Here's a fun exercise: When you take your pumpkin or apple pie to a Christmas potluck, tell the folks you made the crust with lard, even if you didn't.
What is likely to happen next is a combination of (mainly) horror and disgust, mixed in with some fascination and even a dash of admiration. That's because there are two universally accepted "truths" about lard: One is that lard is terrible for you, and the other is that it makes really, really flaky pie crusts and biscuits.
On the second truth, there is essentially no debate — although there is still a strong argument for the taste of butter over lard. The first truth, however, is a bit fuzzier.
Food writers Matt and Ted Lee, in their 2006 Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, urge the use of some lard in pies and biscuits, and in a chapter on the subject, they make the basic case. Lard, they say, is nothing more than pure, rendered pig fat: "North America's primary grease from the time European explorers introduced hogs to this continent until the middle of the 20th century."
Since then, however, fear of fat has gone up as studies linked animal fats, cholesterol, and heart disease. As the Lee Brothers put it, "Today, most Americans would rather smoke unfiltered Camels while riding a motorcycle without a helmet than eat [lard]."
But the Lees point to newer studies which talk more about eating the right fat instead of no fat. On that score, quoting stats from the Department of Agriculture on saturated and unsaturated fat, they argue that "lard is no worse for you than butter, and they're both a heck of a lot healthier than any of the processed, hydrogenated margarines and spreads."
The Lees' pie crust recipe has four tablespoons of butter and two tablespoons of lard, and it can be said from experience that the result is pretty amazing — as long as you warn your vegetarian or kosher friends ahead of time.
The thing about lard, though — and the Lees acknowledge this — is that the lard you get in stores is hydrogenated (therefore containing trans fats) and loaded with preservatives which at the least add off-flavors and at the worst have been identified as possible carcinogens.
That — as well as the decades-long problem with public perception — is probably why, if you call any restaurant or bakery in town, you get responses like, "Lard? Oh Lord, no!" Such was the hurried statement from an employee at the Pie Folks in Olive Branch. Backermann's Bakery in Whiteville, which sells fried pies to Easy Way, says they use only vegetable shortening in their products.
Lard isn't a four-letter word everywhere. Mexican cooks rely on it (and Mexican groceries usually have it), and in some places it's even celebrated. In Ukraine, there's a festival in honor of what they call salo. At one of the festivals, patrons ate a giant sandwich made with 80 pounds of lard.
While not yet spreading lard onto sandwiches, Americans may be coming back around to the stuff. There has been a wave of articles with headlines like, "Nothing beats lard for old-fashioned flavor" (Seattle Times, 2006); "Don't let lard throw you into a tizzy" (San Francisco Chronicle, 2003); and "Heaven in a pie pan" (The New York Times, 2006). Famous chefs like Rick Bayless use it for baking and frying, the latter because it has a very high smoke point.
The thrust of these articles and many others is about the same as the Lee Brothers' argument: Our health problems come more from bad fats and calories than anything lard has to offer; Crisco and other fake products (including commercial lard) are unhealthy; and what you really should try is real, fresh lard.
Ah, and there's the greasy rub: Where on earth does one find real, fresh lard? In essence, since we couldn't find anybody in Memphis who sells it, you have two options: mail-order and make-your-own.
Several places have online ordering of preservative-free lard: Dietrich's Meats in Pennsylvania (610-756-6344, dietrichsmeats.com); Fiedler Family Farms in Indiana (812-836-4348, fiedlerfamilyfarms.com); and Linda J. Forristal, who calls herself Mother Linda and occasionally has some lard (firstname.lastname@example.org).
There are instructions for various rendering methods all over the Internet, and since this reporter doesn't own his own home, he has yet to try any of them. They boil down (pun intended) to some form of this: Get some pig fat, melt it, strain it, and cool what's left, which is lard. In essence, bacon grease is lard as well, but not as recommended for these uses. Ideally, you want leaf lard, which comes from the kidney area; the usual backup (another pun), especially for frying, is fatback.
With some notice, Schnucks says they can get pork fat for about 99 cents a pound. Or check with the meat vendors at a farmer's market.
All accounts agree on one thing, though: Your kitchen will smell like a breakfast diner when all is said and done.
Local connections, hands-on cooking, old-timey ingredients, taste over convenience, purity over preservatives — we just might be on the verge of a lard revolution!