Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Another food question

My father grew up during the depression and served in the military during World War Two. As was common with that generation my mother was the cook and baker in my family. But Dad had a few food specialties that he commanded. One, of course, was the manly art of barbeque. Most men of his generation felt that the open flame was their special sphere of cooking. In those days, scorching a slab of lightly seasoned beef over a properly prepared grill was a man's role. Preparation, clean-up, side dishes, and dessert were women's work. But the scorching was manly. Not much has changed in many households since then, except that both the women and the men are less competent around raw ingredients than in my Dad's prime.

Among my own generation, I'm probably bragging to say that my Dad had a second specialty where our meals were concerned. My Dad fixed hot breakfast for us. He fried the eggs and made our pancakes whenever we were all up together at the same hour, which mostly meant holidays and camping trips. Still, I think of my Dad as not only the master of the grill, but also of the griddle and the cast iron frying pan.

This was brought home to me last Fall one day when I was visiting my widowed mother. My Mom is a world-class cook. When I was a kid, she baked our bread*, she canned our preserves, she pickled our pickles, and fixed us healthy and interesting meals on a tiny budget. Being at Mom's, therefore, I was surprised when we prepared to have a big breakfast and she suddenly handed me a pan and asked me to fix the eggs.

I murmured, "Okay," and pulled out the pan that I was most comfortable working with. We were all having fried eggs, so I pulled out a small, rounded bottom, saute pan, with a lid. I heated the pan and added a pat of butter. My mother looked disapprovingly at the butter and said, "At your age, shouldn't you worry about cholesterol?"

"Here," she continued, reaching for a brushed steel can, "use the bacon grease."

When I was a kid growing up, one of my mother's favorite expressions was "sarcasm is wasted on children." I was never quite sure what she meant by that. In any case, my sisters and I all grew up to be very literate and ironic in our humor.

Which brings me to fat, and the question of the day.

A few years ago, I was reading Paul Kovi's Transylvanian Cuisine, a cookbook of old Central European food that I bought when I worked in a bookstore in Alaska. The book includes about a hundred pages of essays about Central European cooking and over three hundred recipes. Most of the recipes consist of stuffing something with chopped meat and onions and covering the cooked result with sour cream and paprika. It is really more of an ethnographic study than a cookbook. How often does the modern (non-Alaskan) American find themselves with a bear's foot wondering how to cook it?

When I was studying Balkan history in grad school I read the cook book from end to end. Deep into the recipes I noticed something unusual. While most of the recipes involved frying something, they were very specific about what kind of fat to use in frying. At first, I thought the recipes were referring qualities of the oil, like the temperature at which they smoke. My experience in fast food restaurants in my twenties told me that most oils were flavorless mediums for frying. The main reason for choosing one oil over another was to find the oil that remained reusable at a given temperature. Finally, I realized that the difference that the Transaylvanian cooks intended was one of flavor. Wild goose fat gives a dish a different flavor than domestic chicken. I began to experiment.

Nowadays, I use five different cooking oils: generic vegetable oil, olive oil, garlic butter, chicken fat, and bacon/sausage grease. At this point, I recall one of my grandmothers explaining that rendered bear fat (shot in the berry season) makes the very best pie crust.**

This, finally, brings me to the question. Who else uses that many different types of fat and oil, why do you use which one, and for what affect? Is rendered bear fat really better than vegetable shortening or lard? Is a pork chop fried in olive oil better than one fried in chicken fat? What about French fries? Share your fatty food knowledge before it passes away.

* Dad's pancakes and Mom's bread were all based on a sourdough culture that came out of Kansas in about 1958. Mom won an Honorable Mention for her whole-wheat sandwich bread at the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous on year in the late seventies. Winning an award for sourdough bread judged by Sourdough Alaskans is no small honor.

** Despite all of my years in Alaska, I was never able to test this. Bummer.

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