Rendering Pig Fat

Standing on this were the Tartarean shapes of the pagan harpooners, always the whale-ship’s stokers. With huge pronged poles they pitched hissing masses of blubber into the scalding pots, or stirred up the fires beneath, till the snaky flames darted, curling, out of the doors to catch them by the feet. The smoke rolled away in sullen heaps. To every pitch of the ship there was a pitch of the boiling oil, which seemed all eagerness to leap into their faces.… As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooners wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod , freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Strangely, I had two great American authors from which to choose when I considered literary references to rendering animal fat: Laura Ingalls Wilder, who I love, and Herman Melville, who I love more. I went with Melville for fully selfish reasons even though he’s far too dark for our purposes, and Ingalls would have been spot on appropriate. He’s my favorite, which is an unfortunate favorite to be saddled with as I am quite sure that it makes me a complete blowhard – not unlike that guy who claims to have enjoyed Citizen Kane or that insufferable woman in anthropology who could not pass up a reference to Foucault. It’s a sad lot to find myself amongst, but I think I can lose these unfortunate compatriots by behaving basely and interacting with animal scraps. Here we go.

Lard and butter are clearly the fats of choice in early American cooking. To this day, butter continues to be much beloved. Lard is not. At all. My grocery store sells it in no form, not even the self-stable health disaster that sometimes lives near the Crisco. Besides, I wanted to be true to the original intent and use a home produced lard. To do that, I needed some pig fat (leaf lard to be exact, a mild flavored fat that encases the kidney). After a frustrating and fruitless search for a local pastured pork supplier, Flying Pigs Farm in New York came through with gorgeous, mail-ordered leaf lard. See:

Most of the instructions for rendering suggest that the leaf lard be ground in a meat processor. I’ve been coveting the Kitchen Aid attachment that does just that, but alas, I do not own it. So I chopped and chopped and chopped and chopped until I had produced a pot full of carnage.

From here, the rendering (AKA melting) begins. I dumped the bowl of mammal fat into my stock pot and put it on very, very low heat. Some instructions suggest that you put a small amount of water in the pot to prevent scorching, but I was pretty sure my All-Clad would not disappoint me. It does not by nature scorch things, and I wasn’t going to hurt its feelings by suggesting otherwise. It did just fine.

Here’s the time lapse.

I started at 8:30 and by 9:00 things were starting to look melty:

10:00 was my least favorite phase. The fat turned gray and nasty, slimy and fully disgusting.

11:00 and the fat morsels were continuing to melt. The surface had also started to collect foam. I spent the next hour skimming it, compelled by the solemn advice of chefs to skim chicken stock to prevent clouding - this despite the fact that the product in question is not chicken broth, and even if it were, it wouldn’t really matter if it were cloudy.

12:00 I’ve come to my senses and stopped skimming. The remaining fat globules have been stewing in their own fat for long enough that they’re starting to turn translucent.

1:00 About one-third of the remaining fat chunks are floating now and they’ve started to gently crackle. I’ve been told this is the sound of the lard losing the last of its water, but I have no idea if that's actually true or if it’s just some line they feed the city kids to see if we’ll believe it and then humiliate ourselves by repeating it in public.

2:00 Lard finishes at 255 degrees when the cracklings (crispy leftover lard chunks) sink to the bottom of the pot. As you can see, I still have some floaters but my temperature is up to 275 and even the floaters are quite crispy. I decide my lard rendering adventure is complete.

The cracklings at the bottom of my pot are a mixture of little crispy squares of pork fat and crumbly, darker bits of who knows what. The floaters are pristine pork pillows so I drain those separately.

And then strain the remaining lard through a sieve. This next picture is not for the faint of heart. It makes me a little pale to be reminded. (Honestly, it didn’t seem that bad when I was in the middle of it).

I restrained the liquid lard through my favorite kitchen tool, a chinoise. I love it for a variety of reasons not the least of which is the pleasure I take in saying its name. There are not many times that I’m glad I took French, but referring to my beloved sieve is one of the few. (I really hate French. The sound of a man speaking that language makes me want to gouge my eyeballs out.) Anyway, the chinoise is a very fine-meshed strainer, and it stood in for cheesecloth which would have been the normal way to ensure that the last of the crackling detritus was removed from the lard.

I let it sit out for a bit on the counter and then transferred it to the refrigerator to finish cooling. My instructions sternly warn that it must be cooled quickly to ensure “fine-grained” lard. I obeyed.

