This the fifth in my series of monthly projects that I hope will get you excited about In the Kitchen With Laura. I’m running late, but here is the entry for May.
One of the parts of cooking that has changed a lot from when Laura first learned to cook and even from the 1930s to today is the kind of shortening used.
When Laura was growing up on a farm in the Midwest, butter was a seasonal food, something to be had when the cow was in milk if you were a farmer. But even then the family didn’t get a lot of it usually because butter and eggs that the farm wife produced not only fed the family but were often a regular cash crop that was often one of the main sources of cash flow between harvests. (Not that farm wives got a lot of credit for this.) The first creameries that commercially produced butter appeared in New York state in the late 1850s and early 1860s. But slowly the process commercialized. Factory production of butter raised from 29 million pounds nation wide in 1879 to over 1 billion pounds in 1921. New York became the largest butter producer state in the country during the early 19th century and easily remained so until finally surpassed by Wisconsin in the first quarter of the 20th century. In the 1930s Laura was probably still using home produced butter, but the familiar waxed paper wrapped four quarter sticks in a cardboard box had been introduced in urban markets during the 1920s. Previously factory produced butter was packed in a wooden tub, wrapped in linen, and during sometimes sealed in a can.
Today the use of butter is coming back:
Lard (rendered from the pork fat) used to be a much bigger part of the American diet. It was not only used for cooking, as a shortening in baked goods (in which it produces a unique
and wonderful texture – for all crusts and breads, not cookies which are kind of awful with lard), but also a medium for frying. This was supplemented to some extent by fat cooked off meat like bacon fat. Lard was even used as a spread on sandwiches (which from most reports a lot of people liked) and a dressing on salads. In a pre-constant refrigeration world it was a dependable and long keeping source of fat. Lard fell further out of favor as American work lives got more sedentary and less in need of calories and health concerns were raised, even though there are just as big health concerns now raised about the substitutes. Maybe lard wasn’t so bad after all.
Margarine (also known as oleo), a vegetable fat substitute, was first developed in 1869, but it didn’t actually enter the American market place in even a limited way until 1873. Its success though was enough that laws were passed in some states as early as 1877 to protect dairy interests which limited its spread. Both to protect the dairy industry and out of fear of the dyes used, legislation had passed in 32 states by 1902 and national laws eventually followed suit, so that margarine had to be sold without color, instead of looking almost like butter as it does today. By the 1930s, margarine came as an unappealing gelatinous grayish white mass that came with a packet of color that had to be stirred in for it to look butter like. It was only when war arms production and army food demands took most of the supply of animal fats that the vegetable ones started to gain the hold on the market that they have today. This stepped up again as health concerns were stirred up against butter in the 1960s which again increased margarine production. Back in the 19th century margarine was made from hydrogenated animal fats, but around 1900 it became possible to produce it from vegetable oil, such as peanut or cottonseed oil by hydrogenating it. According to Michael Krondl “In 1930 per capita consumption of margarine was only 2.6 pounds while butter was 17.6 pounds.” Krondl says it would quadruple by the end of the 20th century and butter use dropped considerably.
It was even later that liquid shortening became popular. Olive oil was regularly available starting in colonial times, but it was used only in settlements of certain immigrants who had a tradition of cooking in it. Most of the country used it almost exclusively for salad dressing. It really didn’t become popular for use in cooking until after 1980. Corn oil was first marketed starting in 1910, but it didn’t really take off until the rationing during World War II. Soybean oil (especially in industrial purposes and as an ingredient people don’t realize is there) also benefited from the rationing creating a market for soybeans that quickly went from an object of curiosity and an interesting garden pod plant to one of the biggest cash crops in America.
Canola Oil (a more market friendly name for rapeseed oil) didn’t take off in the United States until the FDA let them change the name in 1988.
Like butter, lard had its own vegetable based competitor in vegetable shortening, with Crisco being the best known brand. Today you can still get lard in many grocery stories, clean, white, pressed square and in neat packets, or as a real cook you can venture into a butcher shop or a meat locker business and buy it by the impressive tub (we normally do the later).
For your project of the month, get some lard and try to cook something with it, biscuits will do or a simple pie crust and taste the difference that lard can bring to your cooking for yourself.
The description of shortening use is focused on the United States. Other parts of the world had different experiences.
Some of the information in this piece, including all the quotes and the hard numbers, is from the two volume The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America.
Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales fighting to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation.Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and Academia.edu. She is currently acting President of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.