Avant Lard: Fat by Jennifer McLagan [cookbook review]

The title of Jennifer McLagan's new cookbook pretty much says it all: Fat (buy at Amazon). A glance at the cover — a white-marbled shank of meat and that single word floating in large letters — you know exactly what you're getting into. But, as these things go, there's also that pesky subtitle, in smaller letters, which tells the real story. This isn't just a collection of recipes, it's "An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, With Recipes." Which is to say, along with providing helpful tips on suet-rendering, it's a call to arms against a culture that's (in McLagan's opinion) unjustly vilified this delightful substance. Every page of the book is dedicated to making the case that fat is both a necessity and an indulgence, that it's something that should be enjoyed in moderation — with the emphasis on "enjoyed."

The Fat Manifesto

As culinary manifestos go, it's completely approachable. There's a refreshing absence of the Michael Pollan school of holier-than-thouism, and it's made even lighter by a pervasive sense of humor (a chapter's called "Butter: Worth It"). But that's all carried along on an almost unsettlingly adversarial undercurrent. Reading through, I kept getting impatient with McLagan's effusive headnotes and boxed asides of fat-related vocabulary. You get this in most single-topic cookbooks — the central element gets worked to death if you give it a real cover-to-cover read — but for some reason here it bugged me more than it has elsewhere. It could have been the slightly unnerving juxtaposition of recipes with sidebars (delicious-sounding Foie Gras Butter shares the page with a stomach-churning anecdote about a woman whose decomposing corpse turned into soap), but I think more it's a preaching to the choir thing, the particular exquisite frustration of agreeing with someone who insists on arguing with you anyway. I kept feeling like McLagan wasn't just appreciating fat, she was selling it.

In a way, though, that's good news. Fat needs someone to sell it. Someone, dare I say it, relatable. A low-fat-cooking zombie isn't going to be swayed by any of the current leaders of the fat brigade: cranky David Chang, crazy old Paula Deen, random extreme-home-curing enthusiasts with Blogspot accounts. But then here comes this slender, middle-aged woman with a Diane Keaton half-smile and an obsession with leaf lard, bearing a glossy cookbook with food-porn photography, and it's an easy thing to cast aside the canola and come around to Team Animal Rendering.

Now We're Cooking With Fat!

But beyond the manifesto there are the recipes. There's nothing in this book that I haven't seen before (okay, that's not true, I was struck dumb when I flipped to page 119 and saw Bacon Baklava), but the dishes and techniques are spot-on. One of the beautiful things about cooking with fat is how differently it behaves across cooking techniques, from a slow-braise to a deep-fry, and McLagan's recipes expertly manipulate that. They're clear, easy to follow, and range from easily accessible to expert-level.

Like any cookbook, there are some obvious showstoppers, and here they have the added benefit of inducing intense emotional reactions when you tell people you've made them: Bacon Fat Spice Cookies will reliably get your guests to say "Oh my god, seriously?" Then they'll split into factions of adoring love (these are your true friends) and politely declining the tray (these are the friendships you can allow to fall by the wayside). Serve the cookies as dessert after a meal of Duck and Turkey Stew (enriched not only by the birds' fat but also with a pig's foot and some skin-on pancetta) and the Lipitor jokes will write themselves.

Of course, there are plenty of recipe options that don't quite so flagrantly advertise that they originated in a cookbook entitled Fat. Pumpkin and Bacon Soup makes me wistful for autumn, Spaghetti with Butter and Sage is definitely going to become one of my staples, Cape Malay-Style Lamb Shoulder yanks that animal out of the Greek-or-French-only box it's been in (at least, in my kitchen) and shows off the meat's dazzling affinity for sweet and spicy seasonings.

Six Of One, Half-Dozen Of The Other

That's the great thing about this cookbook — it could have been just the manifesto, with recipes thrown in for emphasis. Or it could have been a collection of recipes, with half-assed sidebars making the case for lard and butter. Instead, it plays both roles to the hilt. Once you've absorbed the philosophy [Drinking the lard kool-aid? –Ed.] you're left with a collection of dishes that are stellar additions to the kitchen repertoire. Not to mention that the story of the soap-corpse-lady makes for top-notch ghost story ammunition.

Helen Rosner

More photographs of Fat in the gallery:

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