In praise of fat

by Tess Gerritsen

Sometimes I just don’t want to write about writing.

So instead I’ll open with a memory from five years ago. I am dining with friends on a boat off the coast of Italy.  I have ordered roasted pork tenderloin, and my meat arrives encased in browned, crusty fat, seasoned only with pepper and sparkling crystals of sea salt.  The first bite is a revelation: so moist and flavorful that I moaned in pleasure.  It was like the pork I remembered from my childhood, one of those untrustworthy memories that the passage of time magnifies to mythic proportions.  With that first bite, I proved those memories were accurate.  Pork really could taste the way I remembered it.

The question was, what had happened to pork during those intervening years between my childhood and that revelatory meal in Italy?

One of our table-mates that night offered part of the answer.  She raises and slaughters her own meat on her family farm in northern California.  Her pigs are free-range and they wander the woods and fields, scavenging for acorns.  During their short lives they are petted, cosseted, and treated with respect.  In the fall, when the time comes to harvest them, she does it with a gunshot to the head, murmuring and petting them as she pulls the trigger.  It is a sad task, but she knows they have lived a comfortable life and they feel no fear at the end.  The difference in the taste of the meat, she says, is incomparable.  (I have no doubt that she’s right.  I have eaten venison several times, and the one time I could not abide the smell of it was when the animal had been killed after a prolonged and terror-inducing chase.)

But there was more to that Italian pork tenderloin than just the absence of stress hormones.  There was also the fat encasing the roast and streaking the meat, more fat than you will ever find on a pork roast for sale in American supermarkets.  For decades, American pigs have been bred for leanness, because American consumers think they want lean meat.  They demand lean meat.  It’s been drilled into their heads that lean meat is healthier and tastier.  They want pork to be “the other white meat.”

That’s how we ended up with pork that tastes like, well, chicken. Unfortunately, our chickens no longer taste like chicken. 

 I’m thinking about fat today because of this article I just came across, about the world’s first food fat tax being launched in Denmark:

Denmark has imposed a fat tax in attempt to limit the population’s intake of fatty foods, becoming the first country to take such a measure.

The new tax will be levied on all products that include saturated fats – from butter and milk to pizzas, oils, meats and pre-cooked foods.

The measure, designed by the outgoing government and announced on Saturday, will add 16 kroner [$2.87] per kg of saturated fats in a product.

Consumers over the past week hoarded butter, meat and milk to avoid the immediate price increase.

Of all places, this is happening in Denmark!  The land of milk and cheese!  While you’re at it, Denmark, why don’t you change your country’s motto to: “The land of skinny people who eat nothing but spelt.”

Surely the Danes will raise their sticks of butter in protest and smother this law, because everyone knows that fat is flavor.  It’s what puts the joie in vivre, the bons in bons temps. It’s not the main dish, but it makes that main dish worth scarfing down. 

 My father was a professional chef who died (of Alzheimers) with a cholesterol of 140, which was also about what he weighed all his life. Long before the Atkins Diet, he proved that staying skinny didn’t mean denying yourself steak. He had no compunction about eating fat — real, natural fat. He used to wave raw steaks at me to point out their gorgeous marbling.  As a restauranteur, he could get the choicest meats, which may explain why the pork and chicken of my childhood was so spectacularly delicious.  He taught me never to waste my appetite on a tasteless meal.  He taught me to forget margarine, just eat butter.  He taught me that we have only so many meals in a lifetime, so we must make every single one count.

Over the years, I’ve sometimes turned my back on his advice.  In college, I dated a guy who was paranoid about the state of his arteries, so for two years he and I gagged down a zero-fat, low-sodium diet that was so healthy it would drive a gourmand to suicide. (That relationship, needless to say, didn’t last.) As a med student and doctor, I accepted the common wisdom that any butter you slathered on your toast would ooze straight into your coronaries.  At least, that’s what I told my patients.

But in the privacy of my own kitchen, I was sinning. Out came the butter and cream. Out came the bacon. I perfected twice-fried french fries and buttermilk-marinaded fried chicken.  I warned my butcher to never ever trim the fat from the lamb leg. I cooked osso bucco and slurped down the luscious marrow. Did you know that even boringly healthy oatmeal can be made deliciously sinful when you make it with whole milk and add a big scoop of mascarpone? 

Now it seems that medicine has finally caught up with my father’s wisdom. To lose weight, no longer must we eat like deprived monks.  Eggs and fat are back on the menu.  Instead of shunning a whole class of foods, the secret to healthy eating is portion control, a variety of foods, and moderation.  

And the pleasure of the occasional moan-worthy roast.

So get real, Denmark.  You know why everyone buys Danish cookies, don’t you? It’s because they’re butter cookies, not margarine cookies.  This nutty tax won’t make your citizens any skinnier, because they’ll just be forced to smuggle in cheese from Germany.

