“Fat” by Jennifer McLagan

“For all the Jack Sprats out there – you’re wrong!”

This is the dedication for my new favorite cookbook, Fat by Jennifer McLagan. I’m not alone in loving this work; the James Beard Foundation gave the coveted “Cookbook of the Year” award to this title. More than a simple collection of recipes, McLagan included extensive food histories, nutritional information, world-wide food folklore, and step-by-step instruction on everything involving fat.

The book is divided into four different sections – butter (“Worth it”), pork fat (“The King”), poultry fat (“Versatile and good for you”), and beef and lamb fats (“Overlooked but tasty”). Each section has a 10 page spread giving an overview of that types of fat included within the chapter. For example, the beef and lamb fats chapter touches on suet, bone marrow, marbling, tallow, and dripping. An extensive introduction, bibliography, and index round out the structure of the book.

McLagan truly believes that one of the problems with the modern diet is its fear of fat. She starts developing this thesis in her dedication, expands on the sentiment within the introduction, and continues to discuss specifics within the beginning pages of each chapter. “Fat, we reasoned, was why we packed on the pounds and got ill, so we banned animal fat from our lives” (page 2). She makes a good point – as a whole, North Americans are still obese, unhealthy, obsessed with exercise… and eating less animal fat than ever before. The animal fat sources that she examines are rich in monounsaturated fats – different beasts than the hydrogenated and polyunsaturated fats found in an average American diet. McLagan not only looks at the nutritional benefits of eating more fat, she also examines the reasons why it’s so pleasureful. She includes many interesting “fat” quotes and phrases in the margins of the pages, reminding us how fat wasn’t always such a taboo thing to be called. I loved the variation of sources – Shakespeare sits next to German folklore next to Dorothy Hartley.

McLagan highlights many fascinating history tidbits about fat. Did you know that the Indian Mutiny of 1857 was, in part, due to a misunderstanding between Indian sepoys and the East India Company over the loading procedures of the Enfield rifle? The design required the sepoys to bite off the casing before pouring out the gunpowder, but the casings were said to be greased with lard (pork fat) or tallow (beef fat), distasteful to both Muslim and Hindi soldiers. Rebellion ensues, and the British government has to take over control of the subcontinent. Other interesting anecdotes include the origins of the name “Fat Man” for the second atomic bomb dropped on Japan, history of Bolladagur day in Iceland, and discussing the chemistry of the soap lady at the Mütter Museum.

But this is more than just a book that preaches at us – at its core, Fat is a cookbook. With its gorgeous photography, I wanted to eat everything on the pages, even if it was just a picture of lardo and persimmons. The endpapers are really a magnified picture of caul fat, delicately lacing the contents of the book. McLagan prefaces every recipe with great instructions and stories. And there are a lot of decadent recipes in here – Fat Fat-Cooked Fries, Sauteed Foie Gras with Gingered Vanilla Quince, Bone Marrow Crostini, Prosciutto-Wrapped Halibut with Sage Butter, and a ridiculously mouth-watering Salted Caramel Sauce. Cooking with real fat sources doesn’t seem easy; many recipes require a great deal of preparation work, but McLagan assures us that the payoff is worth the effort.

Of course, there’s a waiting list a mile long for this book at the library, so I had to give up my copy too soon, well before I was able to cook any of the recipes for myself. But I’ve not so subtly hinted about my love for this book to my friends, plus I have a birthday coming up… One can only hope. I promise there will be a roast goose for any generous gift-givers in the future, though.

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