Jennifer McLagan says she grew up eating fat and never realised it was supposed to be bad for her, “We bought lard from the butcher’s store and I think it was through the 1970s in Australia that it started to change. In the US, people were trying to find out why heart disease was increasing and all of a sudden something we’d been eating from the beginning of time became ‘bad’ for us. If they’d been right we should now all be very healthy and fit and heart disease should have disappeared, but it’s not like that.”
Growing up in Australia, Jennifer is now based in Toronto, Canada, and says the manipulation of foods to make them ‘lite’ in itself creates a problem, “Once you take the fat out, you have to put something back in because fat carries flavour – fat is flavour. When fat is taken out it’s usually replaced with sugars, they replace the fats with carbohydrates. Replacing expensive animal fats with cheap vegetable oils only benefits industrial food manufacturers.”
Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma has said, ‘Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food’, and while Jennifer McLagan agrees with that statement, she says it’s not quite that simple.
“My grandmother didn’t eat starfruit, or ginger, and hardly any garlic so I think we have to be a little careful of that, but I agree with him that if we’re shopping at the supermarket we should be shopping around the outside where the fruit and vegetables are. The yam and the sweet potato doesn’t have a sign on it saying it’s fat-free or gluten-free. Science doesn’t have all the answers and when it comes to diet it’s very complex and complicated and each one of us is our own organism and what we eat will react differently with our bodies.”
Why does fat contain flavour? Jennifer says there are a lot of things that can only be carried by fat-volatile oils, “It’s also a way to deliver vitamins, a lot of our vitamins are only fat-soluble so when people buy skim milk or 0% milk – which isn’t milk at all – and it’s got added vitamins A and D, they’re fat-soluble vitamins. You need fat for your body to be able to take them in! What’s wrong with whole milk? I grew up with milk that had cream on the top of the bottle and it’s only 3.8% fat – it’s not like it’s a huge amount of fat and it’s very good for you. Eating fat doesn’t make you fat. Fat is wonderfully satisfying, so if you eat something with a good amount of fat in it you get pretty full and you don’t have a second or fourth piece of pork belly, but those fat-free cookies? You could eat a whole package!”
Jennifer McLagan has released several fascinating books about food – ‘Fat’ is just one, there is also ‘Odd Bits’ and ‘Bone’, so where does her fascination with the bits that are often considered waste in a Western diet come from?
“I grew up with split pea and ham bone soup, Irish stew, brains and bacon, we ate ox tail. These were the foods of my childhood and they were delicious. I worked in North America as a food stylist for a long time and everything was boneless, tasteless chicken breast and it was driving me crazy. Why aren’t we eating the bone? Why are we throwing the best part of the animal away and thinking the lean fillet is delicious when it isn’t. I went on a quest to bring that back, to try to convince people that these were the most delicious parts of the animal to eat. Organ meats are full of vitamins and minerals and people are scared of them but they’re absolutely delicious.”
“It isn’t that far back that we were eating all those things but with industrial farming meat became very cheap so we could all eat steak all the time and thought it was better, but it isn’t. It’s much more interesting to eat heart and lung and liver and ox tail and there’s lots of ways of cooking them and eating them.”
“It’s interesting how we now see them as second-rate cuts when we should see them as the prime cuts.”
Jennifer points out that fats are not equal. Pork, for example, is unsaturated fat.
“Everyone thinks animal fats are saturated fats. But there’s saturated and unsaturated – unsaturated you can break down into polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat. Every fat is a mixture of those things.”
“In something like pork fat there is more unsaturated fat than saturated. Any fat that sits at room temperature and gets soft or more liquid – the more unsaturated it is. I never cook anything in vegetable oil. I cook with olive oil, which comes from a fruit, and I like to cook with animal fat because I like to cook beef in beef fat, chicken in chickent fat, and I like to carry that flavour through. I like to work with a fat that I can smell and see if it’s rancid or not, with a vegetable oil I have no idea if it’s rancid. You don’t want to put rancid fat in your body.”