The May “Artifact of the Month” at the Western Illinois Museum is a food production item from by-gone days – a lard press.
Nowadays, most homes and farms do not have a lard press around, but from pioneer days well into the 20th century, it was an important tool in the butchering process and common in kitchens all over the United States.
Butchering a hog was an important and significant event for most families in rural areas, back in the days when storing enough food to last through the winter was necessary for survival. It was critical to use every bit of the animal killed and make some kind of food product from it, such as lard. The saying went, “everything used from the pig except the squeal!”
The lard press on display is actually a multi-functional implement – it not only is for pressing lard, but is also a sausage stuffer and a fruit press.
Made of heavy cast iron, with a black japanned exterior, the lard press is a total of about 29 inches tall and the interior metal cylinder is approx. 8 quart in size. It consists of a piston with a worm screw gear. When the wood-handled crank is turned, it presses a metal plate down through the cylinder, forcing whatever is inside out through the sieved basket inside the cylinder, and the contents extrude from a spout at the bottom of the cylinder.
A “japanned” exterior means it has a heavily lacquered finish, almost like enamel paint, over the cast iron. Quite common on metal tools in the 19th century, this finish helps waterproof the metal and prevents rusting. Sometimes called “japan black” or “japan lacquer”, the name comes from Japanese pottery that has a hard, black glossy glaze. Because it dried very quickly and was very durable, early Model-Ts were painted “japan black”, this led to Henry Ford’s famous quote: "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black".
Cast into the top part of the lard press are the words, Enterprise Mfg. Co., Phila. USA – the proud proclamation of maker and location made. Beginning in 1870, when the company was established, the Enterprise Company made many types of food tools such as choppers, grinders, mills, and presses. The Enterprise Company has changed hands, and now is “Chop-Rite”, but they still make the same identical lard press as the one on display, they have not changed the design or pattern from the 19th century model.
From a label for the Enterprise Lard Press:
"ENTERPRISE, THIS MACHINE IS UNIQUE FOR MANY USES,
1. FRUIT PRESS - COMPOUND GEARING EXERTS HIGH PRESSURE WITH LITTLE EFFORT AND GREAT ECONOMY IN PRESSING FRUITS.
2. LARD PRESS - FOR MAKING LARD IT EXTRACTS THE LAST DROP FROM CRACKLINGS.
3. SAUSAGE STUFFER - FOR STUFFING SAUSAGE THE FLOW OF MEAT INTO THE CASINGS IS STEADY AND FULL, ALL AIR IS EXCLUDED WHICH MEANS NO SPOILAGE.
Sturdy and durable, because they are made out of heavy cast iron, lard presses from the 19th century, such as the one on display at the museum, have easily survived into the 21st. Commonly found for sale in antique shops and eBay, anyone looking to purchase a lard press would have no problem. One problem might be shipping and handling, because they weigh quite a bit.
Making lard is a straightforward process. Pioneer settlers did it every time they butchered a hog. The first step is to kill a hog and butcher the carcass. Next step is to remove the fat pieces.
The best lard is leaf lard, it is from fat around the loin and the kidneys, and the next best fat is from the back of the pig, called “fatback”. Most lard is made from a mixture of fat pieces from the pig. Chop the fat into small chunks and throw them into a large kettle over a fire.
To “render” the lard (rendering means removing the fat from the meat), the fatty pieces boil down over a slow, hot heat. The fire cannot be too hot as the fat can scorch easily and it must be stirred often to keep from burning. It is best to use an iron pot because a copper or brass kettle can cause the lard to become rancid.
As the lard melts, it turns a golden color. When the fatty pieces boil down to mostly liquid with some chunks floating on the top, (the chunks are “cracklings”) a long-handled dipper dips the lard from the kettle and pours it into the lard press. A sieved basket fits inside the cylinder portion of the lard press; this allows the grease to run through, while trapping the cracklings inside. Once the cylinder is about 1/3 full of lard, the crank is turned, moving the plate down, and the liquid squeezes out and the cracklings are squashed. The pressure from the lard press squeezes all the excess grease from the cracklings. When no more grease can be compressed out of the cracklings, the crank is reversed and the basket carefully pulled out. The content of the cylinder is a golden brown round “cake” of cracklings.
From the lard press, the liquid grease was put into crocks or metal pails, in Tennessee; the metal lard pail is called a “lard stand”. If the lard rendering was done outside and there was snow on the ground, the lard pails would be set into a snow bank to cool the lard down.
Air and light are harmful to lard, so containers need to be filled to the top, sealed tightly and stored somewhere cool and dark. After the lard was cooled down a bit, it was usually taken down to the cellar for storage. When the lard completely cooled, it became a soft solid and white as snow.
Lard is pig fat and currently it has a bad reputation. When most people hear the word, lard, they say yuck and gross! However, our ancestors used lard and loved it. It was only in the 20th century that the use of lard began to wane. Lards’ reputation began a decline because of a book. In 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote a book called “The Jungle”, in which he described a horrible scene of lard manufacture. The public began to think differently about lard. In 1911, Crisco was invented, a hydrogenated solid vegetable fat, advertised to be healthy and safe, unlike lard. Crisco became instantly popular as a modern, healthy fat, and slowly, but surely, lard was dismissed as “bad” for your health.
However, there have always been many “hold-out” cooks and bakers, who continued to use lard and still do to this day. There are many who bake who say that the best piecrusts are made with lard. To some, not only does it make the best piecrust, but also some cooks say nothing makes fried foods crispier, or biscuits fluffier.
Lard is lower in saturated fat than butter, it is 40% saturated fat and butter is 60%. Technically, lard is not even a saturated fat; it is a monounsaturated fat (which is the “good” kind of fat). In addition, it is one of the best dietary sources of vitamin D. It also contains no trans-fats.
However, not all lards are the same. A lot of lard sold in grocery stores is partially hydrogenated to keep it uniform and to increase the shelf life. Hydrogenation changes the chemical structure of lard. Hydrogenation can make liquid fats solid at room temperature and gives lard extra stability so it will not go rancid as quickly. Unfortunately, hydrogenation is also the source of unwholesome trans-fats.
Most stores do not sell lard made the old-fashioned way, without hydrogenation – usually only butcher shops carry it or people who want non-hydrogenated lard make it themselves at home.
Old-fashioned, homemade lard is enjoying a renaissance now amongst “foodies” in the culinary world. Fancy restaurants in big cities now serve handmade lard as a spread for bread. Gourmet chefs now are using lard in their kitchens, not only for baking pastries, but also for frying foods and in all sorts of dishes. There is a newfound appreciation for lard and its popularity is growing with people who are using natural ingredients and getting “back to basics” in cooking the old-fashioned way. Many people are beginning to believe that lard is not all “bad” and its’ reputation has begun to improve.
This lard press was also used to stuff sausages. Ground up meat was placed in the basket in the cylinder and a casing placed on the spout. When the crank was turned, the plate would press down, forcing the meat out the spout into the casings.
The lard press also pressed fruit, extruding fruit juice for use in jellies, or to make wine.
This lard press on display was an important component in the days when families made most of their own food. It illustrates how ingenious our antecedents were in making a tool that could help them be efficient and get the most from their meat.
Essay by Heather Munro