Paul Levy

Gluttons for punishment

Our obsession with obesity extends to Shakespeare — with a literal reading suggesting the Prince of Denmark was decidedly stout

Do you regard fat as a noun, a food substance all humans eat and need? Or as an adjective, denoting something you want to avoid being? Though the subtitle seems to indicate that this disturbing, closely argued book has the olive oil vs lard culinary axis as its subject, Christopher Forth dispenses with the food attributes of fat in his first few chapters.

For the ancient Hebrews, fat was usually olive oil. But for ritual sacrifices, Yahweh seemed to prefer animal fat, as do the Ashkenazi remnant of His chosen people, with their relish of salt beef and schmaltz. Much the same was true of the Greek and Roman religious rites, whose gods were offered not much more than the mouth-watering aroma of roasting meat. As for our even earlier ancestors, as Richard Wrangham noted in his Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, the ability to cook other creatures made the fat from brains and marrow accessible to them, allowing the evolutionary development of our own smaller digestive systems and larger brains.

‘The science of lipidomics,’ writes Forth, ‘acknowledges no chemical distinction between fats and oils.’ Adipose tissue, like vegetable-derived oil, can be either solid, or liquid enough to fuel lamps for lighting; both share the tactile qualities of being unctuous or greasy, soft, moist, sticky and slippery, and the olfactory qualities of odour and taste and flavour. Early humans used fat also as ‘sealants, lubricants, polishes, binders and varnishes, as bases for perfumes, and in medicinal and cosmetic ointments’.

You can see where we’re headed — straight to the sensations of both pleasure and disgust, and to their associated emotions and feelings. From the simple solid or liquid noun we’ve slid to the complex adjectival use of ‘fat’,’ which has links with human fertility, agriculture, medicine and magic.

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