Sunday, January 16, 2011

Try, Try Again

Earlier posts:
Swine and Mankind - The satiating power of dietary fat, mankind’s long history with swine, and the changes made to swine through genetic selection and some implications for humans fighting excess fat.
Lard, Glorious Lard – The uses and benefits of lard.


One definition of “try” is to melt or render. The Yankee innovation that permitted the formation of the Yankee whaling industry was figuring out how to move the “try works” from shore-based installations to shipboard ones.

Here’s the process I use to render our lard and beef tallow:
Pork fat from Afton Field Farm
Shred the frozen pork fat in a food processor. (During my first attempt at rendering lard I just cut the fat into chunks, but shredding produces a better yield, in much less time, and the resulting lard is whiter.)
Place the shredded fat in a heavy pan on medium heat.
Our dogs gave us this enameled cast iron Dutch oven for Christmas '09. Good dogs!
Since the fat is shredded, it doesn’t take very long to render (note the time on the stove clock).
Seven minutes later, a significant amount of melting ...
Five more minutes ...
Seventeen minutes later, almost completely rendered.
Once the bubbling has somewhat subsided (about 30 minutes), strain the fat through cheesecloth to remove the cracklins.
Close-up. Almost done.
The yield of rendered fat was almost 85 percent of the starting shredded fat weight.
Pour the fat into loaf pans and allow to cool and solidify at room temperature. Once cooled, place the pans in the refrigerator to fully harden. Once fully hardened, I remove the lard from the loaf pan, wrap in wax paper, put it in a plastic bag, and freeze it.

I use a 1-to-1 mix of lard and tallow for our pemmican and we use lard as a cooking fat, but most of that comes from cooking side pork (the uncured part of the pig that's made into bacon).

Enjoy your fat!

Lard, Glorious Lard!

Earlier post: Swine and Mankind - The satiating power of dietary fat, mankind’s long history with swine, and the changes made to swine through genetic selection and some implications for humans fighting excess fat.


During this country’s pioneer days the hog was the principal source of fat for the diet and lard was widely used for other purposes in everyday life. Two industries are responsible for displacing lard - vegetable oil processing and petroleum.

Industrial processes were developed in the first half of the 20th century to extract, purify, and solidify various vegetable oils (hydrogenation). This created the vegetable-shortening industry. These processes made available vast sources of cheap oils. These could be converted into a texture that made them acceptable as shortening materials. All that was needed was a public relations campaign to convince the American public that these new industrial products were good for them. Petroleum products directly replaced lard as fuels for illumination and as lubricants. Products of the growing petrochemical industry eliminated many other uses of lard.

“Modern agriculture is the use of land to convert petroleum into food.”
Albert Bartlett

Today most hog producers use some type of confinement production. One of the most striking features of the U.S. hog industry has been the rapid shift to fewer and larger operations, associated with technological change and evolving economic relationships between producers, packers, and consumers. Over the past 15 years, the number of farms with hogs has declined by over 70 percent, as individual enterprises have grown larger. These large operations specialize in a single phase of production, replacing the farrow-to-finish operations that performed all phases of production. The use of production contracts has increased. Operations producing under contract are larger than independent operations and are more likely to specialize in a single phase of production. The swine industry is following the poultry industry model of vertical integration.1

Grass-based agriculture minimizes the use of petroleum (and other inputs) in the conversion of sunlight into high quality protein and fat.

I’m not in any way attempting to romanticize a time when life was challenging beyond our ability to imagine. I’ve stood in old graveyards, looking at the markers in the family plot of a distant relative, and experienced the growing sorrow of realizing that this family buried 5 children in the span of a month. Infectious diseases were a significant threat then. No more. Now we die slowly from the chronic western diseases. Nor am I saying that these folks were fine stewards of the natural resources under their management. For the most part these farmers lacked any understanding of preserving, let alone improving, soil fertility. The principles of soil conservation were not known, let alone practiced. The natural resources in settled areas were exploited and then folks moved on - until we ran out of new areas to settle. The settlement of the North American Great Plains was an exercise in trying to force human will upon the environment, instead of attempting to find what the environment would support. But hind sight is always 20/20. I wonder what folks 200 years from now will think of our current practices and attitudes?

