It was early in the COVID-19 lockdown. Everyone, and every media source was offering advice on making it through an amorphous period with no apparent end. I came across a newspaper article about self-sufficiency that suggested readers consider making useful things from household waste.1 As long as New York City’s food scrap collection program is suspended, why not take the trimmed or uneaten fat from your dinner and turn it into candles?
My first thought was:
“How many chops would it take to make a tea light?”
My second thought was that I couldn’t answer that question.2 Nor could I imagine the real work of collecting and purifying animal fat to make it useful in a modern household. I like to act on my impulses. This was a point worth exploring.
I was at the time already thinking about animal fat as a material substance, and I had worked with it a bit. My experiences focused on soap-making and chemistry around the turn-of-the-19th century. A few months earlier, I had participated in a workshop on Animal Materialities at the Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte; one of my pandemic projects was to turn that work into a more formal paper.
Candles & Soap from Animal Fat
The internet indulges survivalists and back-to-the-landers with instructions. Several sites, for example, will instruct you in making candles from common-to-all-household items such as a pound of bacon, a sheared-in-half aluminum can or recycled glass jar, a shoelace and a pencil. I tend to be dismissive of such earnest efforts, having abandoned similar instincts about 1964. Furthermore, with the national average price of bacon at $5 per pound and $2 for a pair of shoelaces these candles can’t compete in price with the $1/dozen tea lights on offer at the dollar store.3 And that’s not counting fuel, burned fingers, cleanup time or the ultimate effects of eating a pound of bacon. It seems to me the attraction of such suggestions is more “could I do it if needed” than “I must do it now;” a Worst-Case Scenario fantasy of the apocalypse.4
My own interest in establishing a chops-to-illuminant ratio is considerably more realistic, historically-focused, informed and of course serious.
I begin most of my research projects doing things. How can I understand material substances if I have no sense how it, or its components work? How do I develop a sense of the transformation of this thing into that one if I don’t explore what caused it? I constructed a plan which in time expanded in some ways and contracted in others. This site documents my experiments collecting and working with animal fats, comparing the products I made from them to other fats. As I said in the original draft of the essay:
My broad goal in beginning with these data was to gain insight into ways animal fats have been manipulated physically and intellectually. I sought to better understood this material as substance and nuisance in Europe in the latter part of the early modern era. I also hoped to gain insight into explanatory transformations evoked by changing chemical understanding and the substitution of new or newly available materials.
In my initial plan, I would collect animal fats, separate them from other animal parts and purify it. Collection is not use however, and so I chose to explore animal fat in soap-making as a way to understand its value after harvest. Reading 19th century reports which commodified fat as an experimental subject sparked a third group of experiences. I expected questions to arise as I worked, and hoped my experiences would illuminate the printed record. The later 18th through early 19th century is important as a time when physiological and chemical understanding of lipids—both animal and vegetable—expanded, and when the need for fats by the beasts that supply it and the humans who exploit it changed.
The Animal Harvest/Harvesting Animals
Fat is a component of all animal bodies, which it nourishes and protects. Domesticated animals—cows, sheep, swine, geese, chickens, ducks, for example—offer this nourishment and protection to those who slaughter and harvest (or deconstruct) them, including humans.
Western European culture is thick with images of the rituals of an annual slaughter; we associate this with the end of autumn harvests and the beginning of the winter festivals. We imagine (or are told) of the economy of its location within the agricultural year. Timing slaughter at the start of cold weather would have facilitated preservation. Freed from the daily demands of field work, households might better tend to the slow and deliberate tasks of taking the harvested animal parts and converting them into things useful to humans.
Note that this says little about animal products in urban settings, and nothing, really about early modern European practices of animal deconstruction. On considering what those details might be, I found I had many questions about the use and value of animal parts. Any answer depended on time and place but must also reflect changing ideas about the nature of animals, changing demographics and regional shifts from artisanal practices to manufacturing to full-on industrialization.
The questions that concern me here reflect my own focus on fat in animal bodies and its position as a component of animal chemistry, human nutrition, trade and industrialization.
- What is the quantity of fat considered retrievable from the animal body body?
- Does the proportion of fat to meat and other materials remain stable in the mid 18th century?
- How much harvestable animal fat is or can be made useful to humans . . . and in what ways?
- What changes in these assessments as European towns become cities, and cities (and towns) move toward industrialization and requirements of both industrialized slaughterhouses and meat or meat-based foodstuffs to feed the growing populations?
My interest is fat available for soap-making which, with candle-making, are two familiar uses of harvested animal fat . . . after eating it.
In the original essay to which these experimental parts are pendant, I consider activities in which humans harvest and exploit animal fat as competitive ones. The published version de-emphasizes the competition, and re-frames it as changes to the affordances (potential for value or usefulness) of this animal material.
When should fat be a foodstuff and when a component of other products? Is the use of animal fat for soap or other industrial uses appropriate or does this use warrant another type of fat or oil?