shift acceptable to American homemakers who had stubbornly resisted this substitution. 5) Finally, in the 70’s, a consensus of medical opinion (now unraveling) declared animal fat responsible for coronary heart disease and lard, the quintessence of animal fat, was surrendered.
For those inclined to read through the next level detail, we continue:
Lard’s downfall begins, guiltily enough, with the rise of the meatpacking industry in the middle of the 19th century. Before railroads and industrialized abattoirs, most people got their meat from local butchers supplied by small farmers. Lard was harvested from hogs that were often bred to produce particularly large yields of fat. This is hard for us to grasp but, yes, lard was so valuable and desired that a farmer could get a better price for fat than for lean pork. Recent decades, of course, have seen this process in reverse, with new types of pigs bred for the absence of fat, in the hope that pork would be perceived as a type of chicken.
Pre-industrialized hog butchering yields several types of pork fat with different qualities and applications. The most desirable lard is leaf lard, taken from the area around the kidneys and the loin. Leaf lard is quite neutral in flavor and the best sort for use as shortening and in baking generally. Fatback (yes, from the hog’s back) is the next grade of fat for use as lard. It has a higher water content that makes it less suitable for baking than leaf lard. The lowest grade of lard is caul fat from around the small intestines and other digestive organs. It is softer still and more strongly flavored than leaf lard and is used for patés and for barding lean cuts of meat.
This grading of hog fat is significant when we consider the first big technical development that undermined the integrity of lard, steam rendering, which extracted every particle of fat from an entire hog in one go. The lard that resulted from this process was plentiful but soft, too soft to be used as shortening. [Shortening, by the way, is a noun and a verb that describes how its addition to dough keeps strands of wheat gluten in pastry and bread “short”, literally short, and therefore soft, crumbly, not so tough.] The meatpacking industry, as such, ceased to offer traditional lard to its customers 150 years ago.
And so began the sorry business of lard adulteration and modification that led in many incremental but inexorable steps over a fifty year period to the replacement of lard by its imposters. The first substances added to soft lard to stiffen it for use as shortening were the harder fats of beef tallow and (paradoxically) lard stearine, a by-product from the extraction of lard oil (which could be used in lamps) from pork fat. But the real problems began in the 1870’s with the realization that an enormous reservoir of cottonseed oil was accumulating in the South and that cottonseed oil was cheaper than lard. There were some minor obstacles to be overcome if the harder fat extracted from cottonseed oil was to be successfully added to lard: it was basically inedible, it was red in color, and it smelled bad. These problems were gradually solved as chemical processes for refining, bleaching and de-odorizing cottonseed oil were implemented and improved. The manufacturers of this new “refined lard”, as it was cunningly termed, did not tell consumers that this cheaper lard was typically more than one third cotton oil by-product. Yes, the substitution of vegetable oil for pork fat was hidden from the public because people would have been scandalized by the very idea. It was a different time.
The next major event in the expulsion of lard from respectable homes came, once again, from the chemists, who, around 1900, found a way to harden any soft fat or liquid oil by forcing hydrogen into it on a molecular level. It is these plentiful hydrogen bonds that cause naturally occurring harder fats to melt at a higher temperature than oily fats. Finally, the cottonseed adulterers were liberated from their reliance on animal fat in shortening and the way was clear to promote the virtues of all vegetable shortenings, such as Crisco [an acronym that is a condensation of "crystallized cottonseed oil"].
At first, because of the continuing resistance of consumers to fake lard, the principal users of vegetable shortening were commercial bakers and industrial food processors. This gradually changed as marketing campaigns, particularly a decades long, legendarily expensive marketing campaign for Crisco that involved the free distribution millions of cookbooks, convinced homemakers that the new products were more wholesome and safer than lard. Lard gradually became associated with backwardness and rural poverty; vegetable shortening with modernity and progress. Other competitive advantages for products like Crisco were increased resistant to spoilage in an era before universal refrigeration and lower price.
In contrast, by the second half of the 20th century, lard was no longer the snowy, clean tasting, natural product that people had been familiar with for thousands of years but a highly processed industrial product laced with introduced chemicals and hydrogenated like its rivals from the vegetable kingdom. And the hogs themselves had been similarly transformed into a another kind of industrial product, sustained on chemically processed diets in factory-like environments.
