Monday, March 5, 2012

Crisco Fever

In cooking, B.C. refers to the year 1910 and stands for Before Crisco. In all of human history up to that date, if you wanted a solid fat you had to rely on an animal for either lard or butter, both of which worked well but came with the kind of problems city dwellers have: they don’t keep well. If you lived on a farm you could feasibly make your own butter and gather your own lard as and when you needed it, but for the large numbers of new urban tenants for whom refrigeration was not always at hand, spoilage, especially during the summer months, was a problem.

The answer was hydrogenation — adding hydrogen molecules to fats to keep them solid at room temperature. Early on it was known as crystallization, and originally applied to cottonseed oil (which was far more common than soybean oil) for the purpose of making soap. The folks at Procter & Gamble Company — the detergent kings of Cincinnati — took a keen interest and because hydrogenated cottonseed oil was not inherently toxic, decided it could be a hugely profitable food that would solve the nation’s melting problem.

Crisco (short for crystallized cottonseed oil), was introduced to the market in 1911 and because it was a brand new invention, had to be sold to cooks who had only ever known animal fats. P&G cleverly gave away small cookery books with every purchase featuring familiar recipes in which any use of butter or lard was replaced with Crisco. Much space was given to explaining this new scientific wonder and its advantages to the modern cook and kitchen — including the welcome news that because of its high burning point (455 degrees), Crisco could be used for frying without creating smoke, and that because it was “pure” vegetable whose chemical composition was not affected by cooking, was easily digestible.

This of course was in the era before we knew the dangers of trans fats and their role in clogging arteries and raising blood sugar. Crisco was cheap to manufacture and could be done in fully automated factories to ensure a uniform and predictable product. Because it didn’t spoil, it leant baked goods a longer shelf life, enabling the rise of pre-packaged foods. The language in these early cookery books introduces the housewife to stearine, a fatty acid which gets its name from the Greek for tallow. Indeed, stearine’s solid waxiness lends itself to soap-making. Stearic acid can be found today in almost every aisle of the supermarket, in edibles and non-edibles alike.

Oleine — oleic acid — claimed by P&G to be the healthiest and most easily digestible of the three main fats (the other being linoline) is what Crisco is made from, and sounds familiar because it forms the basis of oleo, which has become synonymous with margarine (which is actually made from margaric acid). Despite its genesis as a vegetable fat, it is now known that oleine (a substance also found in human adipose fat and given off by decaying bees among other things) has been linked to breast cancer, whereas stearine, though it is an animal-based fat, is in fact more completely digested and has a better effect on cholesterol levels.

The inclusion of Crisco in every single recipe persists in cookbooks produced by their parent company today (now J. M. Smucker Co., the jam-makers), and where found in anything outside pastry-making (in which the Crisco replaced the traditional lard) or frying, appears highly suspect, added merely to increase use of the product rather than lend the food any discernable benefit.

Take these sandwich recipes for example. Note how butter is pushed into the barely noticible background as a flavor-enhancer for the bread (and try cutting an eighth-inch slice off ANY loaf!)

Mrs. Neil’s Cooking Secrets, The Procter & Gamble Company, 1924

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