Fat

September 25, 2006 | By | COMMENTS

I was thinking today about the word “fat.”

It’s easy to forget, once you’ve entered the world of food, how the rest of the world hears that three-letter word, a word that promises such ecstasy but which suffers such a severe stigma. Watching my usual Sunday helping of Tivoed cooking shows–Lydia’s Family Table, Barefoot Contessa, Jacques Pepin, Oliver’s Twist, America’s Test Kitchen–it’s fascinating to mark the difference between how these TV chefs refer to fat and how the rest of America uses the word.

When a TV chef (or most chefs, for that matter) refer to “fat” they do so with reverence, with appreciation. “Let the spices incorporate with the fat;” “It seems like a lot of fat but the fat gives it lots of flavor;” “Here’s a little more fat for the mushrooms to absorb.”

Each of these sound bites highlights the reasonable nature with which chefs approach fat: as a tool, a medium that enhances, enriches and unifies whatever it is they are cooking. It’s not something to be feared or reviled, it’s something that when used smartly and judiciously separates flavorless bland cooking from the exceptional cooking we seek when we go to restaurants. Great chefs know how to work with fat: they know how to dress their salads with just enough oil, they know how much bacon fat their mushrooms will hold, they know what ratios of flour, butter and sugar make a perfect cake. Fat is an essential part of good cooking, and yet fat–as a concept–suffers from bad P.R.

Out in the world, we’ve been taught to hate fat, to fear fat. We decorate bottles and bags of food with colorful labels that say “FAT FREE” or “NOW WITH LESS FAT.” Diet books scream out “ZERO FAT,” “DOWN WITH FAT,” “FAT HELPS THE TERRORISTS WIN.” We live in a fat phobic society and I need not point out the heartless way with which people who are ever-so-slightly overweight suffer at the hands of society’s skinnier members. It’s not a coincidence, methinks, that we view the word “fat” the way we view people who are fat: in both cases there’s a notion of gluttony, of waste, of going too far, of non-conformity, of unappetizing too-muchness.

I grew up in a fat-phobic family. My mother and grandmother are constant dieters and they hear the word “fat” and immediately run in the other direction. Once we went to Benihana’s with my great-grandmother and as the Japanese chef poured oil onto the table to cook for everyone she said, “Oh no oil for me, please.”

The brain equation seems to work like this: FAT IN FOOD —> FAT IN YOUR ASS.

I have a slightly different formula:

TOO MUCH FAT FROM PROCESSED FOODS AND THINGS YOU BUY AT THE STORE IN LARGE BAGS LIKE DORITOS AND CHEETOS WHICH YOU BINGE EAT WHILE WATCHING BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER ON DVD ONLY TO FOLLOW IT WITH A TUB OF BEN AND JERRY’S —> FAT IN YOUR ASS.

Maybe I’m naive, but I happen to believe if you cook for yourself and use fat in the preparation of all natural ingredients you will probably not get that fat. I think people who struggle with their weight tend to eat foods they don’t prepare themselves and if they do prepare the food themselves they tend to use products with lots of chemicals and add-ins that contribute to their bad health. Of course, you can over-do it using all natural ingredients (Mario Batali isn’t exactly the peak of health with his fancy olive oils and pancettas and prosciuttos) but your overall health, I’d bet, will improve if you cook everything yourself, even with semi-generous helpings of fat.

Cooking with fat, in many ways, is like sex. Sex in and of itself isn’t bad for you: in fact, it’s been proven to be very good for you psychologically, emotionally and, certainly, socially. But take it too far–meet a 70-year old hooker on the internet for a tantric orgy with the cast of “Eight Is Enough”–and you’ll be itching and burning ’til kingdom come. Same with fat: take it too far and you’ll suffer. But use it well–with discretion and flair–and you’ll never eat better or feel better. Believe me, you non-believers you, fat isn’t the enemy–it wouldn’t be played by Jeffrey Jones in an 80s movie. Fat is Ferris Bueller, Fat is Howard The Duck. Fat, ladies and gentlemen, is your friend.

Categories: Essays

  • blissing

    Hey! Thanks. I’m fat, and have been for a long time, but it took me a while to comfortably use the word. I love to cook, and rarely eat fast food or lots of processed food. Still fat. But happy! Happier than lots of people. Keep moving and everything will be OK.