Another greatly significant development bears heavily on the fate of lard and separates our contemporary diet from that of our American great-grandparents (if we possibly had any): the rise of vegetable oil from corn, soybeans and rapeseed. Until the 20th century, in countries with cold winters, vegetable oil was difficult to extract and rare. Warmer countries always had olive oil or, further south, palm or cocoanut oil, but northern peoples did not traditionally use salad oil or cooking oil. The extraction of oil from seeds in quantity was beyond the technical resources of traditional farmers and millers. Unlike olives, most oil seeds require extensive treatment to remove unpalatable textures, flavors and colors. When the mechanical and chemical means to extract and refine oil from northern crops emerged not so long ago (credit Mr. Wesson), vast monocultures of soybeans and rapeseed spread across North America along with expanding fields of corn and other seed crops. [Rapeseed seemed like a poor choice from a marketing standpoint and it was re-branded as “Canola”, a condensation of "Canadian oil".] The irony here is that, in addition to further marginalizing lard, the triumph of these crops also ended the era of cottonseed as the leading source of vegetable oil.
A brief digression into a very shallow discussion of fat itself might be helpful here before dealing with the some of the facts and assertions that commonly enter into the debate on the “healthiness” of lard as food. Animals and plants are very different things in our experience; all meats sort of resemble each other; all plants resemble each other more than they do meat. But the fats produced by animals and the oils produced by plants are chemically interchangeable in many ways. Fish oil, duck fat, safflower oil and cocoanut oil, all fats and oils, are combinations of very similar fatty acids in varying proportions. One example: oleomargarine (or margarine or oleo) was originally made from beef fat; today it is universally manufactured from vegetable fat; but both sorts are margarine, made from the same fatty acid.
Fats that tend to be solid at room temperature are commonly called fats. Fats that tend to be liquid at room temperature are commonly called oils. Any fat will resemble an oil if it is heated slightly; any oil will resemble a fat if it is cooled slightly. Fatty acids that tend towards solidity are “saturated”. This saturation, as noted above, simply means that hydrogen atoms have attached themselves to the fatty acid everywhere they can. These molecules, for some unholy reason, are physically straight and flat, which allows them stack together closely. When molecules are closely packed they tend to behave as solids. Molecules of unsaturated or monosaturated fats have fewer than the maximum number of hydrogen bonds and they, for some reason, are physically crooked, even kinky. Crooked molecules don’t tend to stack up densely and behave like liquids unless they are chilled.
These facts about the chemical structure and shape of fat molecules are the only things that everyone agrees on. Beyond this, every possible opinion about the consequences of eating one sort of fat or another has its factions of boosters and critics. The “healthiest” polyunsaturated oils, such as safflower and sunflower oil, are thought to become carcinogenic when heated. Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are essential and beneficial, but dangerous when they are consumed in the wrong ratio. Saturated fat raises levels of bad blood cholesterol, except for the saturated fats that have the opposite effect.
It was the ascendance, in the 70’s, of one particular theory on the consequences of fat in our diet that pounded the last nail in lard’s coffin. This hypothesis, of course, holds the intake of saturated fat to be the major cause of coronary heart disease. The “lipid hypothesis” became, and possibly remains, public health orthodoxy backed by government policy and the voices of organizations such as the American Heart Association. Their decades long campaign to reduce Americans’ intake of dietary fat found one uniquely vulnerable victim, lard. Beef eaters could switch to leaner cuts, pork producers could switch to leaner hogs, carnivores could be herded in the direction of chicken or fish. No such adjustment was possible for lard.
Without getting into a tedious and numbingly complex discussion of the soundness of the “lipid hypothesis” we should note that it is highly controversial and that many thoughtful people, including the likes of Michael Pollan, consider it to be a kind of zombie, an idea that has lost consensus support in the scientific community, but that marches on regardless through momentum and the lack of a new consensus to replace it.
But, even accepting the saturated fat theory of heart disease, there are a few points to be made in defense of lard. First, the hydrogenated vegetable fats that largely replaced lard as shortening contained, until recently, large amounts of trans fat, the one type of fat that is universally and unambiguously considered to be a clear danger to human health. [Fortunately, trans fat, once exposed several years ago, was easily engineered out of hydrogenated products like margarine and Crisco.] The second point is that the lipid profile of lard compares rather well with those of other fats and oils; it is certainly far less saturated than butter and other animal fats that most of us consume without prejudice. The demonization of lard was a psychological event, closer to belief in the evil eye than the acceptance of an established fact.
Today, lard largely remains in purgatory. Hydrogenated lard, full of chemical additives, is available mostly in markets that serve immigrant (principally Mexican) communities. Genuine, traditional leaf and fatback lard is cautiously re-emerging along with revival of heritage hog breeding by small farmers around the nation. But try finding it in a local market. Rendered leaf lard is virtually unobtainable except through mail order from a handful of suppliers. And it is expensive, usually around $10 per pound. But it is lovely, brilliantly white in color, smooth in texture, mild and nutty in aroma. In appearance, more angelic than demonic.