Charlie Sassers mother used lard in everything she cooked. Today, he runs the store for Rock House Farm in Morganton, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. At 87, he still scrambles his eggs in lard.
In the 1930s when times were hard, he recalled, his family would travel from Wilmington in their Model A Ford to a relatives farm east of Clinton and bring back lard, butter, eggs and meat.
Our laps were full on the way back, Sasser remembered.
Lard, Sasser said, was a mainstay for pie crust, biscuits, fried chicken, even cookies and cakes. Vegetables were seasoned with a few tablespoons of lard.
For decades, health-conscious cooks shunned lard because animal fats have long been associated with heart disease. Now its making a comeback. In fact, Sasser sells lard that comes from pigs raised on his family farm.
But Rock House Farm lard is light years away from the blocks of additive-laden commercial lard found in grocery stores. (For many years the trend has been toward pigs so lean they gave little lard to render.) Shelf-stable, hydrogenated shortenings, which we now know are saturated fats, took lards place in pie crusts and biscuits and in the handed-down cast-iron skillets where chicken and ﬁsh were fried.
Along with an increasing number of small farms in North Carolina and across the country, Rock House is raising pigs outdoors instead of in conﬁnement. And once again, those pigs provide lard that, it now turns out, is rich with health beneﬁts, said Tara Wind, a registered dietitian at Wake Med Raleigh.
A lot of the rise in animal fats is from consumers becoming more educated, said Wind. Farmers markets helped people learn to eat better, she added.
For so long, people bought in the supermarket, and now they know that so much is synthetic and were putting that in our bodies. Supermarket lard is usually hydrogenated, she pointed out, which makes it more like the synthetic hydrogenated fats. Wind favors eating fat from animals that were raised on what theyre supposed to be eating, she said.
The fat in an animal is from an animals diet, and, she said, fat from pigs allowed to forage is higher in omega-3. A grain-fed or feedlot animal, Wind said, is not as nutritious, because they are not eating their natural diet.
Lard Lovers network
Wind advocates balance. You also need olive oil and coconut oil, she said. Dont swap out other fats for lard 100 per cent. (Olive oil does break down at a lower temperature, so it is best for dressing salads or as a grace note to a cooked dish.) Lard is about 45 per cent monounsaturated fat the more healthful kind and butter is only about 23 per cent, she said.
Lard is high in monounsaturated fat and oleic acid, which combats bad cholesterol, and is able to take high heat without breaking down the way oils do. It contains no trans fat.
Lard is more monounsaturated than saturated, said Linda Joyce Forristal, a professor in the tourism and hospitality department at Drexel University in Philadelphia, who started Lard Lovers, an online network, about ﬁve years ago. It is now a band nearly 500 strong of those who celebrate lard.
I would prefer to eat lard, knowing the source of it, than oil that I dont know the source of, said Roberto Copa Matos. A trained biochemist turned chef, he renders lard to sell at his Durham restaurant, Old Havana Sandwich Shop, and uses it in cooking.
The Paleo or primal diet that has steadily gained adherents in recent years has been a factor in the lard revival. Abby Mulchi, a veterinarian in George Hildebrand, a small community near Morganton, uses lard in curries and to saute the meat she and her husband Matt, a kennel assistant, use in following a Paleo Diet.
We dont use store-bought lard, Mulchi said. We know Rock House lard is high in omega-3 fatty acids.
On a recent rainy day, Rock House farm manager Asher Wright, 28, bounced along Brown Mountain Beach Road toward the farm in a mud-spattered pickup while talking about the cultural disconnect that happened as people abandoned lard for such replacements as hydrogenated shortening, margarine and soy-based spreads. Wright earned a degree in sustainable agriculture from Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa Valley and followed it with an animal-science masters degree from Clemson University on forage-ﬁnishing beef.
Wright tromped through muddy ﬁelds and forests to check on the pigs, mostly Berkshires, a Japanese breed named Kurabota (prized for fat content), Large Blacks, Gloucestershire Old Spots and a few Tamworths. These breeds out of the past are gaining favor again. They feed on native persimmons, perennial rye, fescue, white and red clover, tree roots and native wild nuts such as hickory, supplemented by molasses and grains, including spent brewers grain from Catawba Valley Brewing.
This varied diet gives their meat a rich, earthy ﬂavor proﬁle, Wright said, a kind of pork-essence taste.
Rock House Farms store has no display cases, just five big chest freezers, which Charlie Sasser obligingly opens for customers. When they see the lard, they begin to reminisce about the ways their grandmothers used lard. Sasser likes to boast that people come from Virginia, Tennessee and South Carolina in search of lard.
And in Charlotte, Sassers son Tom uses the pork and lard at his Mimosa Grill and at Upstream and the Harpers restaurant group.
The secret ingredient
Some lard fans say their beloved fat has a somewhat porky taste that is too strong for some uses. Susan McCann, 52, of Morganton, another Paleo Diet adherent, mixes it with coconut oil. On a recent evening, she sauteed asparagus in that combo.
A few hundred years ago, McCann said, people ate a better ratio of omega 6 to omega 3. Lard from pastured pigs, she said, helps restore that balance. Still, McCann added, it is hard for people to accept the idea that lard wont kill them.
In Rock Hill, Toni Hendrix has gotten on the bandwagon, too. She called Rock House in search of lard after she read the book Lard: The Lost Art of Cooking with Your Grandmothers Secret Ingredient by the editors of Grit Magazine.
I just remembered how really much better the pie crust would be with lard, Hendrix said. The lard she found in the grocery store was commercial and heavily processed, the kind the book warned against buying. She plans to use Rock House lard to attempt biscuits, which have always given her trouble.
If I go back to the way my grandmother did it (with lard), maybe I could do it, she said.
Carter is a former food writer and columnist at Newsday on Long Island, N.Y. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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