A few years ago I read a cookbook called Fat, a celebration of flavor written by Jennifer McLagan. A few days later, I tried the sage butter sauce recipe with pasta: Fry 30 fresh, whole sage leaves in ½ lb. butter on medium heat for about 10 minutes, just until the butter begins to brown and the leaves turn crispy. Meanwhile, boil 3/4 pound of pasta in salted water and drain when done. Pour the sauce over the cooked, hot pasta and serve with a simple green salad and some fruit. I added steamed beet greens to the pasta as well. It was heavenly. The sage lost its tangy, sharp, fuzziness as it was transformed into something much softer around the edges. The gentle, flavorful crunch paired with the chewy, slippery pasta was unbelievably satisfying, and we ate nothing more that evening — no popcorn, no chocolate, no ice cream.
One-half pound of butter?! It sounds like a lot, though each serving ended up with significantly less, of course. A small portion is extraordinarily satisfying; a large portion is overdoing it. You need fat, and you’ll get it wherever you can if you don’t get it from nourishing sources. The “French paradox,” the observation that the French remain slender despite the quantity of butter and cream in their diet, is only a paradox if you believe that fat is the enemy. There is no paradox. Fat is nourishing. Good fats, that is.
Fat nourishes and satisfies. Fat is absorbed by a pathway that uses virtually no insulin. That’s why, one hundred years ago, before there were any medications for diabetes, the ONLY treatment for diabetes was a high-fat diet. Fat is dense with nutrients, vitamins and, most of all, flavor.
The low-fat, no-fat message is a major contributor to America’s diabetes and obesity problem.
You may already know about the variety of nourishing fats in olive oil, avocados, dark chocolate, nuts (and nut butters), seeds (like pumpkin or sunflower), and deep sea fatty fish. If not, I hope you’ll start to include a lot more of them in your diet.
The butterfat in dairy products is unique, in part because it contains an unusually diverse collection of fatty acids. These fatty acids serve as building blocks for the ceaseless repair and remodeling that goes on all our lives. Of course, they are especially important for all young mammals, who are busily building and growing their bodies in the months and years immediately after birth.
Which fats aren’t food? The fats that were invented in the 20th century. Like soybean, corn, “vegetable,” cottonseed oil. When did cotton enter the food supply? I’m not sure about canola either, frankly. Canola stands for CANadian Oil Association. That’s not the name of a food.
Where do you find those fats? In synthetic fat products, such as margarine, Crisco, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, coffee whiteners, and refined, ultra processed oils. These products are not food. They are food-like, but they do not nourish you. You may put them into your mouth and swallow, but they do not sustain you. Let’s talk about margarine. Any way you slice it, margarine is not butter. Most margarines are made from hydrogenated soybean oil. Sometimes with a little bit of butter. But don’t be fooled.
The word margarine is related to margalit, the Hebrew word for pearl. Margarine exits the machine a pearly gray color. My mother, born in 1936, remembers when “oleo” was sold with a tiny bead of red food coloring. Kneading the red bead into the gray, waxy material, as she did with her thoroughly modern Aunt Helen, slowly turned the gray wax into a yellow-colored product that more closed resembled butter. In those days, the dairy lobby was more powerful than the soybean lobby. Now it’s the reverse.
One way to identify products that are not really foods is by their names. Instead of being called by names our great-ancestors would have recognized (like butter and yogurt), they have fanciful names with healthful, pseudo-scientific, old-fashioned, or playful connotations that are meant to evoke all kinds of warm, cozy feelings.
Product categories like margarine, with its endlessly creative, industry-generated names, are not food. Think about Smart Balance (seesaw), Blue Bonnet (hi granny!), Promise (not really), Country Crock (old-fashioned, homemade), Benecol (bene means good, col evokes cholesterol), or I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter (why not—we just told you?). These are not foods, and your own granny would likely have told you the same.
One last point I’d like to make. When you choose animal-based fats, such as dairy from cows or eggs from poultry, do your best to choose products that come from the most well nourished animals to which you have access. I know these products cost more, but if that means you eat better quality animal-based food less often, and eat more vegetables and beans at other times, that’s a win.
Remember that you are what you eat, and you are also what what-you-eat eats. Any time you eat anything that ate a substandard diet, you concentrate it up the food chain. Into you.