Which suggests another country motto for you.  “The land of stinky cars.”





29 thoughts on “In praise of fat

  1. Reine

    Hi Tess,

    Love this post!

    I hate what we have done to meat here in the US — tasteless. In Denmark, though, I think it's just a sin tax and really won't have much effect. They've long had a tax on sweets there, but if you go to any store, even into any film rental shop in Denmark, you will be faced with rows of candy for purchase by the pound. The last time I visited my granddaughter in Odense I was treated to a fried meatballs and vinegar candy experience for dinner. I don't think either fat or sugar are going anywhere. I just e-mailed her. Maybe she'll tell me what her friends are saying before she's off for the day.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Okay, I'm definitely playing devil's advocate and maybe this is the pot calling the kettle black, but Tess, you're a size SIX – if that! I don't know – I took a college class last semester and couldn't believe how heavy so many of the kids were. That's not only not healthy, it's not fun. Maybe a few dietary restrictions aren't a totally bad thing.

  3. tess gerritsen

    Alexandra, I think the rise of obesity is closely related to lavish intake of sodas and convenience foods. All those calories, just so you can gulp down sugar and water! Again, it gets down to portion control. A little bit of anything won't hurt you, but we've lost the ability to exercise moderation, or to judge our own sense of hunger. I'd rather have a few bites of something incredibly rich and delicious than a hundred bites of something that's mediocre.

  4. David Corbett

    It's not just portion control. It's, for lack of a better word, mindfulness.

    It's eating and exercising wisely. Burn more calories, consume less, you lose weight eventually. it's sustaining the loss, as even Forrest Gump knows, that's the trick, and that requires developing good habits, which obliges you to PAY ATTENTION to what you eat. You know, discipline. It's so simple even idiot savants sniff at it's lack of complexity.

    I actually think obesity is linked to depression, and they "feed" each other. But that's a whole other topic. But we have a generation of over-stimulated, over-praised and under-challenged keyboard jockeys who idea of exercise is isometric face-stuffing. We need those young-uns to be healthy. They have to pay into social security.

  5. Mary Quite Contrary

    "Surely the Danes will raise their sticks of butter in protest"!

    Still laughing at this mental picture…

  6. Pari Noskin

    Great post, Tess.

    Actually I think another reason we're fat is that because of all of the processed foods we've eaten for years in the U.S. — with sugar and sweetness added to just about everything that it can be added to — we have neglected the ability to appreciate subtlety and good food.

    I hope I'm making sense here. I think many people have an inability to capture the wonderful flavors of a fresh picked homegrown tomato as opposed to the cellophane wrapped ones that were harvested three months earlier. They can't taste the complex mix of flavors in a real Quiche Lorraine but expect it to taste like something from Mickey D's etc.

    So the option of eating good food that is good for them often seems like privation. IMHO, good food that is good food for us tastes fantastic. Simple can be glorious.

    But until we retrain taste buds, I think this is going to be a very, very difficult battle and no legislation will be able to touch it.

    . .. . okay, I'd better go to work now . . . .

  7. CarlC

    It pains me that the land of my ancestors has gone so crazy with this. When will governments learn that you cannot legislate good sense? Just because food tastes good does not mean that one will automatically overindulge. I'm glad to see that medical science has, in general, moved to a stance that we CAN sometimes eat some fat, even if it's saturated. This morning I will raise my butter in protest, as I slather it on my popovers!

  8. Sarah W

    I wasn't going to say anything, but some of the comments, while probably well meant, pushed a couple of my buttons. . .

    I apologize to Tess, who wrote a lovely post about how good food can taste and how tragic it is when an individual's food choices are taken away. Or at least, that's what I read.

    So here we go:

    The rise of obesity (according to several medical and psychological studies and the National Eating Disorder Association) is actually closely related to dieting rebounds and the eye-rolling assumption that the amount of someone's adipose tissue is an infallible measure of one's health or worth and that an individual's level of health is any stranger's business.

    It isn't.

    Visible fat does not automatically equal ill-health. A median or low weight does not automatically equal good health. The number one cause of death for those deemed 'overweight' and 'mildly obese' appears to be old age. As heavier as we're supposedly becoming, we're also living longer. Odd, when visible fat is blamed for everything from earaches to diabetes (fat *is* a correlation with diabetes, but not a *causation* of diabetes — big difference).

    It's become an unconscious habit to make negative assumptions about those who *visibly* fall above (or below, for that matter) the median in size or fat percentages. The idea that people who do not conform to the ideal are broken, lacking in mental health, and/or ignorant and need to be 'cured' or 'saved from themselves' is so prevalent in both the public mind and the medical field that that many individuals of any weight won't go to a doctor for regular checkups for fear that the health care providers won't look past their size and might even be emotionally abusive.

