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.