Research on the current plague of heart disease and cancer has focused on dietary fats. Modern diet gurus assert that the Standard American Diet has become “richer” during the middle decades of the 20th century. “. . . we have gradually increased our intake of butter, milk, other dairy products and eggs. The proportion of calories from fats has increased from a national figure of 30 per cent in 1910 to over 40 percent [in 1966]. . . ” writes Jeremiah Stamler, M.D., in a little volume called Your Heart Has Nine Lives. Stamler, a prolific writer and longtime member of the American Heart Association, has been promoting the “lipid hypothesis” for more than three decades. He has lived to see the entire American medical establishment fall in behind the theory that cancer and heart disease in America have been caused by the increased consumption of saturated fats and cholesterol from butter, cream, eggs and meat. The solution, he asserts, is to substitute polyunsaturated oils for traditional dairy fats and lard. (Your Heart Has Nine Lives was sponsored by the Corn Products Company, makers of Mazola margarine and corn oil.)
The recipes in a Baptists Ladies’ Cook Book, published January 1st 1895, by the Ladies of Monmouth, Illinois, do not support the assertion that Americans of a century ago ate a leaner diet. There is hardly a recipe in the collection that does not contain butter, cream, eggs or lard, beginning with the soup chapter and ending with the substantial array of desserts. Most meat recipes call for gravy made with drippings, and occasionally with added cream. Vegetable recipes include asparagus dressed in cream, four versions of cabbage in a cream sauce, corn and eggplant fritters fried in lard, potato balls fried in “good drippings” and parsnips fried in bacon fat.
Sea food recipes include “Fish a la Creme”, “Escalloped Fish”, “Creamed Salmon” and “Cream Fish”. “Sauce for Broiled Fish” calls for “one large spoonful of butter to one gill [one-half cup] of cream”. A whole chapter devoted to oysters includes recipes for deviled oysters made with egg yolks, creamed oyster patties made with eggs and butter, oysters wrapped in bacon, escalloped oysters, oyster pie made with one quart of cream, oyster fritters fried in drippings, oysters fried in hot lard and escalloped oysters made with butter and milk. Organ meat recipes include fried veal liver and sweet breads, both creamed and fried. There are separate chapters for cheese and eggs.
A scrapple recipe, submitted by Mrs. Flora Hyde, goes like this: Take a hog’s head, heart, tongue and part of the liver. Cleanse thoroughly and soak in salt water twenty-four hours. Put on the boil in cold water. Cook until all the bones can be easily removed. Then take out in a chopping bowl and chop fine. Season highly with sage, salt and pepper. Return it to the liquor on the stove, which you must strain. Then thicken with corn meal and a teacup of buckwheat flour til the consistency of mush. Then dip out in deep dishes, and when cool slice and fry a rich brown, as you would mush. It is very nice for a cold morning breakfast. If you make more than you can use at once, run hot lard over the rest and you can keep it all through the winter.
The Baptist ladies of Monmouth Illinois were fond of croquettes, balls of minced meat mixed with eggs, breadcrumbs and seasonings. A chapter devoted to croquettes includes recipes for these delicacies made from chicken, salmon, and veal. All were fried in hot lard and served with a thick sauce made from cream, butter and flour.It is obvious that lettuce was scarce in Monmouth Illinois. Only one salad recipe calls for lettuce “when available”. The others feature apples, cabbage, ham, tongue, chicken, oysters, fruit, potatoes, veal, lobster, sweetbreads, shrimp and nasturtium! Dressing for cold slaw features sweet cream and the three recipes for salad dressing contain egg yolks, mustard and vinegar. One calls for “olive oil or melted butter”, another for “a cup of whipped cream” and a third for “oil”. This is the only time that “oil” is mentioned in the entire book. Americans at the turn of the century nourished themselves with butter, cream, egg yolks and lard-not with vegetable oils.
Jewish housewives did not, of course, use lard. But the recipes in an 1846 Jewish cookbook, published in London, are similar-featuring egg yolks, butter and cream when appropriate, and beef suet for frying. Instructions for clarifying suet include recognition of its nutritive value: “Melt down with care fine fresh suet, either beef or veal, put it into a jar, and set it in a stew-pan of water to boil, putting in a sprig of rosemary, or a little orange flower water while melting. This is a very useful preparation and will be found, if adopted in English kitchens, to answer the purpose of lard and is far more delicate and wholesome. It should be well beaten till quite light with a wooden fork.”
Both Jewish recipes and those of the Baptist ladies feature broth made from chicken, beef or veal bones, knuckles and feet, used in soups, stews, gravies and dishes like jellied chicken and veal. These provided calcium and other minerals, in addition to the copious amounts available in dairy products, fish, oysters and meat. The gelatin in these broths undoubtedly facilitated digestion of rich meals.
