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.”