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Praise the Lard : Everything but the Squeal


At one time I had a close relationship with lard.

It started when I was working my way through graduate school at the University of Iowa by waitressing at the Hawkeye Truck Stop in nearby Coralville. One Sunday, I got an invitation from one of the drive boys at the truck stop to visit some of his family, who lived way out in the country. Drive boys fuel the big trucks, wash windows and, if I recall correctly, thump those 18 tires with clubs.

This drive boy was actually a fully grown white-haired man named Donny, who had taken a fatherly liking to me. I don't remember the exact reason for this invitation--I might have complained that I'd lived in Iowa for some time and had never been on a farm--but I do remember the outcome of the visit: I came home with a piglet, a little male shoat I promptly named Joey.

We put Joey in the dog kennel for a few nights, while my boyfriend at the time, Alan, built him a true hog pen in the barn. Joey had red bristles with a white collar that formed a jaunty chevron behind his ears. He was an affable, sporty young pig and I made a pet of him. I was a city girl, and besides, befriending pigs was something of a family tradition. My mother had grown up on a farm in Delaware, and I grew up hearing about her pet pig, Wallis Warfield Windsor Blechman.

I had always wanted a pig of my own. I taught Joey how to sit and shake hands and roll over. He also liked to have his back scratched with a rake. I believe he would have done just about anything for a scrap of food.

We fed him pig chow and scraps I collected at the truck stop. He ate everything--leftover crusts of hamburgers, hash browns, bits of egg and, yes, the remains of pork tenderloin sandwiches and bits of bacon. Joey wasn't particular. He was just hungry. He was a pig. He ate wilted lettuce clotted with Thousand Island dressing, potato parings, flapjacks and chicken-fried steaks. But mostly, he ate chop suey rolls.

Chop suey rolls were these enormous, dark, loathsome fritters that came each day with the doughnuts. They were crisp and greasy from deep-frying and thickly glazed with white icing, with swirls of cinnamon and candied fruit in them. Not even the burliest trucker could eat an entire chop suey roll, and few people were tempted to even eat a part of one, so at the end of the day, not only uneaten portions of chop suey rolls but entire rolls were left, and they went right into Joey's bucket. Joey ate so many chop suey rolls we began to worry that he'd end up tasting just like one.

Once I brought Joey into the house, where his cloven hoofs gained no purchase on the hardwood floor; he looked like a wobbly fat woman tottering and sliding in high heels. Occasionally, he'd escape from his pen, or pull up his stake when we'd tethered him outside. Although I had a lovely, burgeoning garden, he always ignored it and ran straight through the hedge into our neighbor's yard, where he ate tomatoes off the vine and rooted in the dirt, leaving in his wake a swath not unlike those made by a rototiller.

Once he ran into the street. Traffic stopped. People came out of their houses to watch me trying to round him up with a stick, and everyone started yelling and hog-calling until I was laughing too hard to do anything. In general, I was completely ineffectual as a swineherd, but at some point during each escapade, Joey would be overwhelmed by the big world and return voluntarily to his pen.

His mistake.

Soon enough, he was big enough to eat. While I was visiting my parents in California, Alan drove him to the meat locker, where they butchered and dressed him. When I came home, Alan and I drove out to the meat locker to pick up the finished product. The only thing I remember about the locker is that the woman who worked there had only one hand--lost the other to the saw.

We took home several boxes of tidy little packages, all nicely labeled. Sausage. Chops. Loin. Spare ribs. Bacon. Smoked Chops. Feet. My compunction about eating Joey was solved upon tasting him: I am happy to report that, although he was sweeter and more succulent than any pork I'd ever had, he did not, per se , taste like a chop suey roll.

With the meat came also three five-pound tubs of snow-white lard. Now, Joey had a lot more lard on him than that, but one of the ways to cut down on the butchering and processing fees was to sell the excess lard to the meat locker. I don't recall the figures--this was years and years ago--but I think selling Joey's lard cut our bill by a good third.

And 15 pounds of lard is still a lot of lard, especially when you don't know what to do with it. I approached it cautiously. I asked around. The older lady across the street said she, personally, was fond of lard sandwiches. Another neighbor told me that, when it came to pie crusts, lard was unsurpassed. So I made a pie crust, which came out flaky and great, although the flavor had a slightly meaty edge.

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