My quest for real lard began about 7 years ago, when I decided to learn myself some Mexican cooking. I'd spent a few days eating my way around Chicago with a bunch of girlfriends, and a raucous dinner at Frontera Grill pointed up a glaring gap in my culinary repertoire (I'd wanted to cruise the Maxwell Street Market for the real deal, but our travel schedule got us into town too late on Sunday).
So I did what any reasonable cooking obsessive would do. I bought a cookbook on the subject (Rick Bayless's Mexico: One Plate at a Time) and invited a bunch of people to dinner. Finding ingredients wasn't too hard. For one thing, it was early September and I had a surplus of tomatoes, hot peppers, cilantro, and tomatillos growing in my garden. And I was able to order corn husks, dried chiles, and masa harina online (from the late, lamented CMC Company). The one thing I couldn't lay hands on was the lard required for the tamales and refried beans.
Sure, even the groceria up the road had turquoise boxes of Sno-Cap “Manteca”, but oh, my brothers and sisters, that crap bears about as much resemblance to home-rendered pig fat as Bud Light® does to a cask-conditioned bitter ale. It's an exemplar of the processed, sanitized, hydrogenated, industrialized “food” that's overtaken this country.
I thought I could just buy some pork fat from the butcher counter and render it myself, but at every grocery store in a 30-mile radius (and there are at least 3) my request for pork fat was met with laughter or incredulity or both. You think we actually butcher pigs here?
In the end, I stooped to the industrial lard and baked some
country-style spare ribs in it to impart some flavor. The dinner
was a huge success, and I even scored a husband out of it (a story for another time). But finding pig fat became my Quest.