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Fat Lady: Jennifer McLagan Interview

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By Malcolm Jolley

Photo of Jennifer McLagan: Rob Fiocca

Jennifer McLagan's Fat just led the New York Time's Book Review list of recommended cookbooks for the holiday season this week. Reviewer Craig Seliman explains:

"I'm so over being lectured by food writers to honor the seasons and stock up on sea salt and otherwise comport myself virtuously in the kitchen that it was a small thrill to come upon one whose mission is to make us eat fat. Eat fat! That's a message I can get behind."

It's a message McLagan is determined to bring to the foodie masses. It's OK to dip your toast in the bacon pan once and a while, and it's downright delicious. Like Bones, her James Beard Award winning cookbook from 2005 (read our contemporary interview here), Fat challenges assumptions about pleasure (or denial thereof) from food in the 'Anglo-Saxon world'. I caught up with her at the superlative Caplansky's Deli in Toronto, where she ordered her smoked meat sandwich as fatty as possible.


Gremolata: So, what's it like to be the "Fat Lady"?

Jennifer McLagan: I'm quite happy to be the fat lady. In fact, that's how I introduce myself now. Just show that juxtaposition and prove that eating fat doesn't actually make you fat. That's a huge thing that I want to get across. People see something marbled or slightly fatty on their plate and they think, 'a minute on the lips, forever on the hips.' It's that association that if I eat fat I will be fat, which is totally erroneous. But it's a very hard habit to break.

Gremolata: Let's clarify this point a little bit. Your book is about animal fat...

Jennifer McLagan: The "bad" fat.

Gremolata: Right, and fat has calories, so...

Jennifer McLagan: Everything has calories. If you eat enough calories, if you eat too much of anything, then you'll gain weight. Nothing succeeds like excess, said Oscar Wilde, but unfortunately it's all about moderation. Boring, but true.

My argument, which is hard to convince some people of, is that it's easier to eat less fat - less of things with fat - because it's so much more satisfying. Whereas other stuff that doesn't have fat isn't very filling, so you eat more and more and more of it. Think if the difference between a pork belly and a tenderloin. After three slices of pork belly, you've had it. But you cold eat a whole pork tenderloin without thinking about it because there is no fat. There's nothing to tell you you're satisfied while you're eating it. So, eat fat, lose weight.

Gremolata: You live part of the time in Paris. Did this book come out of the so-called French Paradox?

Jennifer McLagan: Well, there that thing where the French don't have a fear about fat. They don't see it as something that's undesirable, or something that's bad for you. They have a much more positive relationship with fat. And the French Paradox is true to a point. But what I notice now is the younger generation. They're still French, but they're not eating like their parents did. They're eating fast food.

They're eating prepared food. They eating take-out and they're eating in the street. All those horrible North American habits. And guess hat's happening? They're getting fat, there's an obesity crisis, diabetes. It's that whole thing: as soon as you stop eating meals, at a table, in moderation with a kind of structure, you're sitting in front of the TV throwing calories into your face. That's what happens, right? As soon as you outsource your food to someone else, you don't know what's in it you get all those extra calories and junk. And that's what makes you fat.

Gremolata: OK, but what about cholesterol and heart disease? Blocked arteries and all that?

Jennifer McLagan: Well, I think there's a big myth about cholesterol. Cholesterol is a big part of your body. Everybody needs cholesterol, it's used to heal your body and your brain is actually made mostly of cholesterol... The link between saturated fat, which most people think animal fats are and which they are not entirely, and cholesterol and hear disease has never been proven. It's been associated with it, but it's never been a direct link. From all the surveys I've studies, and even talking to doctors, it's pretty hard to adjust your cholesterol level by what you eat. That's why people go on drugs. The human body's really complex, and there isn't anybody who really understands how it all works. And even if you and I eat the exact same food, our bodies will have different reactions to it. And now they're discovering the might be link between low cholesterol levels and diseases like Parkinson's. But you know, I'm not a doctor or a scientist, so I don't really know. I just don't think that fat is all that bad for you. Not in moderation.

Gremolata: I have to admit I had a hard time following the part in your book about poly-mono-whatsits.

Jennifer McLagan: That's right: it's really complicated. I tried in that beginning chapter to explain it as simply as possible. It took me a long time to understand all these chains and molecules. There needed to be some science to support what I was saying, but what I really wanted to get through to people was that there is no such thing as a totally saturated fat. People think that animal fat is saturated fat. It's just not true. Every fat is saturated and unsaturated. When it's unsaturated, it's poly and mono-unsaturated. And from here it's important to understand about poly-unsaturated fats and how fragile they are; how easily they're broken down by light and heat. So that's why we should maybe rethink this embrace of poly-unsaturated vegetable oil fats and go back to using saturated and mono-saturated animal fats for our cooking, because they are so stable. And the big advantage of animal fats is that when they are rancid, you know straight away. But with colorless, odorless vegetable oil that's been processed so mechanically, you have no idea whether it's rancid or not. And rancid fat is not something you should be putting into your body.

Animal fat? We've been eating it for 10,000 years and we're all still here, so it can't be that bad for you.

Gremolata: What about olive oil?

