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Clarifying Butter

Food History Exhibit (Spring 2023)

Lard: A Fat History

Lard: A Fat History

The cultural and culinary attitude toward lard has radically changed. In the United States today, lard is not the preferred cooking fat, but as recently as one hundred and fifty years ago it was a kitchen staple that was found across the country, and from the 18th-20th century, it was a staple in Mexican cuisine and the diet of enslaved Africans. By the 19th century, lard was not only important as a food product, but it also was an important commodity for the United States. Industrialization and exportation to the United Kingdom bolstered swine production and the massive agricultural industry that is found in the United States today. A simple piece of visceral fat influenced early North American cuisine; its impacts, both culinary and economic, can be found even today.

Spanish Introduction of Pigs to North America

In 1493, Columbus brought pigs to the island of Cuba and in 1538 Hernando De Soto introduced pigs to modern day Florida. Left on an unmanned island, the population boomed. Around the same time, pigs were also introduced into Aztec lands in today’s Mexico. Lacking large scale animals, the indigenous populations adopted the pig, and its fat, into their diets. One of the most prevalent becomes a hybrid food: flour tortillas. Indigenous groups along the south-west, had long made flat, grilled bread made from corn. The Spanish largely rejected corn and introduced wheat, which along with lard as an ingredient, were made, cooked, and consumed like their corn cousin. Flour tortillas became increasingly popular with both colonists and indigenous people alike and that influence is seen today in “Tex-Mex” cuisine as well as in Northern Mexico.

Pig Production in the early United States

Pigs were an increasingly important part of the early United States economy. In the early days of colonization, pigs were kept by families and the meat and fat were a large part of one’s diet. In the 19th century, pig production became industrialized. Lard was prized as an import for European countries, specifically the United Kingdom, because their pigs were bred to be far leaner than North American swine. Lard was also an important pantry staple in Europe for use in pies and other baked goods. The larger pigs had a higher volume of visceral fat that could be pressed into leaf lard, which is still today considered the highest quality of lard available. By 1875 the United States was exporting 75 million pounds a year to the United Kingdom and that number would reach 200 million pounds by 1900. This made lard an important part of the early American economy.

A Forced Diet to Finding Freedom through Food

When enslaved African were brought to the English colonies via the Middle Passage in the early beginning in 1619, palm oil was their traditional fat source. On southern plantations they lost their dietary autonomy and largely lived off of what provisions were given to them by plantation owners. Lard, and the offcuts of pork, was the only cooking fat that was available on a consistent basis. They took these cuts and lard, with the influence of African cuisine, and developed dishes such as chicken fried in lard, hoecakes cooked in lard, and collard greens braised with lard. These dishes became entrenched with African-American identity and became the basis not just for Southern foods but were also celebrated as Soul Food in the 20th century.

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