When the majority of Americans lived on homesteads and small farms, folks needed to produce what they required, or do without. Theirs were not the industrial farms of today – specializing in the production of single crops or animals. These were integrated animal and cropping enterprises. And the pig was a critical part of these systems. Known as “the mortgage lifter,” hogs produced meat, fat and income from pasture and farm wastes. When the price of grain was low, a farmer could increase it’s value by feeding it to pigs which could be sold for a greater profit. And pork could be shipped to market at lower cost and with greater ease than grain. During a time when life did not depend on petroleum, it might well be said that it depended on the hog. Consider the many uses of lard: sanitation; extermination, illumination, lubrication, fabrication, preservation, medication, nutrition, and transportation. (How’s that for porcine alliteration?)

Sanitation – Soap for washing bodies and clothes was made from lard and lye. The lye was made by pouring rainwater through wood ashes. 2

Extermination – Okay, this one’s a LITTLE scary. “For Bed Bug extermination none need a second trial after mixing lard with red precipitate put on with a feather wherever they are and leave it on.” 4 I bet! Red precipitate is mercuric oxide (HgO)! Just goes to show that the old folks didn’t always have the best information ...

Illumination – Lard was an alternative to the more expensive whale oil. Special lard lamps were available. Pure lard is too soft for use as candles, but a spoonful could serve as fuel for a metal dish lamp called a “crusie,” but these little lamps didn’t throw much light. For better light, the pith from cattail (Typha latifolia) stalks could be dipped in lard and burned. Called rushlights, they produced more smoke and less light that whale oil, but it was less expensive and could be “homemade.”2

Lubrication – Pine tar mixed with lard produced wagon axle grease. Lard was also used as bullet lube.

Fabrication – A liquid can be separated from lard by pressing it. This substance is called olein or lard oil. It is still used in blacksmithing and machining operations to lubricate cutting tools.

Preservation – Lean meat can be preserved by drying. But fat cannot. So dried meat, or jerky, was ground or pounded, and then combined with an equal weight of melted fat to produce pemmican (an earlier post “The Original North American Trail Food”). Confit is a common practice in traditional French cooking. Various kinds of meat or poultry can be cooked in their own fat, and then allowed to cool. The solidified fat will seal the storage vessel and prevent spoilage. A version was practiced on the American frontier, where pieces of ham were stored in lard. My Italian-American father-in-law remembers his family storing sausages in lard.

Medication – The bark of the elderberry (Sambucus sp.) would be simmered in lard to make an ointment to treat “ulcers, boils, carbuncles, burns, and such lesser irritations as abrasions, chafing, rashes, blistering, and so forth.” 3 Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) was a very common ingredient in salves made from lard. 4

Next-to-last, but not least, Nutrition – Until the late 1920’s lard was the primary cooking fat in the US, when it began to be replaced by various vegetable oils and shortenings. This trend accelerated, of course, with the official dietary instruction to limit our consumption of saturated fat and cholesterol. The annual per capita consumption of lard has plummeted from 14.2 pounds in 1940 to 1.7 pounds in 1993. 5

We’ve been told to limit our intake of saturated fat, and the terms “saturated fat” and “animal fat” are often treated as if they’re synonymous. But animal fat is a mixture of different fatty acids. These mixtures differ between animal species and can be influenced by production practices. In general lard is: 
  • 45 percent monounsaturated fatty acids, 91% of which is oleic acid, the principle fatty acid in olive oil
  • 39 percent saturated fatty acids, but more than one third of that is stearic fatty acid, which will increase HDL cholesterol while having no effect on LDL. (Stearic acid is metabolized in the body to oleic acid).
  • And 11 percent polyunsaturated fatty acids, which lowers LDL cholesterol but has no meaningful effect on HDL.

(USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 22 (2009))

In sum, 66 percent of the fat in lard will improve the relative levels of LDL and HDL cholesterol. The remaining 34 percent will raise LDL cholesterol, but will also raise HDL cholesterol and will have an insignificant effect, if any, on the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL.
Am I the only one that sees the irony?
Transportation – I’ve asked some folks involved in researching bio-fuel production from crops why we aren’t looking at small scale production of bio-fuel from animal fat for on-farm use. If the animals weren’t eating human-utilizable feed, it would seem to make far more sense than expending diesel fuel to grow and harvest an oilseed crop, for bio-fuel. Maybe I’m missing something …

Petroleum and petroleum-based products may have replaced lard, but lard's day may come again!