The Baptists were fond of rich desserts as well-half the book is devoted to cakes, pies, ice creams, puddings and doughnuts (fried in lard, of course). Two advertisements for dentists at the back of the book testify to the effect of sugar and white flour on their teeth. But cancer and heart disease were extremely rare before the turn of the century. One can only conclude that the abundance of good quality animal foods and dairy fats offered substantial protection against the effects of refined carbohydrates. A recipe for German waffles gives a good idea of the amount of animal fat found in sugary desserts: One-half pound butter beat to a cream, then add the yolks of twelve eggs, sugar enough to sweeten to your taste. Stir this like pound cake, then add one cup of milk, some blanched ground almonds, and a teaspoon of almond flavoring, one teaspoon baking powder and enough flour to make it stiff as pancake batter. Last of all add the whites of the eggs well beaten. Bake in waffle irons and sprinkle with sugar before sending to table.
A Passover pudding recipe in the 1846 Jewish cookbook calls for equal quantities of matzoh meal and suet, currents and raisins, “a little spice and sugar”, candied peels and well beaten eggs. Jewish housewives are advised to soak rice and all seeds before adding them to puddings.
The Boston Cooking School Cook Book of 1896 contains recipes similar to those of the Baptist ladies, proving that their eating habits were not anomalous. The suggested menu for a home dinner includes soup as a first course (usually containing cream or whole milk), meat or fish with potatoes and two other vegetables (often scalloped) for a second course and vegetable salad for a third course followed by dessert and a fifth course of crackers, cheese and coffee. A typical breakfast menu features oatmeal served with sugar and cream, creamed fish, baked potatoes and corn cakes. A luncheon menu begins with lamb croquettes (fried in lard of course), “dressed” lettuce, baking-powder biscuits, gingerbread and cheese.
In addition to eggs, butter, cream, lard, suet and other animal fats, coconut meat and oil supplied additional saturated fatty acids in turn-of-the-century diets. The Baptist ladies contributed four recipes for coconut cream pie to their collection, and Jewish housewives used coconut meat in puddings. In addition, recipes frequently call for crackers or cracker meal in which coconut oil was often used as a shortening.
Currently the American Heart Association’s recommendations call for a “Prudent Diet” of no more than 2000 calories per day of which no more than 30 percent should be fat, with only 10 percent as saturated fat. We analyzed the 1896 Boston Cook Book menus for calories, fat, protein and carbohydrates. A breakfast of an orange, oatmeal with sugar and cream, coffee with cream, ham, scalloped potatoes and popovers totals 632 calories of which 23% is protein, 42% is carbohydrates and 35% derives from fats. The ratio of saturated fat to unsaturated fats is about one to one, not one to two as recommended by the AHA. A luncheon of sardines, apple, coffee with cream, homemade dinner roll, sponge cake and hot cocoa with whole milk totals 1043 calories of which 17% comes from protein, 52% from carbohydrates and 31% from fats. If butter is served with the roll, the percentage of total fat is higher and the ratio of saturated fat to unsaturated fats is about equal. A dinner of creamed celery soup, roast beef, cottage fried potatoes, popovers, macaroni, lettuce and tomato salad, chocolate pudding and coffee totals 1143 calories of which 18% is protein, 41% carbohydrates and 41% fats, with saturated fat content exceeding unsaturated.
The Boston Cook Book menus suggest that he typical city-dwelling American at the turn of the century consumed about 2900 calories per day, with 40% of these calories as fat. (Farm families from Monmouth, Illinois probably consumed even greater numbers of calories.) The ratio of saturated fat to unsaturated was at least one to one. This rich diet of cream, butter, eggs, meats, vegetables, grains and fruit produced a generation of healthy, hearty, intelligent Americans, in spite of the fact that they consumed substantial amounts of sugar and white flour. Abundant dietary dairy fats contributed to strong bones, keen minds and healthy immune systems.
The “prudent” low-calorie, low-fat diet of Dr. Stamler and the American Heart Association is hardly a prescription for good health, even if sugar and white flour are absent. The Standard American Diet of a century ago was hearty and rich, and provided nutritious protective factors for strong bodies, freedom from degenerative disease and clear minds well into old age. The decline in the use of animal fats, far from adding benefit, is indeed a sad change, contributing to depressing, fatigue and a plague of chronic disease.
Copyright: ©1999 Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig, PhD. All Rights Reserved. First appeared as “Americans Now and Then” in
Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation Health Journal Vol 20, No 4. (619) 574-7763.