Peak Crisco

We are proud owners of the 1913 edition of the Crisco Cookbook. Hydrogenated cottonseed oil was developed as an alternative to tallow for use in candles, but as electric lighting displaced candles, Proctor & Gamble started selling the stiff waxy fat as not merely edible, but as delicious and nutritious. The book features gems such as “Brussels Sprouts with Crisco” and 600 other recipes calling for cups upon cups of “this rich, wholesome cream of nutritious food oils.”

It seems strange to many that there can be anything better than butter for cooking, or of greater utility than lard, and the advent of Crisco has been a shock to the older generation, born in an age less progressive than our own… But these good folk, when convinced, are the greatest enthusiasts. Grandmother was glad to give up the fatiguing spinning wheel.

The Importance of Giving Children Crisco Foods

Equip your children with good stomachs by giving them wholesome Crisco foods – foods which digest with ease…. They may eat Crisco doughnuts or pie without being chased by nightmares. Sweet dreams follow the Crisco supper.

Girls, especially, show at times a dislike for fat. It therefore is necessary that the fat … should be in the purest and most inviting form and should be one that their digestions welcome rather than repel.

Rabbi Margolies of New York said that the Hebrew Race had been waiting 4,000 years for Crisco.

And so on. Here I thought it was the Christ, but the advent of Crisco was the big event.

The Story of Crisco

When Crisco was introduced in 1911, automobile registration in the US was a mere 600,000. The nation moved primarily on light and heavy rail, on horses, and on human power. There were some 20 million bicycles in use among a population of 90 million, and cyclists led the way in paving our roads. Our home was built in 1910 in one of the so-called streetcar suburbs of Portland, today no longer considered suburban even though the population density is lower than it once was. It’s still a lovely, walkable neighborhood. Suburbia today is so sparsely populated that pedestrians are generally helpless unless it’s to fetch the mail, or their walking is strictly leisure.

Automobile registrations in the US increased nearly fourteen-fold in nine years, during which time the Crisco Cookbook enjoyed eight reprintings. In 1920, US passenger rail use peaked: downhill ever since. By the late 1920s, zoning laws had been established throughout the country, regulating land use in such a way as to cement the hegemony of the automobile through the greater distances imposed between people, services, and Crisco factories. Bicycle use had plummeted to below 4 million. The streetcars ran into our neighborhood, as in many cities, until the 1950s, when the rails were torn up under the wolven custodianship of General Motors, Firestone Tire, and Standard Oil. Only children rode bicycles, unless they were in France, or communists.

By the 1950s, many recipes called for Crisco shortening without any prompting from Proctor & Gamble. Crisco had become a staple, and driving to and from one’s ranchless rancher had become synonymous with the American Dream, removing privileged populations from our cities. War-scaled US industry had retooled from treaded tanks to chrome-finned ones, and the interstate highway system laid a foundation for the fast-food industry. A whole lot of frying ensued.

In the 1960s, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil cut with water, salted and artificially flavored as margarine displaced most butter from table use — an application not even the 1913 Crisco-qua-Messiah Cookbook was bold enough to advise. And in 1965, one Ralph Nader published Unsafe at any speed, attacking among other things the lack of structural integrity of the most fuel efficient compact car GM made, with the result that US cars continued on a longer, wider, heavier design trajectory until the 1973 oil shocks caused Congress to soften car manufacturers’ liabilities for making cars less like battering rams (i.e., marginally safer to those not in them).

In the 1980s, backed by federal dietary guidelines demonizing naturally saturated fats, Phil Sokolof‘s “Poisoning of America” campaign gave Crisco’s remaining alternatives, especially “Tropical Oils”, all the cachÃ?© of Dengue Fever. Even McDonald’s switched from beef tallow to beef-flavored shortening for their fries. Just about every last bit of processed food in the country containing fat now contained partially hydrogenated this and/or that and/or that and/or that random agro-industrial surplus oil, often from non-food crops like cotton where pesticide application is more liberal. For a people who spent more time driving and working to pay for the privilege than cooking, processed foods had become most foods.

