The truth about the other white meat.
More than 20 years ago, the National Pork Board started pushing the leanest, cleanest parts of its little piggies with the slogan, “Pork. The Other White Meat,” and the American people—including my mother—totally bought it. And then, for almost the next 20 years, most of us—you, me, our mothers, omnivores all over the country—dutifully ate our tenderloins and center loin chops. They tasted only mildly of pork and had the texture and chewiness of dishtowels, but dammit, they lived up to the slogan and we felt good about eating them.
Only, I didn’t. I was unsatisfied and confused.
How could the pork we ate for breakfast—crunchy-tender, salty, smoky, juicy, soul-satisfying bacon—be so different from the bland, tough, utilitarian pork we ate for dinner and still come from the same animal? I longed for something more. I wanted bacon—or at least the magical je ne sais quoi of bacon—every time I ate pork.
It wasn’t until I was more or less grown up that I would discover—at a barbecue stand in North Carolina, in a Chinatown noodle shop, over a bowl of real spaghetti carbonara—what the Pork Board, my mother and the American calorie- counting neurosis had kept from me: Fat.
Little white ribbons of it running through a Boston Butt. The thick slab of it holding morsels of meat together in a belly cut. Lying there, unadorned and unhindered, in the form of lardo. Rich, beautiful fat, pure as the driven snow.
Both the “other white meat” cuts of my youth and the lard-laden goodies I eat today are mostly made of water, and the flavor of any of those cuts has a lot to do with a grab bag of chemical compounds and molecules that create aromas and flavors as the meat is cooked and eaten. What separates the two, what makes one a chore to eat and gives the other the power of a religious epiphany, is the fact that a good deal of those flavor and aroma compounds don’t jive with water, but take nicely to fat, which creates a “flavor reservoir,” where the compounds can hang out, unwind and be delicious.
Lean cuts just don’t provide enough fat for all that flavor to join the party. Fatty cuts, though, give the flavor compounds enough room to bring all their friends over, and then serve as a vehicle to bring them straight to your tongue.
That OMFG moment you have every time you eat a slice of bacon or bite into a pulled pork sandwich? That’s flavor taking a road trip to your mouth, and fat is the party bus delivering it.
“Whoa, hold up,” you cry. “Isn’t fat bad? Isn’t that why we ate all those bone-dry pork chops to begin with?” Well, yes. Saturated and trans fats boost your cholesterol levels, which can increase your risk of developing cardiovascular problems—not to mention love handles.
But lard and lardasses don’t always go hand in hand and pork fat isn’t an automatic death sentence. Pure, natural fat straight from the hog—not the shelf-stable lard in a tub, which has been battered with hydrogen to give it a long shelf life, and imbued with trans fats in the process—is about 50 percent monounsaturated fat, mostly in the form of oleic acid (the “good fat” you normally turn to olive oil for), while its saturated fat content is only about 40 percent.
Of course, this isn’t an excuse to get high on the hog. All things in moderation, as they say. That’s good advice for your body and your sense of reverence. A world in which the lard almighty has lost its allure is not a world I want to live in.
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PW's Taste of Philly 2014