Grease Is Good!

Are lard, eggs, and fish tacos the new health foods?

It's easy to be cynical about nutrition. After all, the rules keep changing on us. Not long ago butter was the devil, and we were told to eat oily, foul-tasting margarine to preserve the old ticker. Now it turns out that the marge we were wiping on our Wonder was loaded with trans fats, which will kill you as surely as drinking a glass of Gowanus Canal water. Known more properly as trans fatty acids or hydrogenated fats, trans fats are liquid vegetable oils like corn, canola, or soy that have been combined with hydrogen under pressure, resulting in deathly solid white fat, used ubiquitously in cookies, chips, cakes, candies, microwave popcorn (thanks, Orville Redenbacher!), and myriad other snack products. Naturally, the government is not forcing manufacturers to reveal trans fats on product labels until 2006. Take your time, guys. Trans fats are hiding in those chicken nuggets too, and in zillions of other overprocessed fast foods. Want to know what trans fat looks like? Open a can of Crisco. It sure makes good pie crusts, though.

Until recently, we were warned to avoid lard as the world's most cantankerous fat. Now, it turns out that lard has half the saturated fat of butter, so when it comes to chasing the chimera of healthfulness, pick lard. Unfortunately, the only place I can think of where you can eat pure lard, aside from a few Brighton Beach delis, is OTTO (1 Fifth Avenue, 212-995-9559), where Mario Batali—not himself a particularly healthy specimen—has bravely swaddled one of his delectable cracker crust pizzas with lardo, the mellow-tasting cured lard beloved of northern Italians. Of course, if you're lucky, the local cuchifrito stand is frying its pork morsels in lard rather than butter or Crisco. I can personally attest to the fact that the delectable pork cracklings stacked in the window at East Harlem's CUCHIFRITOS FRITURAS (168 East 116th Street, no phone) have been fried in pure lard, which render the thick pieces of skin a crisper and richer cousin of Styrofoam. And I mean that in a good way.

East Harlem might even be called the Land of Lard, because radiating outward from the cuchifrito stand are dozens of institutions that never forsook lard, even in the ignorant darkness of the Lardless Days. Looking like a Japanese lady's fan, only made of layered pork, lard, and skin, the chicharrones de cerdo at SABOR BORINQUEÑO (158 East 119th Street, 212-534-9400) are not only beauteous, they're delicious too. The delicate ribs are cut against the bias and serve as a staging platform for the miraculous meat fan. The lard itself has been fried in lard—it's what the French call a confit. Indeed, there's no doubt lard is the perfect frying medium. In American Fried, Calvin Trillin quotes Kansas City barbecue god Arthur Bryant on the subject of french fries: "I get fresh potatoes and cook them in pure lard. . . . Pure lard is expensive, but if you want to do a job, you do a job."

East Harlem's premier health food emporium
photo: Tamara Rosenblum
East Harlem's premier health food emporium

Let's face it. Grease is good. The city has never gone through a worse era of bad food than the low-fat mania of the 1980s, still vestigially represented in the marketplace by awful products like TASTI D-LITE. And our butcher shops have never recovered, either. Ever try to make a burger out of low-fat ground beef? It turns out crumbly and flavorless. And when you buy a brisket to barbecue, you've got to grab the butcher's arm before he trims off all the fat. (My apologies to lady butchers. By the way, have you ever seen one?) Indeed, you can't have barbecue without plenty of fat, which is the reason most local barbecues are abysmal. Still, you would think low fat is synonymous with virtue if you gaze at labels while wandering through GRISTEDES. The dairy case, in particular, is crammed with low-fat and no-fat products, and they taste like crap.

The low-fat '80s gave way to the no-carb '90s, and I can't tell you with what astonishment I observed the obese tucking into giant, yawning plates of greasy bacon and eggs but denying themselves the single darkling slice of buttered toast (or lard-topped, if you will) that would have made the meal palatable. Atkins and South Beach tendencies are still over-represented on restaurant menus, and restaurateurs are gleefully dispensing with the conventional bread basket at dining venues all over town, often because their customers piously refused to touch the stuff while pigging out on gigantic apps and entrées. Hey folks, bread is the staff of life! At the new Italian restaurant GUSTO (60 Greenwich Avenue, 212-924-8000), for example, your meal begins with anchovy-rubbed red radishes, with nary a bread basket in sight. I want my carbs!

And what about eggs, those damnable repositories for the most fearsome fat of all, cholesterol? Of course, it will probably turn out that the body manufactures just as much cholesterol as it wants, responding to factors such as stress—and the culinary disappointment of eating meals with no cholesterol. And it may just turn out that the health (and financial) benefits of eating eggs far outstrip the negative effects of the cholesterol, which might not even be absorbable by the bloodstream. Most beneficially, eggs are packed with protein, vitamins, and minerals, and it was recently reported that free-range eggs—if you can get your hands on them—have half the cholesterol of caged ones.

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