And completely done!

My apartment smells very porky. When the lard was still raw, it was almost odorless. It smelled fresh and a little sweet. While rendering it smells like cooking pork. Personally, I don’t find it unpleasant, but I will also admit that it is not next up on the Yankee Candle short list. It makes my husband's stomach turn just thinking about it (a heads up that there are very distinct individual differences on this particular subject).

We must discuss cracklings, which were one of many motivations for rendering my own lard rather than purchasing it. One of the Little House books has an account of a pig butchering day, and it mentions hot cracklings drained from the rendered lard. I was all of 6 years old, but I seriously wanted some. In fact, my whole life, I’ve wanted some. Crispy, pork-flavored, unctuous, heavily salted and warm – it sounded like a made-up paragon of snacking perfection. And now I have had the good fortune of tasting these little morsels. The texture is delicately brittle. When you bite down, the liquid fat oozes from between a crystalline web of crisp, thin walls. It tastes fully and completely porcine. I loved it. It was precisely what I had been promised, one of the few hyped foods that deserve it. I ate another and then another and then 3 more, and then I felt ill. I am not a prima donna about fat or meat or salt so this puzzled me. My favorite food is bacon for goodness sake. All I can make of it is that I just don't deserve cracklings. Maybe if I spent my days plowing corn fields and struggled to keep my 24-waist Wranglers from falling off my bony hips, some cracklings would agree with me, but until then … well, I should have listened:

Cracklings were very good to eat, but Laura and Mary could have only a taste. They were too rich for little girls, Ma said.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods


Brown Bread

The Shakers and I have a tumultuous relationship. I’m kind of obsessed with them and their culinary awesomeness. The cookbooks are filled with stern instructions not to boil the mineral salts out of fresh vegetables and make ready use of rose water and tarragon. You would not recognize their food as 19th century. I’m smitten. Head over heels. I feel that these ancient sisters can sense this, however, and are annoyed with my painful infatuation. I don’t blame them. I’d be annoyed.

I’m a decent cook. I know my way around the kitchen, though admittedly I’m better with cooking than baking. This comes with a reasonable store of implicit food knowledge that one would hope I could put to good use, but the sisters beguile me. They’re snickering even now. The recipes leave out (I feel purposely) important details that if I were not so in love I would recognize and correct. Instead, I think to myself: “surely, the Shakers would not make a mistake. I’m about to be let in on some miraculous culinary trick by which sugar, lemons and eggs magically integrate themselves into a stunning lemon custard without so much as a stir on my part. It’s going to be amazing!” Except it is decidedly unamazing. Here I’m speaking of the promising Shaker Lemon Pie that calls for macerated, thinly sliced lemons (peel and all). The lemon slices are placed in the pie crust and then four beaten eggs are poured on top. One would think that these beaten, but non-integrated eggs would form a disgusting overcooked omelet hovering over bitter and chewy lemon rinds with hardened solid sugar on the bottom. That’s what I thought too so you can imagine my surprise when that was exactly the result.

Those Shakers, they’re smart though – like pretty women who know precisely the minimum amount of attention necessary to keep their doting, male sidekick helplessly orbiting and endlessly believing he might just have a chance. I just got that scant teaspoon doled out in the form of a lovely, dark and heavy brown bread – hearty and indulgent, rich with molasses and stone-ground cornmeal.

Brown bread is not a Shaker invention. I’ve found some version of it in nearly every compilation of early American cookery, as well as in the collections of modern, but rural, farmhouse cooking. It’s associated with Boston and predates modern ovens. Shakers, much like many early and contemporary Americans, just happened to eat it as well, but given that this recipe is from one of their collections, I’m going to take it as a sign that maybe they’re softening to me.

The bread is steamed rather than baked. The batter is poured into a greased crock, which is then placed in a larger vessel. Simmering water is poured half-way up the outside of the crock and then the whole crock/kettle contraption simmers away covered for several hours until a perfectly moist, dense and delicious bread emerges. This is precisely the kind of culinary magic I’ve been looking for. A simple batter with no fats and no eggs steams up rich and moist, at once hearty and carnal.

Brown Bread

Note: The grade of molasses will significantly change the flavor of the bread. I prefer a robust molasses flavor and use an unsulfured blackstrap molasses, which produces a dark and earthy sweet loaf. Others may prefer to use a mild molasses.