Jennifer McLagan: I have nothing against olive oil. It's a fruit oil, olives are fruits. As long as it's made properly. But the olive oil most people buy to cook with - not the one for salad - is often in a clear bottle, which is bad. There's no date on it, and it only lasts two years. So you have to be aware that it's not the panacea for everything. Plus my argument is I love it , but I don't want it in every dish I'm making. I don't always feel like Mediterranean. Sometimes I want another flavor in there.

Gremolata: I remember the Quebecois cooking personality Ricardo telling me we should eat more butter because our [French and British] culture was a butter culture.

Jennifer McLagan: Well, like I like to tell everybody: a cow has four stomachs. They're designed to eat grass. Grass is green. Green is where we get Omega-3's. You can get them from fish that eat plankton, or from butter, milk and cream from cows that eat grass. It's in lots of animals that have been properly, naturally raised.

Gremolata: OK, butter I get. But lamb fat?

Jennifer McLagan: Well, lamb fat is what gives lamb flavor. Either you like it or not. But it's so great - not on its own, but when it's bound to the meat - with beans. You really can't have baked beans, or any kind of beans dish, without fat. Or Chapattis - I do a recipe where you just brush a little bit on. It's quite tasty.

Gremolata: So you render it?

Jennifer McLagan: Yup. You render it and add the liquid lamb fat.

Gremolata: So, where do you get your fat?

Jennifer McLagan: I go to my butcher and ask him for some fat. In these fat-phobic days, that's what they're trimming off. Think of Berkshire pork, and the amount of fat on that. Even for the people who really love meat, they have to trim some of it off. I'm quite happy to put my hand up and take it. Sometimes you have t buy it, but if you have a good relationship with your butcher, then you should be able to just take it. Sometimes they sell it. Sometimes you see lard - if it's on the shelf, then they've done something to it. Any animal fat needs to be refrigerated or frozen, or it will go off. You can also render it yourself, and then you know exactly where it comes from and what's in it.

G: So what's the difference between suet and lard?

Jennifer McLagan: Suet is almost always beef or veal, and it's the fat from around the kidneys. It's very, very hard and firm. It's inside the body, which is warm, so it's more saturated. It makes wonderful steamed pudding. What's really great about it is that you don't really have to render suet. You can finely grate it and use it for whatever you want. Or you can render it and make a tallow for deep frying in.

Gremolata: Tallow is just rendered fat, right?

Jennifer McLagan: Yes, usually beef.

Gremolata: And what's the difference between it and lard?

Jennifer McLagan: For me lard is pork fat. There are several different kinds of lard. There's general lard, which is rendered back fat. There's another lard that comes from around the kidneys, again - and that's called leaf lard. Leaf lard is really prized by pastry makers because it has a crystalline structure.

What's really great about pork fat, for me, is that it isn't piggy. It's a very neutral flavor, so you can put into desserts, you can make cookies.

Gremolata: And there's chicken and duck fat.

Jennifer McLagan: Duck fat seems like an approachable fat for lots of people, after butter, and you see it in specialty stores. I often say, if you want to introduce an animal fat to your cooking, start with duck fat and roast some potatoes. So delicious, and duck fat is about 66% unsaturated, so it's a good for you fat to cook with.

And you can use chicken fat too. They've actually discovered that there is something in chicken fat that boosts your immune system. So it's actually true that chicken soup is good for you.

Gremolata: you just have to see the circles of fat on the surface.

Jennifer McLagan: Right! You know, in the Southwest of France they've been cooking with duck fat and goose fat forever and they have one of the lowest rates of heart disease in the world. It's not just the red wine they're drinking.

Gremolata: And you get a lot of fat from even the skin off a duck breast.

Jennifer McLagan: Yes, absolutely. I keep telling people keep the fat every tome you roast a joint or a bird. I mean, you might keep a little bit for the gravy, but what do you do with the rest? You throw it away, when you could keep it in the freezer. I keep my goose fat from Christmas to use the next year. Just strain it, and then you can cook in it. You can sauté some vegetables in it. Or if you're making a stew, sauté the onions and aromatics in that fat. You just layer in those flavors.

Of course, the best of all is bacon fat. Smoky, salty: you've got everything there. Even if you wanted to steam your vegetables (for some strange reason) you could pour a little melted bacon fat over them for all that added flavor.

Gremolata: That's what you do with your dandelion salad, right?

Jennifer McLagan: Well, it's pretty classic, but I really wanted to show people that you could use fat to dress up a salad - it's just fat, like oil. And you can combine with vinegar or lemon juice to make a dressing.

Gremolata: Do you think people will get it?

Jennifer McLagan: You know it's only been about 30 or 40 years that we've had this terrible fear of fat, and it's really only a North American thing. Almost all other cultures embrace fat. My Vietnamese hairdresser told me about how he'll have a bowl of rice with a little pork fat poured on top. In the Ukraine they're crazy for salo [smoked, salted pork back fat], and Italy! You know the Italians aren't just into lardo, if you've ever seen a Northern Italian make risotto at least half a pound of butter will go in. We just have to get over our won strange relationship with fat and remember that it's really good.

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Read about Jennifer McLagan's Bones here. Or click here to browse Jennifer McLagan's books in Gremolata's Books library.


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