  • http://www.whatwereeating.com amanda

    can i get an “amen”, my amateur gourmet brother?!? I love love LOVE this article. this is exactly my feelings on the subject and you have said it perfectly. i wish there was a way to make all the fat-a-phobics of the world read and really get what you’re say. Fat’s not bad, it’s all the overly-processed food that’s the culprit.

  • Emily

    “Fat is Ferris Bueller, Fat is Howard The Duck.”

    I hope that’s how your book starts out. It’s quite the idea clincher! :)

  • http://secretingredients.blogspot.com Kate

    Hysterical and so accurate! I think that there is a general lack of knowledge and confusion with consumer consumption because of the media and corporate branding. No one could have said this better!

  • http://loiteringno.blogspot.com Dibital

    dude this is right on. i’d take it a step farther by arguing that our fixation on fat – fat free, no trans fats, all the colorful labels – is making us fatter because it perpetuates the processed food industry. if people would stop freaking out, not be afraid to cook with butter and bacon, and learn to sit down and enjoy the food experience, their asses would be a lot better off.

  • Laurie

    I loved the America’s Test Kitchen’s broiled chicken with potatoes made from the chicken’s drippings they showed this week. Everyone should try it!! A little fat vs a lot of margarine. Fat wins everytime!!

  • http://www.restaurantwidow.com/ Lisa the Waitress

    Amen! I always think it’s weird when I’m waiting on a guest and they ask what duck confit is. The look of horror on their faces when you say ‘duck slowly poached in duck fat’ is really something. And it’s sad, because everybody knows confit is delicious. Even if it’s garlic in olive oil…yes, fat is good.

  • SLOLindsay in Madison

    I love this. Having struggled with my weight since puberty, I dropped 25 lbs. in the past year largely by cooking for myself, resisting the extra pastry at the coffee shop, and sticking with whole foods and unrefined sugars – brown sugar in the latte rather than Monin syrup, for example.

    I am of the opinion that more calories in than go out = fat on your ass. So I will occasionally cut Ina’s oil and butter recommendations and have smaller portions of the Zuni bread salad. It’s still fantastic.

    P.S. Your grandma’s comment cracked me up.

  • mizburd

    Like everything else that’s good, fat should be enjoyed in moderation (define that as you will). I think the big problem is transfat, which is basically plastic and is poisonous. For God’s sake, if you’re going to use fat, use the real thing.

    I also second the comment on America’s Test Kitchen’s roast chicken and potatoes. Looks yummy!

  • vicky crawford

    I extend an invitation to come to Oregon and try some some of the best food you will ever eat.I enjoy your website and will be taking a trip to N.Y. in December and your website is a great source of information and I look forward to visiting someof the restaurants you mentioned.

  • http://guiltycarnivore.com The Guilty Carnivore

    I agree with everything, but you lost me when you chose to villify septuagenarian pay-for-play…and what do you have against Adam Rich? Grant Goodeve?

  • http://vanesscipes.com vanesscipes

    >>your overall health, I’d bet, will improve if you cook everything yourself, even with semi-generous helpings of fat.

    Couldn’t agree more (though I’m a vegetarian and would substitute the word “fat” for “quite a few glugs of olive oil.”)

    Intention and enjoyment are two of the most important aspects of eating – consideration of what you’re savoring, appreicating it, and being thankful. A homecooked meal or thoughtfully prepared restaurant meal with fat generates a lot more thoughtfulness than ripping open a bag a Ho-hos.

  • http://tokyoastrogirl.blogspot.com/ tokyoastrogirl

    I TOTALLY agree with you. A cheeseburger from Burger King probably has 3 times the fat and calories of a cheeseburger you’d make at home. Being a good cook empowers one to make healthier versions of their favorite foods that are just as satisfying as the purchased one.

  • ap

    Amen to blissing! I’m exactly the same. I used to have a very conditioned reaction to the word ‘fat’ (as if it were *the* f-word), but now I frequently forget that other people still have this aversion to using it as a descriptive word in various contexts (me or my food).

