LOWELL - Remember when “fat’’ wasn’t a dirty word? Didn’t think so. Fat has been reviled for so long by so many that a recent presentation titled “Ode to Fat’’ at the Lowell National Historical Park was bound to raise a few eyebrows (and perhaps expand a few waistlines).
Part of the park’s Lowell Folklife Series, “Ode to Fat’’ brought together home cooks from four culinary traditions to discuss the role of fat in their cuisines and their cultures. It quickly became apparent that if fat is the goo that clogs our arteries, it’s also the glue that holds together traditions of the table in many parts of the world.
“We aren’t here to argue about trans fats or obesity,’’ says moderator David Blackburn, the park’s chief of cultural resources, to begin the session. “We’re here to talk about fat as it connects to cultures.’’ And while it may seem perverse to celebrate fat in January, our unofficial diet-resolution month, Blackburn says that winter, with its emphasis on warming comfort foods, is actually the perfect time to fete fat.
For these panelists, fat is much more than a medium for frying. Yogesh Kumar, owner of Sai Baba Market in Chelmsford, describes how ghee - clarified butter with all the moisture cooked out of it - is used in his native India as a skin moisturizer, a flavor enhancer, and a spiritual offering.
Husband and wife Sam and Gail Poulten are here to talk schmaltz, the chicken fat rendered with onions that gives traditional Jewish cooking so much of its flavor - and heft. Gail Poulten points out that schmaltz’s most important role is to add taste and fat to kosher meat meals, where dairy (and hence butter) is forbidden. Sam Poulten adds that schmaltz has an almost magical ability to bring together men and women in the traditional kitchen, because men are drawn to the gribenes, which are the fatty cracklings left from the schmaltz-making process. “Instant heart attack, like fried dough without the dough,’’ he says. “It’s a delicacy.’’
With traditional fats, a little can go a long way, and they can be used almost like condiments. Lucia DiDuca says that today it’s popular to tout the health benefits of olive oil, the preferred fat of her native Italy. “They say it lowers this or raises that, but we’re really interested in how it tastes.’’ She holds up a small jar of oil made in her hometown; it is an appealing green-gold, but DiDuca notes that it actually should be stored in dark-colored glass to block out light, which can deteriorate oil.
Old habits die hard. Panelist Kurt Levasseur, whose family makes baked beans with fatback salt pork at Cote’s Market, a longtime Lowell fixture, says, “People come in for a quart of beans, and they ask for extra pork, or say give me half pork, half beans.’’ Customers spread the fat on bread or perhaps use it for the “beanwiches’’ Levasseur grew up on: beans and pork fat on a roll. “Fat,’’ says Levasseur, stating the obvious, “makes everything taste better.’’ Cote’s might go through 200 pounds of Canadian fatback on a typical Friday.
After the presentation, attendees sample Cote’s beans from the pot. These French Canadian beans are savory, soupy, and studded with chunks of meltingly tender fatback. Kumar opens a jar of ghee, and some stir a spoonful of it into their beans, for a truly cross-cultural treat.
Fat phobics might do well to heed Blackburn’s idea that “our bodies can’t function without fat.’’ But Sam Poulten makes a trenchant point about schmaltz semantics, too, noting that a movie, a song, even a person, can be described as “schmaltzy,’’ or sentimental and maudlin.
Sounds like a put-down, but not in Poulten’s book: “What separates schmaltzy from corny is love,’’ he says. “There’s a lesson of life in schmaltz.’’
Not to mention in olive oil, ghee, and salt pork.