Fats, Gods, and Fire

I consider Harold McGee a Moses of Food, that is, he’s come down from the mountain with tablets announcing what cooking is really about, and what natural laws we should follow. Concerning the Holy Tablet of Fats, here are his words from On Food and Cooking,

Fats and oils are members of a large chemical family called the lipids, a term that comes from the Greek for “fat.”  Fats and oils are invaluable in the kitchen: they provide flavor and a pleasurable and persistent smoothness; they tenderize many foods by permeating and weakening their structure; they’re a cooking medium that allows us to heat foods well above the boiling point of water, thus drying out the food surface to produce a crisp texture and rich flavor. (797)

I feel very close to fat.  Here is pig fat I cooked in San Diego.

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Pork belly fat in Houston before smoking

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After smoking.

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The smell of burning fat pleases the gods in Homer’s world.  Here, in Book Three of The Odyssey, Nestor carries out a very clear ritual process involving sacrifice and feasting.  Notice the importance of fat.

When the axe severed

The sinew of the neck, and the heifer collapsed,

The women raised the ritual cry, Nestor’s daughters,

The wives of his sons, and his august wife,

Eurydice, eldest of Clymenus’ daughters.

Then the men raised the heifer’s head from the ground

And held it for Peisistratus to cut the throat.

When the black blood had flowed out, and the life

Left the bones, they butchered the heifer,

Jointing the thigh pieces in ritual order

And covering them with a double layer of fat

And with bits cut raw from the rest of the carcass.

These the old man burned on split logs

And poured bright wine over them.  At his side

Were young men holding five-tined forks.

When the thigh pieces were burned and the innards tasted,

They carved up the rest, skewered the pieces,

And roasted them holding the spits in their hands.  (493-510)

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Nice close-up of fat foaming in a pan courtesy of cookingmadly.com.  Fat ensures a connection between the divine and human, between fire, world and human.  Fat allows us to transform the heat of fire, the lick of the flames into a pleasing aroma and taste so essential for cooking.  Indeed, as Heraclitus thought, fire is at the root of all life.  Here’s a photograph of an eruption at Cordón Caulle, in Chile taken by Francisco Negroni.

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This world-order did none of gods or men make, but it always was and is and shall be: an everlasting fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures.  (Fragment 30)

Fire continues the creation and destruction of the world.  This is not the same as Thales’ water as the source of all things, rather, like animals born, raised, slaughtered, offered to the gods and eaten by humans, fire appears and disappears as a reminder of what is around us, but we only glimpse for a moment before it returns to darkness.

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