Here at the cold, dark bottom of the year, it’s easy to understand why so many cultures choose this season to have major celebrations, many of which involve light, food and camaraderie. To rage against the dying of the light is a deeply rooted impulse, and in times like these, a little heat and humanity go a long way. So does good food. Thus, as the empty, cold, dark days threaten to swallow us up, it’s time to swallow back. It’s time to rub our hands together, light candles, gather indoors, extend our glasses and feast.
The poet Basho once wrote, “Seek not what the ancients had, but what they sought.” And you can be sure that this time of year, what the ancients sought was fat. During warmer seasons, we don’t need as much antifreeze in our pipes, and we can survive by grazing lightly on leafy greens. But as the days cool, we must think in terms of R-value—the construction industry’s measure of insulating capability.
I once heard an Arctic explorer talk on the radio. She explained that when you’re up there, exploring the Arctic and freezing your ass off, there is nothing you would rather eat than a stick of butter rolled in sugar. That’s your body hungering for the carbos it needs to survive. It reminds me of what my friend Stewart used to say: that the most important thing he learned at cooking school is that fat is flavor.
I like the sound of that: fat is flavor. However, fat alone isn’t enough. While I’ve never been to cooking school, what I know in my gut is that the best flavor depends on the proper presentation of fat.
So I recommend that whatever you choose to put on your table this winter, make sure there’s plenty of fat involved. Serving steak? Why not lard it with a little bacon grease, or perhaps a buttery oregano sauce?
When your fat is in place, the next step is to activate the fat. And for this job, nothing is better than acid. While fat coats the tongue, acid will cut through the fat and tingle the taste buds below. Try a few pomegranate seeds on top of your oregano butter-drenched steak, perhaps, or some lemon on your fish.
The acid/fat symbiosis really hit home for me years ago next to a bed of coals in Argentina. My friends and I were grilling beef. After the meat was gone, we sat around the fire watching stars and sipping red wine. Even though my belly was full, I wanted to keep chewing, so I grabbed a bone that still had some fleshy material attached and started gnawing on that fleshy, fatty connective tissue, as my ancestors would have done. Pausing mid-chew for a sip of wine, I was richly rewarded as the wine interacted with the fatty mass in my mouth. Inspired, I put the rest of the bones back on the grill, so the attached fat would heat up again, and proceeded to pass a fabulous evening chewing the fat and sipping wine.
Perhaps this is where the expression “chewing the fat” comes from. Another good fatty expression I like to chew on, especially this time of year, is “living off the fat of the land.” It’s a beautiful thing to eat food that you have procured or produced yourself via direct interaction with the Earth. And if you want to produce a fat garden next year, believe it or not, it’s time to start planning for it.
My garden, for example, is heavy on peppers and shallots. Peppers need to get started in the greenhouse in March, while shallots—if they are to be honker shallots—are best started from seed in February. If you want to plant seeds in February or March, you need to order them in January. And if you want to order seeds in January, then you need to get yourself a seed catalog pretty soon. There are plenty of seed companies out there, and serious gardeners often order seeds from several different catalogs. My favorite catalogs come from Fedco (reads like a story, with whimsical drawings) and Johnny’s (awesome pictures, speedy delivery).
Fast forward a year, and the peppers whose seeds I am now preparing to order will be pickled in cider vinegar, ready to munch with my favorite fatty winter food. I like a combo of Klari Baby Cheese sweet peppers and hot Arledge peppers. I’ll munch those pickled peppers all winter long in conjunction with my fatty R-value, my meat and my grease and my mayonnaise and my cheese. The peppers heat you up, the fat keeps you warm, and the act of thinking, in the dead of winter, about the seeds I’m going to plant is like the glow of dawn on the horizon after a dark and cold night.