    Also, I must echo the praise for the ATK’s high-roast chicken with potatoes cooked in the schmaltz. I can’t believe how flavorful and lovely the potatoes are (even after towelling off all the excess fat) :) .

    Great post & good comments!

  • http://oppenploppen.blogspot.com Laura

    I worry that people are so obsessed with Olestra and Fat Free and no partially hydrogenated oils, that the forget that if you simply cook food you can identity that is (mostly) found in nature, that there probably won’t be any sort of problem. Which sounds better: Lean Cousine with no fat/calories/cholesteral/flavor, or a nice chicken breast browned in a pan, followed by a green salad with oil (gasp?) and vinegar. Keep fighting the good fight!

  • Kristi

    Speaking of foods found in nature:

    Several months ago I pretty much gave up processed/fast/junk foods. I replaced them with foods such as fruit smoothies made with flaxseed oil (*gasp!*), salads dressed with fresh lemon juice, salt, pepper and olive oil (*cringe!*), whole omega-3 eggs (*jaw drop!*) and copious numbers of avocados (a high-fat FRUIT? *faint!!*), plus the occasional bacon/rich dessert/other food maligned as “fatty.”

    The results? I have lost twenty pounds and counting. My blood pressure has dropped from high normal to low normal. My mood has improved. My immune system is stronger. My energy levels are higher.

    And I am taking pleasure in eating like never before… gee, coincidence?

  • Nina

    When I saw your title, I immediately thought of the book entitled “Fat”. Anyone who hasn’t read it should, and I believe that it says much of the same things you have, plus much more. I know I’m fat not because I eat fat, but because I just appreciate food too much to just leave it alone (far too often…).

  • http://www.californiariceoil.com elle

    great comments-i agree-fat makes the world go round-i like all fats except for trans fats-then i get a little crazy.

  • Kristi

    There is also the issue of the singularly evil HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP —> FAT IN YOUR ASS. But that’s probably better saved for another post.

  • http://www.annalovesfood.blogspot.com anna

    There was a great cooking show called “Two Fat Ladies”. The philosophy behind the cooking on this show seemd to be an exaggerated version of your post. That, and they rode around in a motercycle with a side car.

  • http://panhandling.blogspot.com Panhandler

    But is Fat Ducky or Blaine???

  • magda thornton

    i loved “Two Fat Ladies”! one of the Fat Ladies died a few years back, and she wanted everyone to know that it wasn’t because of the copious amounts of duck fat and lard she ate. i think it was lung cancer or something. i forget. but it wasn’t the fat.

  • http://www.stubbornlikeamule.net Michelle

    I found this post and the comments very interesting. I’ve never been someone who’s had much fast food or eaten much trans fat and have always cooked for myself but somehow found myself weighing 20lb more than I wanted to, I’d like to both agree and disagree.

    Food lovers seem to have more of a emotional attachment to food and this is why what you say only rings partially true to me. If I’m feeling down I didn’t grab a big mac, I’d toil in the kitchen to make homemade pasta coated in pecorino and olive oil or a batch of doubletree cookies. What I’ve noticed since I’ve dropped 30lb is that 2 more things are important, as well as cooking yourself, taking time to pay attention to what your eating once you’ve cooked it, and that the less time you spend cooking something the lower the caloric value of it will be (ie a salad, stirfry or grilled steak) as long as the ingredients are super-fresh.

    I like your comments about knowing how/when to use fat to enhance flavour. It’s certainly food for thought/research.

  • http://lobstersquad.blogspot.com losbtersquad

    My sister´s currently on a diet in which olive oil is a big no-no, but light mayo allowed. It drives me up the wall.

    Btw, Howard the Duck? I mean, really…

  • http://anthonyskitchen.blogspot.com Tony of Bachelor cooking

    foie gras won’t be so good with without the fat eh!!

  • Andrew

    Remember it’s the type of fat that counts! There’s a freezer aisle at my favorite grocer that I call the “fat people aisle”. Both sides contain nothing but prepackaged/processed food. There is enough “bad” fat in that aisle to fill a swimming pool! Don’t even think about the sodium content!

  • lindatooo

    Didn’t I read something recently about those “Rice Cakes” which are fat free being worse for your blood sugar levels than corn syrup? They cause a huge insulin dump from your pancreas and that leaves a “footprint” that precludes your body from burning the fat in your thighs for energy – When I see “Fat Free” I RUN! Well put!