Next post: Try, Try Again (How to render lard and tallow)

1. USDA Economic Research Service. Briefing Rooms. Hogs. Background.
2. Greenwood, B. and H Collins. A Pioneer Sampler: The Daily Life of a Pioneer Family in 1840.
3. Survival Wisdom & Know How: Everything You Need to Know to Thrive in the Wilderness p. 131
4. Good Housekeeping, vol 7. page 186.
5. Ensminger, M.E. and R.O. Parker. 1997. Swine Science. Interstate Publishers, Inc. p 421.
6. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 22 (2009)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Swine and Mankind

Nancy and I have been enjoying some locally-produced, hazelnut-finished, red wattle pork. We purchased it from Heritage Farms Northwest. The oil in the hazelnuts results in a pork fat that’s significantly softer than other pork, indicating a lower saturated fat content. The red wattle is a relatively rare breed of hog, and definitely NOT a producer of “the other white meat.” Last Sunday we enjoyed a breakfast of scrambled eggs with some diced grilled pork chop (including the thick layer of fat, of course!) and caramelized onions. Very rich. This one meal carried us both until well past our usual dinner time. Each of us finally ate something later that evening, more because we felt it was time than feeling all that hungry. Fat satisfies. Fat “sticks to your ribs.” Carbohydrates do not satisfy. The sensation of hunger returns more quickly on carbohydrate-based diets than on fat-based ones. Swine have been the source of dietary fat and protein for some time.

Archaeological evidence indicates that swine were first domesticated about 9000 BCE in the East Indies and southeastern Asia. Swine have been especially amenable to human selection. Many different breeds have been developed over the years. Interestingly, pigs can change back just as easily. When given the opportunity, pigs promptly revert within only a few generations to a wild or feral state in which they acquire the body form and characteristics of their wild progenitors many generations removed.

Swine were introduced to North America by Hernando De Soto in 1539. Their importance to the subsequent history of this continent (and the rest of the world) is hard to over-state. Beginning with their unforeseeable role as a vector for zoonotic diseases (diseases transmissible from animals to humans) that decimated the native American population, continuing through their subsequent role in sustaining the mostly-rural population of the developing nation, and ultimately forming the foundation of Midwestern US agriculture. And the pig’s importance is not limited to North America, which is home to less than 12% of the world’s hogs.
“World distribution of swine, by major areas. (Based on estimates from the FAO Production Yearbook, FAO/UN, Rome, Italy, 1994, pp. 192-194, Table 90).” From Ensminger, M.E. and R.O. Parker.
When one compares the modern pig with its ancestor, the European wild boar, it is obvious how much “gentic manipulation” has taken place! Not through some high-tech approach, obviously, but by a long process of selecting for desirable traits and against negative ones. Disposition would be an obvious criteria!
The European wild boar. From Ensminger, M.E. and R.O. Parker.
But body structure and the degree of “finish” or fat would be others. Through the 19th century, lard-type hogs were favored because of the value of lard. This is reflected in the type of animal that was preferred in the livestock show-rings of that era.

“A Poland China gilt of the chuffy type. Small, refined animals of this type dominated the American show-ring from 1890-1919.” From Ensminger, M.E. and R.O. Parker.
But tastes changed and soon a taller animal was preferred. Fashion is fickle in the breed ring as well as on the designers' runways. It's interesting to note that this trend precedes the low-fat-is-the-healthy-diet message of the last half of the 20th century. Data from 1929 indicated that one average hog carcass provided enough meat for two people for a year, but enough for three people for a year. This over-production of lard was a significant problem, depressing hog prices.
“A Poland China boar pig of the rangy type. Long legged, weak loined, “cat hammed” animals of this type dominated the American show-ring from 1915-1925.” From Ensminger, M.E. and R.O. Parker.
Today’s animal has been selected to produce a maximum of lean meat with even less fat, in part as a response to the market’s demands (which, of coarse, is responding the “conventional wisdom” that animal fat is bad for us).
“1994 World Expo top placing Poland China boar.” From Ensminger, M.E. and R.O. Parker.
For anyone who doubts that genetics can make some constitutionally lean and others constitutionally heavy, look at the differences that genetics can play in the leanness of swine.
“Breeding made the difference! The hogs received the same ration and were slaughtered at the same weight. Not the difference in the amount of lean meat, with the hog on the left being superior.” From Ensminger, M.E. and R.O. Parker.
Consider the implications for humans! Some of us, due to our genetic inheritance, will tend to be leaner than others. Biology isn't fair. And an impaired metabolism may mean that we will carry more fat than if we had not incurred this metabolic damage. What we need to understand is what we must do to be as lean as we're capable of being.

