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Taste Greg Atkinson

Beyond Fat Phobia

We're learning again to go with what's pure, not processed

Olive oil, bright as liquid sunshine, makes salads sparkle. Bacon, sizzling in a skillet, evokes the warmth of home. And butter, baked into cakes and cookies, promises unparalleled satisfaction. Nourishing, natural fats and oils are the very essence of goodness in food. So why is it that we Americans have so much trouble with fat?

Certainly we eat too much. But our deep ambivalence regarding lipids might have something to do with the nature of the fat we eat.

When Waverly Root wrote "The Food of France" in 1958, he structured his timeless travelogue around an essay entitled "Butter, Lard and Oil." "Food," he wrote, "with the exception of a very few minerals, is made up of living things, vegetable or animal, which sprang from the soil of the region." But the highly processed food most Americans eat is far removed from the soil that yielded it.

"A cuisine is not shaped so much by its consumers as they are shaped by it," concluded Root. So, if butter, lard and oil define the people of France, what's melting in this pot of ours?

For most of our history, our fats of choice were also natural oils, butter and lard. But shortly after the turn of the last century, the introduction of a process called hydrogenation gave us oily options that were altogether new. Derived from soybeans, corn or cottonseed, our native polyunsaturated and monounsaturated vegetable oils were chemically altered to make them thick and creamy, solid at room temperature, and suitable as stand-ins for butter and lard. Unfortunately, the new hydrogenated oils contained trans fatty acids that would, a century later, be shown to cause heart disease in otherwise healthy populations. You don't even have to be overweight to risk heart disease from trans fats.

As soon as it was introduced in 1911, hydrogenated vegetable oil in the form of Crisco brand shortening struck a chord with home cooks who appreciated its clean, white appearance and its long shelf life. Makers of ready-to-eat baked goods, which were just being launched, also embraced hydrogenated oils, which were far cheaper than the naturally saturated fats that give baked goods their savor. In the wink of an eye, the age of trans fats began.

Hydrogenated vegetable oils got a boost in the mid-20th century when cholesterol was identified as a culprit in heart disease and nutrition authorities imagined that hydrogenated vegetable oils might be healthier than naturally saturated animal fats because they were "cholesterol free" — only animals can produce cholesterol. But all kinds of studies have established that trans fats in hydrogenated oils actually promote production of cholesterol in animals like us. They have also been linked to Type 2 diabetes.

In typically American litigious fashion, lawmakers and citizen groups alike are clamoring to penalize manufacturers of goods containing trans fats and ban the unhealthy hydrogenated oils from our public eateries. As a result, almost every brand of snack food has been re-engineered in versions that boast 0 grams of trans fat per serving. Even Crisco (now a product of the J.M. Smucker Co.) has introduced a new version of shortening that boasts 0 grams of trans fat per serving.

This trend may not mark the end of America's fear of fat, but it may well be the beginning of the end of an era when an unnecessarily chemically altered food resulted in a serious health hazard. At my house, we're not too worried. Safely out of the fray, we've been drizzling olive oil on salads, frying bacon, and baking with butter all along.

Greg Atkinson is author of "West Coast Cooking." He can be reached at greg@northwestessentials.com. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at studio@barrywongphoto.com.

New American Chocolate Sandwich Cookies

Makes 2 dozen

Before a lawsuit in 2003 prompted Nabisco to develop a formula for Oreos with 0 trans fats per serving, I devised a chocolate sandwich cookie that has become my family's favorite.

For the cookies

1 ¼ cups flour

¼ cup unsweetened cocoa

¼ cup cornstarch

½ teaspoon kosher salt

¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) unsalted, preferably organic butter

6 ounces chopped semisweet chocolate or 1 cup chocolate chips

For the filling

3 tablespoons organic butter

2 tablespoons milk

1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract

2 ½ cups powdered sugar

1. To make the dough. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa, cornstarch and salt. In a small saucepan melt the butter and chocolate about halfway over medium heat, then take off the heat and stir until the mixture is smooth. Stir the melted chocolate into the flour mixture. The dough will look soupy at first, but will firm up a little as you stir. Divide the dough in half and shape each piece into a log about 2 inches in diameter. Chill the dough logs just until they firm up a little, about 10 minutes, then roll the logs to make smooth cylinders and chill again.

2. To bake the cookies. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line 2 baking sheets with baker's parchment. Cut each log of dough into 24 slices and arrange them one inch apart on the lined cookie sheets. Bake until the cookies are slightly puffed and uniformly browned on the surface, about 10 minutes. Cool on a rack.

3. To make the filling. Melt the butter with the milk in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the vanilla, then stir in the powdered sugar and continue stirring until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Transfer the filling to a strong zip-lock storage bag and snip off one corner to make a piping bag.

4. Flip half the cookies upside down. Pipe a small amount (about 1 teaspoon) of the filling onto the overturned cookies and, before the filling sets, press the remaining cookies right-side-up on top of the frosted ones.

Greg Atkinson, 2007

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