Utopia, Lard, and Many Questions

I read this New Yorker article about a failed Utopian reality TV show with great interest. In it a group of strangers was confined to about 600 acres on a peninsula in western Scotland, with the intent of establishing a new society from the ground up, at least for a year. Boredom, bickering, factionalism and cheating ensued.

First, I had a good time appreciating all of the poor choices made in setting things up. There were the obvious, material mistakes, like picking a location for scenery rather than livability, and apparently not consulting anyone knowledgeable about the realities of subsistence farming. But the larger mistake (if indeed the creators actually wanted any sort of harmony to spontaneously emerge) was conceptual. A group of strangers trying to make a new society in a severely food-limited environment have little chance of success. In fact, I would venture that an abundant surplus of calories is a prerequisite to social order. How different might the results have been had they been given better tools and soil, access to enough land for consistent hunting, and facilities for managing the livestock?

But, speaking of animals, all these considerations are secondary to the most important question: what happened to the pigs?

Infuriatingly, the article mentions them once, then never again, and I’m not going to watch twelve hours of what sounds like extremely depressing television to find out their fate. Anyways, I feel reasonably confident in assuming the participants killed them almost immediately. Without fences to keep them in, pigs can get up to all sorts of destructive mischief, and though they could probably scrounge up a living for themselves if given free run, they’d be less efficient about it than sheep. Even if an allotment of feed was provided for the pigs, it would make far more sense to repurpose it as human food.

When the pigs were killed, whether it was quickly or sometime later, was every little morsel of fat saved and rendered? Did it yield enough lard to use as the primary cooking fat? This may seem like a small thing, but when Ed and I spent a year eating exclusively food we’d grown the biggest challenge of those first dark months was having tallow and nothing else in which to fry an egg or saute some kale. I said earlier that an abundant surplus of calories is a prerequisite to social order. I’m only half kidding when I say that an abundant surplus of delicious fat is a close second, and of the directly animal sourced fats, lard is king.

You can use it to scramble eggs, fry donuts, make a pie crust, or confit a pork shoulder. It has a texture that evokes good butter and a flavor that is at once savory and subtle enough to use in scones or cookies. If you need to feel virtuous, there are compelling suggestions that lard derived from pastured hogs is exceptionally high in vitamin D.

Try this – peel potatoes, cut them into chunks, parboil or steam them until they’re mostly cooked but retain a bit of crunch, then put them in a pan with enough lard to coat them and a generous sprinkling of salt. Roast at 425 for about an hour, turning them regularly, at which point they should be deliciously crispy and basically the best thing you’ve ever eaten.

It infuriates me that lard has so little currency in our food system. Want to combat the tropical deforestation and labor abuses associated with palm and coconut oil cultivation? Replace them with lard. Want a non-dairy source of fat that is truly local? Lard is for you. Want to make raising meat as environmentally sound as possible by ensuring that every bit of each animal is used? Lard.

So, to summarize: lard is delicious and probably critical to establishing a cohesive society and you should all be eating it by the spoonful; the next time someone wants to make a show centered around subsistence they should pay me a generous stipend to be a consultant; I’m really leaning on questions as a rhetorical device today. Also, if I’ve convinced you, you can buy rendered, ready-to-use lard right here.


Photo Credit – Garth Brown

Garth BrownUtopia, Lard, and Many Questions

Comments 13

  1. Diane Katz

    Hi Garth
    Having grown up in England (albeit eons ago) we used lard and butter for cooking.
    I still remember how the chip pan was hard and white on top when it cooled and hardened.
    The most amazing part of your article to me is that I didn’t even know you could still buy it !!
    I’m ready to order and looking forward to having some real tastes of home and childhood.
    Ps. I agree with you about the failed experiment in Scotland ( although I didn’t hear about it before.
    Sad sad sad , the bias and manipulated ” facts” of social statistics and experiments , entertainment and human nature … ho hum , I am resigned to observe and challenged not to judge.

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      Garth Brown

      Thanks for stopping by, Diane. I think lard’s popularity may be on the upswing. For a long time I only ever saw bricks of hydrogenated lard in the fridge section of the supermarket, but there are now at least a couple companies marketing a more traditional product.

      You may know this, but lard used to be in such demand that many of the heritage pig breeds (Large Black, Mangalitsa) were lard type, meaning they were bred to put on as much fat as possible. The meat was largely an afterthought!

  2. Judy Kennedy

    Ah yes. Country fairs, midways, hand pressed hamburgers with fried onions, and golden crisp chips that were 6 and 7 inches long. Five gallon metal pails of hard white lard, with remnants of chips on the top. Wonderful, delicious memories of my childhood, back in the 50’s.

    Several years ago, there was a series about Victorian Farming in England, produced by the BBC. Three archeologists restored and worked a Victorian farm on an estate for a full year. It’s an interesting and educational series about how farming was practiced back in the 1700’s and 1800’s and the episodes are on Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4apIM4l0laY

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      Garth Brown

      Thanks for the link, Judy. That looks quite interesting.

      The rate of change in agricultural practices is staggering. For example, our wonderful old neighbor who passed away a few years ago remembered working his farm with draft horses as a child, just when people were starting to shift over to tractors. But as depressing as I find the scale of modern industrial farming, I’m happy to be farming today. Portable fencing and a growing understanding of rotational grazing, silvopasture, and other land management practices are very exciting.

      1. Judy Kennedy

        Some things didn’t change much up until the time I was a teen. I can remember riding on the back of my uncle’s tractor while he sowed a wheat field with the same style of seed drill that was used in the first clip. I doubt if many modern kids would even know what that piece of farm equipment is and does.

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        1. Judy Kennedy

          There is also a series of “The Monastary Farm” starring the same people here.

          as well as a series called “Wartime Farming” when Britain was under threat during WWII, suffering food shortages from blockades and having to become independent from food import and being able to feed the nation and their troops. This one was particularly interesting as it was the beginning of the mechanical revolution.


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            Garth Brown

            Yes, Simon Fairlie has written interesting stuff about the incredible efficiency of wartime pork production. Of course, I also recall James Herriot mentioning that he had never smelled anything as overwhelming as the urban pig farms he saw during the war.

            Thanks so much for the recommendation!

  3. Tim giblin

    Hey Garth
    I completely agree. Love lard. Love it. I’m usually in the minority of touting the benefits of animal fat though. In Argentina where they eat so much meat, they offer the little medialunas in the morning cooked two ways, either from butter or des graso made using fat. I adore the weight of the dough of the little des graso pastries. Your post made me consider my love for all things lard, and i realized something. I think you know I treat my crohns disease through diet. I’m on the SCD diet…. Alana made me some absolutely delicious muffins before I left…..but being on that diet, I don’t eat any grain, no sugar, and no fresh dairy.
    The one thing that really satisfies me and staves off the torrential downpour of self pity over my restrictive palate is fat. I single out the fattiest of foods to make up my eating routine, cashews, avocados, the fattiest steaks( loved those strip steaks by the way)and just straight up lard when available. Maybe the move away from lard and peoples interest in it can be traced to the plethora of other sated food options that are much more common in today’s diets. In any case great writing and food for thought.

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      Garth Brown

      Thanks for the comment, Tim. I mentioned it in passing, but when Ed and I were growing/raising all our own food fat was absolutely critical. It’s hard to eat enough turnips to get many calories, and I generally find fat more satisfying than carbs.

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