Finally, I’ve heard that these lean hogs have to be raised in confinement with some degree of climate control because their lack of fat makes them susceptible to heat and cold. If we're going to raise livestock, we need to be aware of the conditions the various breeds were selected for.We'll need to choose breeds that match our conditions and management goals.

Next posts:
Lard, Glorious Lard! (the uses and benefits of lard)
Try, Try Again (rendering lard at home)

Ensminger, M.E. and R.O. Parker. 1997. Swine Science. Interstate Publishers, Inc.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Reflection and Anticipation

I’m reflecting on the passing year’s events and looking forward to the new year’s possibilities. Once again, I’m not all that unique!

I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given to speak about this topic I call “Grass Based Health,” and the chance to get reconnected with agriculture. This involved relearning information that I hadn’t utilized for more than fifteen years, and learning a great deal of new-to-me information. It also meant that I got to re-connect with a number of folks, while making many new acquaintances.

I started this blog last spring, shortly before I travelled to Seattle to attend a joint meeting of the American Society of Bariatric Physicians and the Metabolism Society. Listening to presentations by Jacqueline Eberstein, Dr. Richard Feinman, Dr. Stephen Finney, Gary Taubes, Dr. Mary Vernon, Dr. Jay Wortman, and others was an amazing opportunity to learn from the experts in carbohydrate restriction. But speaking with several of the bariatric practitioners, including several physicians, convinced me that this forage agronomist can contribute in this arena! And the non-presenting folks who attended –Laura Dolson, Drs. Michael R. and Mary Dan Eades, Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt, Adele Hite, Jimmy Moore, Dr. Eric Westman, and so many more – reinforced that sense. Thanks to Jimmy, I’ve got a photo of one memorable dinner with the “Low Carb All-Stars.”
Photo by Jimmy Moore
Despite the excitement I felt, I neglected this blog for most of last year. One resolution I’ve made for 2011 is to post at least twice a month, on the first and fifteenth. Let’s see how well I do at meeting that goal!

Speaking of photos and goals, several folks mentioned that they’d like to see a “today” picture to compare with the one I’ve used in my recent presentations and The Beginning of My Journey post, which was taken at Christmas of 2007. So here you go:

Christmas 2007

Christmas, 2010 - Almost 50 pounds lighter!
I recently attended a Continuing Medical Education lecture on carbohydrate restriction and metabolic syndrome at our local hospital. Dr. Jason Phillips did well presenting the material to a difficult-to-reach audience. One member of the audience made a comment about the effectiveness of "diet." As I remember, he said:

“A ‘diet’ is defined as successful if the patient achieves a 10% body weight loss and maintains it for 1 year. By this definition, the success rate of ‘diet’ is 15%, and essentially 0 at 5 years. If ‘diet’ were a medical procedure, it would be labeled malpractice. If ‘diet’ were a medication, it would not be prescribed.”

Knowing that there are so many people who want to improve their health this coming year, but who won’t achieve their goal because they’ve been given the wrong information, makes me very glad that I was introduced to the effective solutions.

I’m looking forward to whatever comes in the new year. The Ancestral Health Symposium in August will be a highlight, I’m sure. I hope to be presenting a poster there, but just getting a chance to listen to those presenters already identified would make it worthwhile. I’m close to achieving my personal goals for weight, health and fitness. The achievement of many other goals seems quite possible, if a bit challenging.

Best wishes from Nancy and I for your coming New Year! May you enjoy your journey at least as much as we’re enjoying ours!!