When I was growing up my mom would always use empty vegetable tin cans to collect fat drippings, and then they would just sit there, for days, weeks...inevitably they would eventually be thrown out but I always wondered: "It sure seems a waste. Can you do anything with it?" Now that I know about traditional food preparation the answer is a very enthusiastic "YES! And it is delicious!"
Back in the day just about everyone used to cook with the leftover drippings from cooking meat. It was almost a sin to throw it out! To have a dairy cow or access to butter was a luxury. Processed vegetable spreads were nonexistent. So what happened? A brief history lesson...
Answer: The Lipid Hypothesis. In the mid-nineteenth century the term was coined to explain that the cause of blood lipid accumulation on the walls of arteries. I am sure we can all remember seeing the commercials for Lipitor and their lovely illustrations of this effect. The idea is that eating foods high in cholesterol and saturated fat will raise blood cholesterol and cause the plaque accumulations leading to high blood pressure and coronary heart disease. The only problem with this is that there were never any double-blind studies done to test this theory; it was accepted as fact in the 1980's by consensus of the medical community without the support of properly conducted scientific experiments to prove or disprove the theory.
In the early twentieth century people starting switching from cooking with traditional animal fats to factory hydrogenated vegetable fats like shortening and vegetable oil because they were cheaper and they had the added benefit of a neutral flavor and a seemingly longer shelf life.* Until the 1970's most people that used shortening and vegetable oils used them because they were cheaper. The acceptance of the lipid hypothesis changed all that and animals fats were labeled as "bad" while vegetable fats were labeled as "good." While there were always critics of the lipid hypothesis, until the late 1990's and what I call the "Oreo Controversy" when hydrogenated or trans fats were proven to contribute greatly to atherosclerosis by raising the bad Low-density Lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and lowering the good High-density Lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.**
Aha! So, all cholesterol isn't bad for you! Now, back to lard, schmaltz, tallow, ghee, butter and all the other lovely traditionally used fats... Let's look at the chemical composition of Lard (rendered pig fat), shall we?
...lard is 40 percent saturated, 50 percent monounsaturated, and contains 10 percent polyunsaturated fatty acids. It is also one of our richest dietary sources of vitamin D.***Lard is mostly an unsaturated fat which is GOOD, but that saturated fat also has benefits:
Saturated fatty acids, particularly medium chain fatty acids such as lauric and capric acids, have been found to play an important role in supporting the immune system. Studies of the effects of specific fatty acids on serum cholesterol levels have shown that of the three most common saturated fatty acids in tallow and lard, only myristic acid increases the level of cholesterol in the blood substantially, whereas stearic acid has no effect, and the polyunsaturated linoleic acid decreases it. ****To put it mildly, animals fats aren't BAD for you nor will they make you fat. In fact, they may even help you lose weight. Animal fats are also fantastic for cooking! If you haven't tried zucchini fried in lard, you haven't lived. Bacon drippings are a great substitute for butter in any savory recipe, especially corn bread! If you have chicken drippings or rendered chicken fat (schmaltz) you can use it to enhance the flavor of anything poultry based; beef tallow is supposed to also have the same effect on beef products. Indians swear by Ghee (clarified butter) as their oil of choice.
If you read this and just can't wait to find yourself some lard and make a pie crust to die for, be aware that many commercially available lards are hydrogenated and have added fillers to make them more stable. Check the labels and a good rule of thumb is that if it isn't refrigerated, don't buy it. Also, be aware that while fat is where all the vitamins are stored, it is also where most of the toxins are stored. If you want to get the most benefit out of eating animal fats, buy pastured, or at least organic, meats and fats.