In defense of fat: Jennifer McLagan on her newest cookbook

Fat. It’s not a pretty word in the North American vocabulary. It is, however, the subject of Jennifer McLagan’s newest cookbook: Fat, an Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient: with Recipes. Compared to the swirl of “low-carb,” “low-fat,” and other trend diets, McLagan’s ideas are more stripped down: “Eat real food. Cook in real fats. Enjoy yourself.” McLagan sat down with The McGill Daily to have a chat about continental diets, the merits of animal fat, and why everyone should put a little flavour back in their lives.

The McGill Daily: What was the inspiration for Fat?

Jennifer McLagan: It started as a joke, but when I thought about it a bit more, I realized that even as a foodie I would see a really fatty piece of pork or steak and feel a pang of guilt, a little voice saying, “it can’t be good for me.”

I started researching, and realized that fat wasn’t all bad. I wanted to remind people of all those wonderful recipes using fat that they had forgotten – foie gras, chicken fried in lard, potatoes cooked in duck fat, etc.

MD: Why do you think the transition to fat substitutes caught on and what are the implications?

JM: Researchers [once] proposed a link between animal fat and increased risk of heart disease, but this was never proven. Even the U.S. government urged people to cut their intake of animal fat, so people turned to vegetable and hydrogenated oils. These were new scientific marvels [of the time] and people loved them, but more recently we’ve discovered that these aren’t good for us.

Now, animal fats have been found to be beneficial. For instance, chicken fat has properties that boost the immune system. Your grandmother said that chicken soup was good for you, and there you go, she was right.

MD: What do you see as the prevalent social attitudes toward fat?

JM: For the last 30 years we’ve reduced the amount of animal fats we use, but not the amount of fat in our diet in general. In fact, we consume more fat today, but they’re the polyunsaturated kind, or trans fat.

It’s true that meats have saturated fats, but there has never been a proven link between eating saturated fat and increased cholesterol and heart disease. You know, the French Paradox is what everyone talks about these days – how the French can eat such fatty foods and still stay slim and healthy. But it’s true for the Inuit too; traditionally they ate a lot of saturated fat, and animal fat, but it’s only since they’ve adopted a North American diet that they’ve developed serious health problems.

MD: Do you think the North American outlook on food is unique, or is it a worldwide trend?

JM: I think the fear of fat is most prevalent in North America, but it’s spreading around the world. We are continually being told that fat is bad. But many cultures celebrate fat: the Ukrainians love their salo, the Italians, lardo, and the Chinese use pork fat extensively. I think there is a schizophrenic relationship to food in North America, and I’m afraid we’re exporting our neurosis around the world. We need to put pleasure back into our diet in North America. We have very little pleasure left when we eat, and that’s a shame.

MD: You mention the role of the media in your book. What do you think the media’s influence is in promoting good attitudes toward foods?

JM: We’re more inclined to take the advice of a celebrity with a diet book rather than our grandmother. I think that’s crazy. We need to think carefully about what we hear – it is usually only snippets of information. The human body is very complex, and science doesn’t fully understand how it works or what makes someone fat or healthy. But I think that if people weren’t meant to eat animal fat, we would have died out long ago.

To quote A.A. Gill, “most people today are food literate; they can read a menu in three languages, but they can’t make food on their own.”

This is the problem: people are into food trends, but they can’t roast a chicken. We all need to be able to cook. Cooking isn’t a competitive sport; it’s just making something to eat, a simple skill we should all possess.

MD: Do you see your book as advocating for more balance in our diets?

JM: You can make the case that too much of anything will kill you, not just fat. Life is all about moderation. Maybe that’s boring, but it’s a fact.

The messages in my book are simple. Eat real food. Cook in real fats. Enjoy yourself. Relax about what you’re eating. You’ll probably loose weight if you’re satisfied when you’ve eaten, and that’s what fat does, it satisfies you, as well as adding all that wonderful flavour and taste.

Mostly, I see my book as a defense of animal fats. It’s an attempt to give them some good press, when they’ve been getting such bad press for so long. There are lots of good animal, natural fats out there that we should be eating.

People need to look at fat again. They need to reevaluate what they’re eating. Fat is where the taste and the flavour is. Dinner should be a pleasure, not a minefield.

– compiled by Nadja Popovich


“This is my friend Colin’s recipe. One evening when he came over for dinner he
brought his own salad and dressing. I was a bit miffed, until I tasted it. The combination
of grapefruit and hot duck fat sharpened with vinegar was wonderful. Colin
poured it over a bowl of shredded napa cabbage, and I’ve since made this dressing
with foie gras and goose fat and poured it over everything from spinach to dandelion
greens. If you have any duck cracklings they make an excellent addition
to this salad.”

Duck Fat and Grapefruit Salad Dressing

Serves 4

2 grapefruit

6 cups / 300 g shredded napa cabbage

1/4 cup / 13/4 oz. / 50 g duck fat

1 tbsp finely chopped shallot

1 tbsp sherry vinegar

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Finely grate 2 tsp of zest from 1 grapefruit and set aside. Cut a thick slice off the top and bottom of both grapefruit to expose the flesh. Stand the fruit on a cutting board and cut away both the skin and the pith. Holding the fruit over a bowl, cut along either side of each segment to the centre to free it from the membranes. Squeeze the juice from the spent membranes. Measure 1/4 cup / 60 ml of the juice, pour into a bowl, add the zest, grapefruit segments, and set aside.

Place the shredded cabbage in a serving bowl.

Heat 1 tbsp of the duck fat in a small frying pan over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook until softened and just beginning to colour. Add the remaining duck fat and the grapefruit zest, segments and juice to the pan and stir until hot. Add the vinegar and season well with salt and pepper.

Pour the hot dressing over the shredded cabbage and toss to mix.

Serve immediately.

From Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes by Jennifer McLagan. In stores now. Published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.