James Whelan Butchers: Cut the Guilt not the Fat!


What I am about to say will probably upset some people, shock others and may even cause one or two to throw the paper down in disbelief; but I speak the truth.  Indeed as the good book says, “The truth will set you free”.  That is what I want to do this week, set you free from the fat free and taste deficient, self imposed prison that most of us have been in for decades.  Fat free is a con, we’ve all been conned and those extra lean chickens are coming home to roost so to speak.

When I was a child, and I know that many of you will identify with this, Irish kitchens (indeed kitchens all over the developed world) had several types of fat to hand all the time.  Lard, dripping, butter and suet were all commonplace.  My granny used to keep dripping that she rendered herself, in a white ceramic pudding bowl; the white of the silky dripping blending seamlessly with the sides of its pottery home.  Real butter was patted into small golden balls for the butter dishes several times a week and the wooden butter pats sat in a jug of water on a shelf in the scullery when not in use.  Meltingly delicious suet pastry encased warm winter pies and rotund suet dumplings sat proudly on the top of aromatic, rich stews.  Succulent roasts of creamy coloured fat marbled beef were a Sunday treat, there was often a squabble for the crackling from the pork joint and a scramble for the chicken skin; all of which today are considered taboo by the fat free gospel.  Most dinners or main meals were accompanied by a cream soup to start and a dessert, usually with a cream or milk base such as rice pudding, semolina or apple tart and whipped cream.   At teatime homemade scones or homemade shortbread provided a sweet afters treat.

This was the norm for neighbouring houses and farms and therefore I’m sure it was replicated throughout the country.  Now here is the startling information; I don’t remember any of them being particularly fat!  I will admit that they were not the modern fashion suggestion of size 0, but they could not be considered fat by any standard and certainly not obese.  They were all normal, healthy human beings.  I urge you to think of your own ancestors and take a look at the photo album for clarification.  I was having this ‘fat’ discussion with a female friend recently who would be of a similar age and country background.  She concurred completely and verified by stating that she had some vintage dresses in her possession that had belonged to her own grandmother.  They are too small for her despite having her current dress size on the labels!  We’ve been had and like sheep we have believed modern diet rubbish instead of thousands of years of actual human evidence of how to eat and how to live.

It would seem that up until the last fifty years or so people instinctively knew how to grow and cook food.  They understood the connection between food and the land and were aware of nature and the seasons.  Knowledge of rearing animals and crops, gathering and preparing food was passed from one generation to another and the skills and traditions were valued and preserved.  It still makes sense in today’s modern world, but somewhere along the way we broke the link.  It has lead to nonsense being trotted out as pseudo food science and the truth has been lost in the crossfire.  We have so much information at our fingertips and yet instead of being healthier and more informed we are in fact heavier, unhealthier and, more so than ever in the history of man, totally confused.  Some people don’t know who to believe and so cherry pick bits of advice from several doctrines; such mixture is lethal.  The end result is folly and we shouldn’t be surprised that heart disease, diabetes, obesity, certain cancers and other diet related illnesses are on the rise.

So what exactly happened when it came to fat and how did it become public enemy number one?  Sadly, as with most of the modern world’s maladies, the root is the love of money.  In the mid seventies the American government endorsed a theory (and it was just that, a theory) that fat ‘caused’ heart disease.  People were advised to reduce their fat intake for the sake of their health.  Despite the fact that for millennia people were eating and thriving on animal fats, industry and science shouted louder than anyone and, moving away from nature moved into factories and concocted ‘low fat’ and ‘non fat’ foods.  A particular boon was the discovery of how to extract oil from plants and, using the industrial process of hydrogenation, these man made fats were music to the food manufacturers’ ears because they were cheap.  Not only were they cheap but they extended the shelf life of many products; food industry gold and marketed as ‘healthy’ alternatives.

We ate it all up, literally and then as consumers started calling for ‘low fat’ and ‘lean’ everything.  Even farmers and breeders had to tow the line and start producing leaner animals; a crazy situation that would certainly cause our ancestors’ brains to tilt sideways.  You see our great grandparents knew that naturally occurring fat was an actual food group, necessary for good health and part of a healthy diet.  They also knew that naturally occurring fat is what makes our food taste good, keeps it moist and stops it sticking to the bottom of the frying pan.  I would go further and say Dr. Atkins and his infamous diet of a few years ago was actually on the right track, but again, there is a ditch on both sides of the road of life and taken to the extreme and out of balance it made no sense at all.

It’s time to stop the rot, let the crusade begin to bring back real fat, the stuff that’s good for us.  Let’s eat it and enjoy it in moderation and reclaim our health, the taste of our food and some sanity.  Finally I leave you with a quote I read recently on butter: “Butter is made by taking milk, centrifuging to separate the cream and then churning the cream. Margarine is made by taking vegetable oil, hydrogenating it in a vessel at high pressure and temperature in a hydrogen atmosphere, adding yellow colouring and some flavourings to make it look and taste something like butter”. Hmmm, I know which substance I would rather ingest into this precious, irreplaceable body of mine and, ultimately I know which tastes better too.   I welcome your feedback to pat@jwb.ie.

We hope you enjoyed reading this post by Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers. Pat is a 5th generation butcher, cook book author and the director of  James Whelan Butchers with shops in Clonmel, the Avoca Handweavers Rathcoole and Kilmacanogue, Dunnes Stores Cornelscourt, Rathmines and Swords in Dublin. Sign up to our newsletter for more updates from James Whelan Butchers

3 Responses to “James Whelan Butchers: Cut the Guilt not the Fat!”

  1. Daithí says:

    That second paragraph had me drooling. I couldn’t agree more with your views on traditional ingredients. Another thing I think we should be pushing for is delicious fresh unpasteurised milk.

  2. Well said, Pat. I couldn’t agree more and have lived by this creedo as well. Growing up close to my grandparents and on farms, the ease of life, the lack of guilt over food is a clear memory for me and I try to instill this in my own family now, bucking the current trends being taught in schools and by the media, it is the ever lasting thought that everything in moderation is best. I buy marbled beef and I indulge in buying Irish butter for my home here in the States. Guilt free and enjoying every minute! It’s time to move back to basics.

  3. Paul Brett says:

    It’s great to hear this being said out loud, pork belly is my favourite roast and one day my wife will leave me over who gets the most crackling. Fads/trends have normal people thinking themselves fat.

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