    People of all sizes are often taught such body hatred (and self-hatred) that they attempt to conform to the visually acceptable size and shape regardless of genetics, their body's own natural weight and signals, or the fact that prolonged caloric deficits or overages aren't healthy.

    Roughly 95% of those who attempt a prolonged caloric deficit are doing so in order to achieve a weight lower than is natural for their bodies. These individuals will eventually regain that weight plus more, as their bodies store extra reserves for the next starvation attempt. It appears that most of the other 5% resumed their natural weights after a period of unnatural weight *gain.*

    How is any of this supposed to *support* health and well being? It isn't.

    Human beings *aren't supposed* to be the same weight, any more than they're meant to be the same height. Let's not confuse a stranger's health with whether or not s/he is attractive to us personally. Visual preferences may change, but good health doesn't actually give a toss whether a body can fit into a certain jeans size.

    If one *truly* wishes one's community to be healthier (and not just conform to a visual ideal), make fresh, unprocessed sources of energy (fruits, veggies, meat, dairy, etc.) cheap and accessible for everyone, especially those under the poverty level and find everyone a safe and cheap place to move.

    And then leave them alone.

    Again, sorry — this is one of my goats and it got gotten. If anyone would care to debate or argue with me, please e-mail me.

  9. Stefan Bisig

    I do not think it is the amount of fat, sugar or anything else, that produces obesity, high cholesterol indexes and so on. If we would eat more of that in original state instead of highly processed "convenience food", we would automatically eat less because we would eat tastier food. And, IMHO, food with more "life spirit" in it, not the food processed to death you normally find in supermarkets.
    I do not know much about things in USA as I am living in Europe, but when I read the ingredients'list in any preprocessed food, I am sure to find sugar in some form or another. So the intake of sugar and fat has increased, but it is the hidden part that adds most to your hips, not the one that you deliberatly eat.

  10. Lisa Alber

    We've contaminated our own food supplies. Our bodies don't know what to do with GMO'd Monsanto-ized wheat, for example (book: WHEAT BELLY). Our meat livestock is raised in horrid condiitions and shot up with antibiotics and who knows what. When you see commercials for corn that basically tells us to ignore what we've heard because high fructose corn oil is as good for us as olive oil, then you know something is really wrong.

    Our bodies crave real food. I dream of moving to Europe, not just because of universal health care, but also because their food supplies are, on the whole, less tainted than ours.

    And let's not talk about the FDA: what a joke.

    Haven't eaten breakfast yet, so here's what's really grabbing me about this post: mascarpone in oatmeal! Oh yum…my stomach's growling.

  11. Sheri Hart

    You literally made my mouth water over the pork roast. I remember delicious roasts like that cooked by my grandmother with a crispy layer of fat keeping all the juices inside. Mmmmmm.

    We humans sure are stupid sometimes.

  12. Allison Davis

    Yeah, I could be a vegetarian. Except for Pork. You lost me on the roast, still thinking about it. And everyone knows, everything's better with bacon. Bacon/apple pie anyone?

    Telling that in an interview in last week's NYT on cooking, one of the chef's said the two foods he avoids? Feedlot meat and tomatoes that have been refrigerated. We treat meat horribly in this country, stuff it full of hormones and god knows what else. And it affects the taste and the eater, as demonstrated by your companion who described her hog raising techniques.

    In our neighborhood, we've had a renaissance of chicken pets and everyone has their own freshly laid eggs. Now they taste very deliciously different as well. (No I don't have chickens.)

    And not just any butter. I found French butter. Oh yeah.

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Bravo, Tess

    I completely agree with Lisa – high-fructose corn syrup is added to so many foods today, but unlike the sugar it relaces, it does not trigger the body's natural 'I'm full – stop eating' response. So we keep eating.

    Has nobody considered that the growth hormones in food are making all of us bigger?

    And don't get me started on Kentucky Fried Meat Bird …

  14. Reine

    Reine to g'daughter in Denmark:
    "What's with the fat tax?"