  • http://pinkhouse.typepad.com Shelley (Pink House)

    Hhmmm, this is interesting. Although I have to disagree with your basic premise. I have slllloooowwwwlllllyyyy gained about 30 pounds in 25 years (after having 2 kids too). But I cook all the time, at home, and with fresh healthy ingredients. but I’m not one of those substitute fat-free ingredients cooks. I use butter – the real thing, and all kinds of other natural, REAL ingredients. I enjoy food and cooking and when I go to a restaurant, I will order what looks interesting and tasty to me without a thought for the calorie count. BUT I NEVER eat fast food, fries, or potato chips or Doritos or cheetos. NONE of that stuff because I don’t like it (I’m not a fan of potatoes in any form) and I don’t like “fake” flavors and fake food. But I still gained weight. and it’s so dog-gone hard to loose. You try to eat less, never snack in the evenings, never eat dessert, walk at least a mile every day – and still nothing happens. I’ve got to say since all 3 of my brothers have had the exact same weight gain (even though we were slender when we were young – it must be MOSTLY (but not all) genetic.

  • http://www.fromourkitchen.blogspot.com Natalia Spampinato

    Wonderful post. I completely agree!

  • Jessica

    Oh, how lovely. See, it’s not fat that makes people fat, it’s that they’re lazy and stupid! What a revelation! How tragic for fat-the-ingredient that it must be tainted by association with these wretched souls. (And how lucky too, that Mario Batali is the only overweight chef out there — one or two more counter-examples, and your whole justification for shaming fat people would fall apart!)

    As a long-time reader, I’m incredibly disappointed by this post. I expect better from this blog.

  • meimei

    I have been cooking professionally for nearly 20 years in restaurants, hotels, cafes and contract food service environments (colleges, schools, office building cafes etc). I work with lots of chefs and cooks and there are many who are overweight. However, no more proportionally than the rest of the population.

    Regarding chefs, our diets aren’t always the best; late hours, late night eating off work, craving things like cheese and bread, eating and running around, never getting to sit-all contribute to a not so eating habits.

    I disagree that this post intended to shame people.

    We have a really big health issue in our country directly linked to poor diet and high consumption of processed foods and unfortunately it makes the good chefs look bad for using “fats” moderately in cooking where they need and should be.

    There are many overweight people who are so because of genetic prediliction, hormone imbalance, pre and during menopause etc.

    Let’s not kid ourselves though. There are loads of people who are overweight due to a combination of lack of activity, consumption of highly caloric and processed foods, overportioning, overeating-you name it.

    What I find infuriating are the folks who claim ignorance when faced with the “what’s in your food” question. I have a hard time believing that our litigous population really doesn’t know and needs legislation drafted to explain it to them, that a Whopper with cheese isn’t likely the healthiest choice for them.

  • http://kitchenmusings.typepad.com veron

    Fat is your friend! How can you make duck confit without it.

  • Ben Morgenstein

    Adam-

    I thought you’d like to know that I had students read “Fat” for a class I teach, College Composition I. They definitely enjoyed it, and it fit very well with the unit we’re doing on popular culture, i.e. you contrast foodie culture with mainstream culture. Everyone’s favorite parts were your “equations” and your description of your great-grandmother at the Japanese restaurant. “FAT HELPS THE TERRORISTS WIN” is another highlight which will stick with me for a while.

    -Ben

  • http://sweatergirl.wordpress.com Sweatergirl

    What a fantastic article! I work at a food nerd paradise which offers people the best butters, olive oils, cheeses, lard and duckfat(nectar from the gods). Fat is life, fat is love, and most importantly, fat tastes gosh darned delicious.

    Unfortunately, its difficult to make this point in lieu of the age old rhetoric of fat=fat in your ass.

    It shouldn’t be astonishing that the Europeans enjoy high fat diets and remain healthy – it should be surpising and disturbing that in America (where the no-fat-low-carb-low-cal mentality reigns supreme) we are the most unhealthy population on the planet.

    So thanks for your post. I admit, I have a girlie-food-nerd crush on your writing!

    -Sweatergirl