Utopia, Lard, and Many Questions

September 5, 2017

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.

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