Historical Events

The only fats that could be found in any American kitchen up until about 1910 were those that came exclusively from animals.

As the accompanying graph shows, the only fats that could be found in any American kitchen up until about 1910 were those that came exclusively from animals: lard (the fat from pigs), suet (the fat from around an animal’s kidneys), tallow (a harder fat from sheep and cattle), butter, and cream. Some cottonseed and sesame oils were produced locally on farms in the South (the slaves brought sesame seeds from Africa), but none was produced nationally or in large quantities; and efforts to make olive oil foundered upon an inability to successfully cultivate olive trees (although no less a man than Thomas Jefferson tried). The fats used by housewives in the United States and also in most of Northern Europe were therefore those from animals. Cooking with oil was a largely unfamiliar idea.

 

Oils weren’t even considered edible. They didn’t belong in the kitchen. They were used to make soaps, candles, waxes, cosmetics, varnishes, linoleum, resins, lubricants, and fuels—all of which were increasingly needed for burgeoning urban populations as well as the machinery of industrialization in the nineteenth century. Whale oil was the primary material for all these purposes starting in 1820; a boom in that oil’s production enriched two generations of New Englanders living on the coast, but the industry had collapsed by 1860.

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