1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup rye flour
1 cup stone ground cornmeal (do not use conventional cornmeal)
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1½ teaspoons salt
¾ cup molasses
2 cups buttermilk (or sour cream, plain yogurt, or sour milk)
1 cup raisins

Butter a 2-quart crock, round Pyrex baking dish, or large coffee tin. Smaller tin cans can be used, but you will need multiple. Ensure that your baking vessel(s) will fit inside a larger soup pot with enough clearance to ensure the pot lid will be secure.

Whisk together both flours, cornmeal, baking soda, and salt. Stir in molasses, buttermilk, and raisins. Fill your buttered crock, dish, or tin can two-thirds full of batter.

Place a rack in your soup pot to keep your baking dish from sitting directly on the bottom of the pot*. Pour boiling water around baking dish until it reaches half way up the outside of the baking dish. Cover soup pot and steam bread in slowly simmering water for 3 hours. Remove from water and allow to cool on rack for 10 minutes before unmolding. Serve warm or cooled to room temperature.

* If you do not have a rack (like me), loosely crumpled aluminum foil can be used to lift the baking dish slightly off the bottom of the pot.

Sourcing: King Arthur Whole-Wheat Flour, Arrowhead Mills Organic Rye Flour, Falls Mill Stone-Ground Cornmeal, Wholesome Sweeteners Organic Unsulfured Molasses, Natural by Nature Grass-Fed Buttermilk, Whole Foods Unsulfured Thompson Raisins



Peasant. It’s a mean word, something from which one escapes in fairy tales. But sometimes the narrative reverses and the cooped-up and bored princess escapes to the forests to play peasant. Those stories captivated me: the brown eggs to be gathered, the lovely turnips to be prepared (no matter that I would have died of starvation rather than actually gag one down at that age), and of course, hard, back-breaking labor. Really – I was enraptured. Later, it gets less romantic … crop failure and winter starvation, twenty percent mortality in childbirth, women as chattel. I know, I know – nobody wants to be a peasant and nor should I.

Except that there is really no getting past the food: cassaulet, osso buco, coq au vin and ribollita. I’m willing to pay to eat like a peasant, and so too, are many Americans. I notice though that we like to eat like peasants in other countries. Coq au vin sounds lovelier than chicken pot pie, and there is something so worldly about learning to let bi bim bap slip off your tongue. Nonetheless, I suspect that the food of America’s farm houses and log cabins might surprise us or at least may surprise those of us who do not live on an American farm. There are few things I’d rather eat than my grandmother’s fried dough and butter beans or her perfectly flaky buttermilk biscuits with milk gravy. This is magical food that we’ve drained of its magic simply because it ours - somehow boring and bland, provincial and unsophisticated. Yet anyone who has happily gobbled down the foodstuffs of the county fair: elephant ears, sugared fried bread, barbecue pork, buttered corn-on-the-cob and candied apples has appreciated something about rural, American cooking. I’m hoping I can unearth a few more reasons to love this food.

By peasant, I am referencing non-privileged families with access to land. Access to arable land may also mean access to cellars of winter-stored apples and canned tomatoes, fresh eggs from legitimately free-range chickens, salt pork from pastured hogs and home-produced country hams, blackberry syrups and cultured butter, sweet parsnips left past the frost and jars of black walnuts and dried morel mushrooms. Rather than the food of poverty, this is food of a quality largely inaccessible to urbanites of any social class. Without romanticizing too greatly, I would argue that peasant, rather than connoting poverty (as we have come to use it), means also – someone who lives and eats largely outside of the monetary system.

Here’s where I admit that I am not an American peasant (despite many years of wishing it true). I do not live outside of the monetary system, and I have no access to land. I am simply a devoted fan who believes that there should be more fans. This blog is about rural, landed, American cookery written for the non-rural and non-landed. Thus, this is not a blog about inexpensive food. Finding pastured leaf lard and real country ham, when you are not raising and curing it yourself, is neither a simple nor inexpensive undertaking. However, I cannot hope to understand the food of America’s peasantry without being scrupulous that the ingredients match, not only in name, but also in substance. This is going to be a story of sourcing as much as a story of cooking. Your should know that I am not an expert. I’m not an anthropologist with years of field work in Appalachia nor am I a skilled Southern cook with generations of kitchen geniuses in my family line. My only credential is that I like the food. I’d like to learn more and share the story.