The Thing You Are Afraid to Do

There are two things I have come to know for sure: one, that I must do the very thing I’m afraid to do; and two, mainstream health and nutrition advice is almost always completely backwards.

These two truths converged for me recently in a tub of lard. For years I’ve known the merits of this scorned fat, having read Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions and other sources. Lard got a bad rap in the heyday of Crisco promotion; we now know that high-quality lard, like duck fat and goose fat, is a gold mine of antioxidants. Their fat-soluble nutrients protect our cell walls, feed our brains, and steady our hormones.

I’ve also been, for years, a secret devotee in the Cult of the Swine. As a health-foods chef, by day I tout the virtues of sea vegetables and flax seeds; after hours, I tie my napkin around my neck and face plant into anything porcine: ham, bacon, chops, butt, even greasy chicharrones.

But when it came to lard, Big Brother’s nutrition machine had me brainwashed: Lard. Is. Evil. To eat it would make me a morally inferior human. While other parts of the pig might be more socially acceptable, lard is the purview of devil worshipers, carnal savages beyond hope of redemption.

Last Christmas I attempted to make my late mother’s recipe for pizzelles, a traditional Italian anise-flavored waffle cookie. Her recipe called for “butter Crisco,” an ingredient I would no sooner use than I would fall on my chef’s knife. I tried an all-butter version of the recipe, and while my Christmas guests were quite pleased with the result, my palate knew better. I began to wonder what my ancestors in the motherland used before Crisco, and the answer was obvious. I purchased a one-pound tub of lard, which sat in my freezer for months.

Then my sister sent me an article from by Pete Wells titled “Lard: the New Health Food?” Wells details the erroneous slander lard has endured over the last several decades and describes his own tentative foray into cooking with this forbidden substance. His conclusion? Lard “is a fat of rare finesse . . . as voluptuous as a Rubens nude, but not as heavy.”

Emboldened by his example, I made a batch of jalapeno-cheddar cornbread using a one-for-one switch of rendered lard for vegetable oil. When I opened the tub, the pearly smooth texture signaled my chef’s instinct that here was a fat of superior quality. Whereas butter separates into milk solids and butterfat when melted, lard remains completely itself: glossy, rich, jewel-like in its smoothness. In the cooked cornbread, the lard gave a crumb and moistness and lightness that I had never known with any other fat. It lent gravitas to the final product while modestly letting the other ingredients take center stage.

Tears trickled down my cheeks as I ate. What other treasures of life have passed me by because I was too afraid, or because I was following bad advice? My lard adventure drove home yet again that the things I fear most are just angels in disguise, beckoning me into a more opulent world. The trick is to open the tub and let the fatty richness out, even when all around would say otherwise.

I’ll try the lard pizzelles on Mother’s Day and offer them to my mother in heaven, who will no doubt enjoy them surrounded by little pigs with angels’ wings.