Can you live without cooking oil?

After romanticizing scavenging for months, I ran out of this staple -- and began to doubt my new rural existence


Felisa Rogers
June 25, 2011 5:01PM (UTC)

You write about how poverty breeds creativity. You think about how scavenging for wild food gives you the perfect opportunity to slow down, to really appreciate your surroundings. You talk about how frugality is more environmentally sustainable. You pontificate on why creating meals from scratch is cheaper, healthier and deeply satisfying. Then you run out of cooking oil.

You love fat. As a child you ate margarine by the spoonful. You didn't know any better. Now you've moved on to more delicious pastures. As a cook you can never resist sneaking in that extra bit of butter, that tablespoonful of olive oil, that dab of bacon grease. You believe that cake is a vessel for frosting, that salad dressing should be two parts oil to one part vinegar, and that packaged low-fat foods are a symptom of the decline of Western civilization. Fat makes food taste good.

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Under the best of circumstances, you have eight or nine varieties of fat on hand. In ascending order of importance: chicken drippings, vegetable oil, chili oil, peanut oil, light olive oil, coconut oil, bacon grease, butter and, of course, extra virgin olive oil. (You would sell your first-born child to be the sort of person who could afford to use truffle oil on a regular basis.)

It's been a while since you've had much of a selection in your kitchen, and as you flounder through a particularly broke time period, you sadly watch your supplies of fat disappear. Your husband uses the last of the vegetable oil in bread dough. You are not too worried -- you can do without vegetable oil. You are more alarmed when the good fat starts to dwindle. For six months, you have been the careful custodian of a jar of expensive coconut oil, but you finally use the last precious spoonful in a pan of gallo pinto. Because you're running dangerously low on olive oil, you compensate with bacon grease until you find yourself scraping at the bottom of your jar, trying in vain to gather a teaspoon to dress up a pot of black beans. Your last butter goes into a quiche (along with the last of your cheese and the last of your cream), and finally you watch the last golden-green drops of olive oil drip over your salad. The next day, you fry eggs in the remains from a jar of pork drippings.

Ten years ago if someone had asked you what rock bottom looked like, you might have imagined yourself in a gutter with an empty bottle of booze. It would not have occurred to you to think of a kitchen without cooking oil. It would not have occurred to you that such a thing could happen to you.

If you lived in the city, you would claw through your various purses looking for stray dollars. You would dump your change jar and count out dimes and pennies until you had enough money for a box of butter or a small jar of vegetable oil. You would walk to the store and buy it. But you don't live in the city. You live in the country, and your car, the one with good gas mileage, has a bad tire. The other option, your husband's truck, is a gas hog. Town is an hour away. The local country store is a 45-minute round-trip, which seems like an awful waste for a stick of butter. These, you think, are the disadvantages to country living.

It is not, of course, the end of the world. You have options. You have been working steadily, and there are checks on the horizon. But you are not naive: You have freelanced long enough to know how long these checks can take to arrive. It is fortunate that you have other resources: After a bitter, jobless winter, your husband has been working long hours in the valley, cutting brush, digging ditches, laying flagstones. None of it is big money, but in a day or two you will be able to afford a trip to town and then, well, you will drop to your knees in the grocery aisle and kiss that quart of olive oil like it is the Holy Grail. In the meantime, you must do without.  You think it could be worse: You could have cooking oil and nothing to cook. (You wonder when, exactly, you became such an optimist.) You chop beautiful new potatoes and beets, and you think about the problem at hand. Last Saturday, your friend left a half bottle of white wine in your refrigerator, and there is chicken stock in the freezer. That said, as a lover of fat, you are worried that wine and stock will not be enough, that the beautiful new potatoes will be naked without lovely pearls of grease. You check the door of your refrigerator again, but as you already know, your glass jars of grease are gone.

You could, of course, borrow a cup of oil or a stick of butter from your friends down the road. You could call upon your neighbors. But here's the thing about being broke: Suddenly asking a simple favor feels like begging. If you had the money but were just trying to postpone a trip to town, it would be easy to borrow a stick of butter. Your empty wallet changes the nature of the errand. In your own backward way, you are stupidly proud.

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In your freezer there is a container full of fat and bone that you've been saving for your friend's dogs. You think about this fat. The excess fat was cut from a fresh piece of meat and stored in a clean container. Nothing wrong with it. But isn't it a little like eating dog food? It's not dog food till the dogs are eating it, you reason. In the end, your love for fat wins over your sense of propriety.

You pour wine and chicken stock into a ceramic baking dish, and then add the root vegetables and a handful of chopped onion. You roll the vegetables in the liquid and sprinkle fresh dill, chopped mint and paprika. You add salt and pepper. Last but not least, you nestle pieces of pork fat here and there.

The potatoes cook for an hour at 350 (your oven burns hot), and when you open the door you see that the vegetables have absorbed all of the liquid. You pile your plate and sit down at the table to eat. The succulent potatoes and beets fall apart in your mouth. The sweetness of the dill and the faintest hint of mint are the perfect match for the tender new potatoes, and the pork fat and stock make the dish rich and savory. You are struck by this small miracle: These are the best potatoes you've ever cooked.

You are not in the mood to sing the virtues and rewards of poverty or country living, but this recipe will become part of your permanent repertoire.

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Roasted Potatoes

Ingredients

  • 3 new potatoes (chopped)
  • ½ cup white wine
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 1¼ cups stock
  • 3 beets (chopped)
  • ¼ onion (sliced)
  • 2 cloves garlic (minced)
  • 2 mint leaves (minced)
  • 1 sprig of fresh dill (minced)
  • ¼ teaspoon paprika
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • 3 small chunks pork fat

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Pour stock, wine and soy sauce into shallow ceramic baking dish.
  3. Add potatoes, beets, onion and garlic.
  4. Roll vegetables until they are wet.
  5. Dust with mint, dill, paprika and salt.
  6. Roll again.
  7. Add pepper.
  8. Add pork fat.
  9. Bake for 1 hour at 350 degrees.

Felisa Rogers

Felisa Rogers studied history and nonfiction writing at the Evergreen State College and went on to teach writing to kids for five years. She lives in Oregon’s coast range, where she works as a freelance writer and editor.

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