Just plain folkThe political oil shocks of the 1970s over, this progressive age saw the rise of the SUV as the last great wave of cheap oil came online. Ever since, all over America, it has come to be considered our birthright to pilot 4-6,000 pound vehicles several miles to drop off a couple videotapes, pick up a crispy-battered apple pie fritter from the drive-through across town, or just check up on the cows. It’s as sweet as freedom itself, and seldom differentiated. As George Bush the father, or Bill Clinton, are variously reported to have said in response to international pressure to help protect the environment, and as Dick Cheney cited later, “the American Way of Life is not negotiable”.

Something new happened in 2002. The National Academy of Sciences announced its findings that partially hydrogenated oils — called trans-fats — were unsafe in any amount, fingering the ubiquitous candle adjunct turned foodstuff as a major contributor to heart disease and cancer. In spite of the epic consequences of such a claim for the food industry, the FDA has reinforced the Academy’s position with recommendations to minimize intake, and to require stricter labeling warning consumers of the risk by 2006. Conservative estimates put the US premature death toll attributable to trans-fat consumption at 30,000 annually, with evidence suggesting the number is closer to 100,000.

Even in faddish low-carbohydrate diets advocating high fat intake, trans-fats are now on the run. Palm and coconut oil have reappeared on market shelves. Butter and even lard are back, big time. We have hit Peak Crisco; it’s all downhill from here.

Meanwhile, driving kills about 40,000 people outright annually in this country, with many more succumbing to the related lack of exercise. It’s the leading cause of violent death in children from 2-14. Our nation imports 2/3rds of the oil required to sustain our habit (along with our food production and most everything else). This accounts for a large share of the enormous international trade deficit we sustain, threatening the worth of our currency to compete with our creditors for what’s left. We are embroiled in a grinding guerrilla war to “democratize” a key weaponsoil-bearing country across the planet, and told by our leaders not to expect an imminent conclusion. Oil has hit $60 a barrel, with many predicting $80-$100 a barrel by Winter — an all-time high even adjusting for inflation.

Peak Oil is here, or as good as here. I don’t believe that we’ll need to go back to Crisco candles, but then I must believe that people can make reasonable choices before the chance to choose is withdrawn. It seems strange to many that there can be anything profligate about blowing the energy equivalent of 500 human labor hours with every gallon of gas, but where reason and politics fail, thermodynamics will prevail. As many an oblivious bumper sticker puts it, Nature Bats Last. Maybe we should have heeded great-great-great grandma’s reservations about eating fake wax in place of butter, and never have abandoned the spinning wheels that make us strong.

The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart. – Iris Murdoch, 1965

4 thoughts on “Peak Crisco”

  • Jim

    This is a very interesting parallel, and a well written account of it. It seems, however, that “peak Crisco” and “peak oil” are driven by different mechanisms. In the Crisco case, it is simply that the stuff is unhealthy, and that we now know that healthier alternatives exist. In the oil case, it is that we are running out of the stuff. What is left in reserve is that which was too difficult (uneconomical) to extract at a lower price.

    I agree completely about “reasonable choices before the chance to choose is withdrawn”, but I can’t say that I believe that the vast majority of people have reached this conclusion, nor will they anytime soon.

  • Matt

    I think a couple of facts are a bit dodgy. You say “…it had come to be considered normal for people to pilot 4-6 ton vehicles several miles to drop off a couple videotapes…”. I don’t think many people are driving 8,000lb+ vehicles to the grocery store. If you said 4,000- to 6,000-pound rather than 4-6 ton, the range would be much closer to accurate. One has to be careful of factual missteps because readers start to wonder about other assertions of fact too.

    I like the idea of a supplemental-powered Xtracycle. I recently got a used bike I’m thinking of making into an Xtracycle. I don’t know that I’ll change society, but I can fiddle with my little part of it.

  • Todd

    Thanks Matt! In an age less progressive than our own, I’d have to print a correction. The error was one of expression rather than of fact, meaning I screwed up the conversion to tons instead of thinking SUVs are in fact heavier.

    Jim’s comment, too, suggests that I’ve failed to convey the less-than-scholarly tone I intended with this piece. It’s a reverie, driven by wordplay, Google, and a certain willfulness rather than a historian’s earnest caution.

  • [...] While I’m as disturbed as anybody at the prospect of violent mayhem, more wars, starvation, etc., I can’t help but rejoice at the idea of cars as we know them going down with the cheap energy that brought them into being, a 20th-century bad-idea blip in human history like Crisco. [...]

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