According to contemporary wisdom concerning foods that are hazardous to one's health, people back then never should have reached middle age. Most meat was cooked by frying and in animal fat, i.e. lard. Vegetables were “seasoned” (made tasty) by adding cured ham or shoulder. Even vegetable soup had chunks of cured meat.
We now know that such dietary habits can be deadly. Lard is a vein clogger, as is the flesh of swine, from which it is extracted. Some insist that all meat should be shunned in favor of vegan diets and if one must eat meat, it should not be fried.
In the light of such insights, why did folks back then eat food that was bad for them? One reason is that it tasted good and still does. Salt and the savor of hardwood smoke used in curing tickles taste buds.
Mostly these dietary practices were tied to availability of resources. Hogs are amazing animals. They can survive — even flourish — in open-range forests. They will eat anything from acorns and berries to snakes and carrion. They usually recover from rattlesnake bites and will eat the snake as well. They can be fierce fighters. Few predators will take on a grown sow protecting her litter of pigs. When confined in a pen and fed plenty of corn, they “put on” fat quickly and soon become an animal cornucopia of meat and shortening.
Lard has a long list of uses. The most obvious is for frying, but it also was used in making biscuits and to oil the baking pan on which they were cooked and the griddle used for cornbread. Vegetable oil was unknown in backwoods South Georgia when I was growing up. The cooking oil available in grocery stores was more lard sold in gallon pails. Housewives were not stupid. When Crisco became available, they switched to it for baking because it — unlike lard — was tasteless and did not detract from the quality of cakes and cookies.
Frying is almost synonymous with southern cooking. Why? Most of the white settlers came to this region from the British Isles or other places in northern Europe. There meat was cooked by roasting, baking or stewing in fireplaces and free-standing ovens of stone or brick. These were cold places where fires for heating were kept going much of the year and the heat was welcome to those who cooked. The South was and is hot. Cooking in a fireplace was seriously uncomfortable. Other options were welcome.
The cook stove is a relatively recent invention. Cooking over fireplaces fitted with hooks and arms to hold pots and Dutch ovens continued into the 20th century because buying a wood-burning cook stove was a major investment in a world of limited financial resources. Even with a stove, cooking is hot work during a South Georgia summer. One solution is frying, which is quicker than baking or stewing.
How did northern Europeans learn to fry? The probable answer is that the practice came from Africa with slaves, people accustomed to hot climate and how to adapt to it. They were the cooks in some slave-owning households and fried foods did appeal to the taste buds of everyone. Moreover, there was regular contact between slaves and whites at every level of the status ladder.
In time, most meats were fried. Chicken, steak, fresh pork, quail, doves, etc., were rolled in flour and fried. Fish were coated with cornmeal and fried. Cornmeal bread called hush puppies or corn dodgers was fried. Leftover grits congealed into a soft solid that could be sliced and reheated by frying.
Of course, cured meat — ham, middling (bacon) and shoulder — required no batter. A bit of lard was poured into a frying pan to keep the meat from sticking while cooking. Afterwards, pools of brown juices from the meat, flavored by the curing process, settled in the cast-iron pan. Most of the oil was poured off and some water added for further cooking. The result was red eye gravy, which turned grits, biscuits, potatoes, almost anything, into food for the gods even in the humble home of a dirt farmer.
Some meats were not fried. Chickens grew up and became too large to be fryers. Then they were baked and served with cornbread dressing or boiled and served with rice or, better still, dumplings. A hen no longer producing eggs was prepared for a large pot, boiled until tender and cooked with thin dumplings. That pot could feed a multitude: immediate family, extended kin and the preacher. Turkeys, geese and ducks were parboiled then baked, usually served with dressing.
Question. “With all of this fried food and lard, why did they not fall down dead of heart attack or stroke at age 40?”
Answer. They worked off the fats, carbohydrates and sugars during long days in the fields, around wash pots or at cook stoves. They burned calories. Some did die young, but from infections, accidents and lack of medical interventions that are now commonplace. They did not die of obesity-related health problems. Eventually some died from cardiovascular disorders, but none from meth or opioid overdose.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.