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2 may 2016

"We are still unsure about what is or is not healthy," says Michelle Phillipov in her global history of culinary fats (66). Every few years, fears of a demon fat arise in the popular imagination, sending Americans veering from butter to margarine and back again, avoiding fats for carbs and carbs for fats and both for proteins. Meanwhile it seems that no matter what we eat, people develop more and more heart disease (yet thanks to medical advances, survive that heart disease longer and in better shape). Phillipov notes a growing cynicism about official nutritional advice: is everything we hear about what we should eat just a sponsored announcement from one oily lobby or another?

Despite some of the more outlandish 20th-century diets, people must eat fat to live. Phillipov describes the harrowing condition known as "rabbit starvation," where consumption of lean meat and little to no fat leads to appalling symptoms – among them fanatical hunger even in the apparently well-fed. Rabbit starvation is rare, occurring only among groups of castways or in hunting cultures subjected to extreme conditions: otherwise, people with enough access to protein rarely also lack access to fats. But its mere existence warns that extreme limitation of fat intake is not a good thing.

Limiting fat may not even keep you from getting fat, as Phillipov observes. The vogue of low-fat foods in the late 20th century US led to carbohydrates replacing fats in many a processed food. Starches and sugars may not be fatty, but they are full of calories, and you can eat a lot of them at a sitting. Fats tend to satisfy and sustain; carbs can just lead to more carbs.

Long-established traditional diets tend to balance fats with proteins and starches. (The best diet of all might be to pick a balanced proportion and then just eat a bit less of everything.) The great world cuisines, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean and across the Silk Road to India, China and Japan, have their characteristic fats and aren't shy about using them: fish oils, butter, olives, nuts, ghee, coconut, soybeans, sesame.

A theme in many a food book is that foods are neither good nor bad, but processing makes them so – makes them bad, at any rate. Butter and plant oils are now usually seen as good foods, but the process of hydrogenation that can turn a plant oil into a margarine that resembles butter is now looked on as a fairly wicked thing. But if we learned anything from Woody Allen's Sleeper, a film Phillipov quotes wryly, it's that the current wisdom about food wickedness is likely to be overturned in the near future. By the 2020s we may all "know" that trans fats are a panacea.

Olestra, or Olean, is the ultimate in processed fat: not a fat at all, but an indigestible synthetic substance that mimics cooking fats. This really was going to be a panacea in the 1990s, the stuff that would allow us to pig out on potato chips without gaining an ounce. Olestra became inseparable in the public imagination from loose stools and leaky bowels, never a strong marketing combination. Phillipov notes that the controversy over the adverse effects of olestra was never really adjudicated. Unbiased studies (but are such studies every really unbiased?) seem to show that olestra overindulgence is no worse than many another kind of debauchery, and that sticking to the manufacturer's suggested portion size of potato chips will leave you as unleaky as ever. But the portion size is what, three potato chips? Nobody eats that.

Phillipov studies fats in popular culture. Some of this is great stuff, like Homer Simpson's quest to become fat enough to go on disability. Other items are more questionable. Butter sculptures, a peculiarly potlatchy form of food art, can eventually be eaten, I suppose. Postmodern fat art, though, like the great blocks of chocolate and lard gnawed by an artist and then installed in a museum space that Phillipov mentions, have always seemed to me a highbrow form of playing with your food. Children were starving in Biafra, if not longer in Belgium, when I was a kid, and I still don't like to see people playing with their food. Call me uptight, but the only message I get from that is that you have enough fat that you can ostentatiously waste it.

The recipe section of Fats is limited and eccentric. Fats are after all rarely the centerpiece of a dish. Fritters and pastries appear here, and a couple of stews which actually use fats sparingly enough, like Hungarian pörkölt. I chose fasolakia lathera as my test dish: a Greek stew of green beans that uses a respectable quarter-cup of olive oil per pound of beans. The technique is what we'd call "smothering" – slow stovetop braising – in the American South; and I note that except for the olive oil, the dish calls for New World ingredients. It was serviceable, but unable to get really nice fresh ingredients, I used frozen beans, canned tomatoes, and a vapid russet potato. Pace Julia Child, cooking is about 5% technique and 95% ingredients. With creamy new potatoes, fresh ripe tomatoes, and snappy beans, this lathera would have been a good deal better. I would also like to retry it with about four cloves of garlic.

Phillipov, Michelle. Fats: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2016.