Traditional Texas Food
Articles about Texas' most famous foods
by John Raven, Ph.B.
National Hog Lard Monthby John Raven, Ph.B.
From greasing wagon axles to preserving meat to frying supper, the rendering of hog fat has served America well. Fry something.
In recent years, political correctness put hog lard in the same category as arsenic and rat poison. Everyone thinks it is deadly. I have read up on this "good fat" vs. "bad fat" deal. What it boils down to is fat that is solid at room temperature (lard, butter) is bad for you; fat that stays liquid (olive oil, vegetable oil) is good for you. All the talk about hydrogenation, dehydrogenation, saturated and unsaturated and triglycerides is best left to the infomercials selling colon cleansers. The great hazard of all fats is that it virtually 100 percent fat calories. You get too much of it -- you get fat.
The use of hog lard goes back as far as recorded history. In its present form, it is obtained by rendering pork fat. There are two processes to render the fat, the wet method, and guess what, the dry method.
The wet method is rendering the fat from the tissue by boiling it in water. Most of today's lard is produced by that method. The dry method is to put the fat in a large kettle and cook it until it is separate from the tissue. With this method you get the delicious cracklings, which are dear to Southerners. The wet method produces lard that is whiter and a bit softer than the dry method.
In my much younger days, I was present at a couple of hog killings. It is a pretty exhaustive process that requires a good bit of hand labor. All the fat from inside the pig was set aside for lard making. Of course, the bacon, which comes from the belly of the hog, was left intact with its fat. When you fry bacon you get bacon grease, which is simply hog lard with flavorings from the curing and smoking of the bacon. It is used as a seasoning by many celebrated chefs.
Well, gosh, boys and girls, here's another old Texas staple that is finally getting some recognition. The use of hog lard is becoming the in thing with many fancy cooks today. Lard, particularly leaf lard, has always been the best fat for making pastries and baked goods. A lard piecrust has a unique flavor and flakiness you will not get from the vegetable products. We might mention that the diet of the deceased swine can vary the quality and taste of the lard rendered there from. (I ain't about to look up what you should feed your hog to get the popular guava-chipotle flavor; you work on it.)
Hog lard is very popular with Latin Americans. It is used in making their tortillas and for frying. In the stores in Texas, and probably elsewhere, the lard is labeled "Lard" on one side of the container and "Manteca" on the other side. Around here you can get it in the one-pound size or up to a 25-pound bucket of the stuff. (Side note: There is a town called Manteca in California. The National Hog Lard Foundation was going to negotiate with Manteca to be the site of the big Hog Lard Fiesta, but found that the city's name was just a misspelling of Monteca. NHLF is now talking to Swine Hollow, Georgia about the event).
Making Soap with Hog Lard
Hog lard has another very popular use that seldom gets any attention. Hog lard is the principal ingredient of soap. A long, long time ago, about 2800 BC, someone in Babylon came to the conclusion that if a person removed dirt from his or her body, chances were he or she would do a better job of attracting a mate or just having a fling. Immersing oneself in water that did not contain alligators was the most popular method. Then someone found that a mix of alkali and oil would make soap, which greatly improved the cleaning process.
Over the years, the formula and process was refined until scientists came up with a prizewinner that was known as Grandma's Lye Soap. Grandma's Lye Soap is what kept Grandpa and the kids clean and relatively free of body and head lice, bed bugs and mites. It helped their aroma also.
Soap, as we know it, results from the saponification of alkali and fat. Before lye became commercially available, you could make your own by filtering water through wood ashes until it absorbed enough potash to work. The soap-making process involved heating the hog lard in a large kettle and then adding the lye, which was dissolved in water, and stirring the mix until it thickened. When the soap cooled, it was cut into chunks and used for washing everything from the kids' necks to wooden floors to Grandpa's long underwear and Grandma's corset.
The quality of the soap produced depended on the properties of the fat in the recipe. Hogs on different diets produced different kinds of fat. I'm sure someone somewhere knows what to feed your hog to get Tide, but that knowledge is really not necessary here. The old myth that lye soap was so strong it would take the paint off your Chevrolet is mostly just that, a myth. The soap was mild enough to wash your hair with and not come out bald.
Most everyone made their own soap until the early twentieth century when it became profitable to manufacture soap. The Lever Brothers were among the first soap czars. They were from England, and moved their operations to the United States in the 1880s. Their products included the Lifebuoy, Lux and Vim brands.
About 1940, detergents were invented. They are not soaps, but mixes containing ionic and anionic surfactants. There is a lot of chemistry involved, but all we need to know is that the surfactants cause dirt to stop clinging to material.
When I was growing up, my family never made soap that I remember. I do remember the neighbor Mrs. Mikeska making soap in a big, black wash pot in the yard. I would imagine some of the living history places still have demonstrations of how to make lye soap.
This again harks back to the good old days when you could spend an afternoon stirring a pot of soap over an open fire. (Some day the here and now will be the good old days.) Lye soap can still be obtained under the brand name, "Grandma's Lye Soap". That's catchy. I wonder which ad agency came up with it?
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