I have two transgressions to confess, so I may as well just get right to it.
First: it's Friday morning, and my family has just finished a hearty and nutritious breakfast of strawberry rhubarb pie. We don't eat like this on a regular basis, but my seven year old was once so happy with the pie-for-breakfast surprise that she was prompted to declare me the Best Mother Ever. Which is pretty good coming from the child who says just as often that I have ruined her WHOLE LIFE (I live in fear of what the teenage years will bring).
Second: the pie was so good because there was (shh) lard in the crust*.
I've been afraid to admit for a while that I prefer lard-based pie crusts. It's as if I can feel the judgment of the masses if I even say the word. I hear the scathing whispers of imaginary Food Police: saturated fat! Cholesterol! PIGS! And I admit that it took me a long time to decide I could brave using lard. After all, the name isn't exactly appetizing. The nutritional consequences seem daunting. And then there's my occasional aversion to animal products, which I've talked about here.
But lard, as many of us now know, has been getting a bad rap. Here's the deal: yes, lard is full of saturated fat, which is really not great for your heart, but it has less saturated fat than butter does (39% as opposed to 51% for butter). It's also significantly higher in monounsaturated fat than butter (this is the one that helps lower LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, and some of the foods that we're often encouraged to use such as olive oil and avocados, are full of monounsaturated fats). And it's certainly a winner over vegetable based shortenings that are full of hydrogenated oils, which contain the evil trans fats that you've no doubt read about until your head spins.
The upshot of all this is that lard certainly isn't good for you, but it's a heck of a lot less bad for you than some of the alternatives. And it makes REALLY good pie crusts, that are flaky and tender and lovely. Now - having said this, I won't try to use nasty supermarket lard any more. I've tried it, and it can give a pie crust a funky "off" flavor that's disturbingly reminiscent of, well, pigs. Those highly processed mass produced lards are hydrogenated, too, so they're back in the bad-for-you camp. And then of course there's the matter of factory farming rearing its all too familiar and ugly head; I feel a little sick when I imagine the conditions on the farms and in the slaughterhouses where that lard originates.
All is not lost, however, because of people like Mike and Jen at Flying Pigs Farm. These are farmers like the people who run Chestnut Farms, my meat CSA source. They raise a small number of very healthy animals in a way that gives us reluctant carnivores some serious comfort. Flying Pigs Farm raises heritage breeds, which means both better tasting meats and the preservation of some kinds of pigs that might otherwise become extinct. The farm's website talks about their commitment to giving their livestock a nutritious diet, plenty of room to move around, and a generally happy life (there's a photo on the site of a pig frolicking in the snow that's really quite endearing). And so I'm back to one of my fundamental beliefs about food: if you're going to eat meat, eat just a little bit of it, eat meat that tastes good, and most importantly, make sure you know where it's coming from. You can purchase leaf lard and other pork products from Flying Pigs Farm on their website. I think I've got gift ideas for my husband covered for quite a while now.
After tasting our breakfast pie made with Flying Pigs lard, I've managed to justify my use of lard and even to feel good about it, even if it's clearly not an every day indulgence. I think we may as well make our treats really good ones, and enjoy a little bit of something wonderful - after all, these are fun foods, not dietary staples. My grandmother, who was a legendary baker, wouldn't have considered making a pie crust without lard. I remember hearing someone question her about it once, asking whether it wouldn't be better to use vegetable shortening instead of all that fatty lard, and she said, "For goodness' sake, it's pie."
* I was a bit reluctant to post a photograph of my pie, because it's really not all that pretty. It tasted good, and the crust was wonderfully flaky, but it was also quite rough around the edges. It is one of my enduring frustrations that I'm apparently unable to produce a beautiful, perfect, country fair showpiece-type of pie crust. I can do lots of other things in the kitchen pretty well, and I've also had some success with other artistic ventures, but attractive pie crusts remain maddeningly outside my reach.