    Danish g'daughter to Reine:
    "Heh – one of my friends said: 'So I have to pay extra because I'm fat?!' but it's a tax on (food containing) saturated fats … To make the people healthier and the government richer 🙂 (I happen to think it's a good idea, though)


    Sendt fra min HTC-telefon

    —– Reply message —–
    Fra: 'Reine …'
    Dato: tir., okt. 4, 2011 11:20
    Emne: Fat Tax?
    Til: 'J…'"

  15. Charles Wolf

    Risking another view amid the salivating…lots of nutritious, satisfying, even, mirabile dictu, delectable food out there that doesn't require slaughtering animals. More & more fine & casual dining than ever in all cuisines & cities large & small. Sensual delight (a damn fine thing indeed) doesn't have to come at such a cost in suffering (the brutal cruelties of factory farming no longer secret). And "going veg" sure in hell knocks the battle of the bulge down to a shirmish. Ain't bad for sucking up that second wind on a run or mountain biking either. After a misspent youth on back streets of South Philly, many years of being vegan have covered a multitude of sins. Not to scold and far from self-righteous or rainbows-&- butterflies-feel-goody (I drink, cuss & box), only just sayin'…

  16. Charles Wolf

    Oh, yeah, neglected to mention, books like EATING ANIMALS by Jonathan Safran Foer say it a hell of a lot better than me.

  17. Reine

    As with successful smoking cessation, sustained weight-loss dieting usually takes several attempts – including the dreaded rebounds.

    Today marks a “huge” milestone for me. I have reached the 75lb weight loss mark. After many ups and downs over the years, this year I have succeeded at a time when I can do no exercise. I have managed this with a healthy diet that includes limited amounts of everything and rigorous tracking of nutrients with a brilliant – and completely free – iPhone and Internet app “My Fitness Pal” for tracking nutrition, diet and exercise. For those who might be interested:

    More helpful than anything else, however, was the realization that I am always hungry, and I will always be hungry. I might as well lose weight and be hungry rather than gain weight and be hungry.

    It was much like my decision years ago to go back to school with a new disability. I would have pain and clouded consciousness whether I was at home, working, or in class. I decided to do all of it and as much of it as I could and with one difference from my diet being — to the point of failure — so I would know that I had done as much as I could possibly do, as well as possible, for as long as I was able.

  18. Judy Wirzberger

    Oh, lawdy lawdy, Tess, you and the comments hit every pushable button in my existence. Pork! Oh, I'm headed to Italy. I salivated watching The Help when she held up the Crisco can.
    Sarah W – everything you said. When I had my heart attack, my cholesterol was 154. I've changed everything about the way I eat and exercise and still have seven subsequent stints.
    It's not what you eat; it's the way tht you eat it and the amount.
    Processed foods, the demon!
    What we are allowing TV and TV games to do to children is horrible, but we used to be like the free range chickens, safe roaming around. Children aren't today.
    The stuff we shove into our animals is not good for us.
    "Sin" taxes are used to prod the "noble" thinking into thinking they are even more noble by putting their greedy hands into someone else's checkbook for their own good. Remember when kids were spanked for their own good?
    Get the government off my back and out of my checkbook.

    Tess, if I'm in your area, don't be surprised if I knock on your door and ask if you have Buttermilk fried chicken….and fried in Crisco, if you please.

  19. Susan Shea

    I'm voting with the eat-anything-but–savor it-in-moderation crowd with the one proviso many of the posters have mentioned: stay away from those empty sugar calories and over-processed foods. It's not hard to do that here in the Bay Area. When I lived in upstate New York, where people couldn't get outside as much and so much cold triggered a brain reaction to fatten up, the results were not pretty.

  20. CarlC

    "The land of stinky cars."

    Tess, I'm sorry but I didn't get the hidden meaning of this on first reading. Hilarious thought, all those Danish cars lined up at the border with their engine compartments stuffed with cheese. Serves them right.

  21. Twist

    Tess, what an interesting post and comments. But what I want to know is, when may I stop by for twice-fried french fries?

  22. Ray Rhamey

    Oh, my, Tess. You make my mouth water. Especially after last night's meatloaf made with ground beef that was 97% fat free. Sorta tasted like the plastic packaging it came in. Er, I'm interested in those twice-fried French fries too. Ray R

  23. lil Gluckstern

    Many, many years ago, I took my children to Switzerland. In order to save money, we would walk to the bakery for bread, the charcuterie for sausage, the dairy place for cheese and the tiny grocery for a drink. Then we would hike on a mountain, and get warm soup and fresh rye bread, and small portioned dinners. We ate small and walked, and so did everybody else. I try to walk whenever I can, and I'm finding a small amount works fine. But oh that pork roast-and cheeses, and…never mind.

  24. L.C. McCabe

    That was a wonderful post. I agree with the commenters about the eeeevils of high fructose corn syrup in our American diet. It's ubiquitous and can be found in foods I do not think I should be in, such as bread.

    I wanted to give you and the rest of the 'Rati members a gift of a link to my husband's blog with a few of his recipes. He's a fabulous cook and I lucked out that he did not choose to go to chef school. That is because I have my own private chef and do not have to share his cooking with a restaurant full of people on a nightly basis.

    The two most recent posts were for prime rib and his zinfandel soaked beef stew. C'est manifique.

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