Many of us here in the Coal Region well remember our grandparents or parents sitting down to enjoy a food from their childhood that we, as children, thought was terribly unappealing and shied away from.
Foods like liverwurst, beef tongue, and souse were staples for generations of immigrants who brought these recipes and dishes to the Coal Region as they came by the thousands seeking employment in the Anthracite mines or to farm Pennsylvania’s fertile soil with dreams of a better life.
Finding that conditions were not as rosy as hoped or that life in this new place was not so different than in the old country, many continued to embrace the “peasant food” they knew out of sheer necessity. Generations later, they continued to eat them because they also enjoyed them. Smalec is one of those foods.
Every little bit matters
Smalec (SMAH-lets), a Polish dish made of rendered pork fat (lard), is eaten spread on hearty bread and topped with onions or pickles. It is a quintessential “peasant food” and was used as a substitute for “the rich man’s butter.”
This old country staple has existed for centuries. Not only consumed by hard-working peasants as a sort of insulation against frigid conditions, it was also one more way to use up all of a butchered pig for someone who could not afford to waste one bit.
The rough times
This classic peasant food and energy booster has played an important role in helping people survive the difficult times Poland has faced throughout history. Smalec and bread were the daily ration for seminarians in Poland during the dark days of communist oppression.
Here in the U.S., bacon fat sandwiches helped fill hungry bellies through the years of The Great Depression.
Smalec saw a resurgence in popularity among urbanized Poles toward the end of the 20th century and is now viewed as “retro” being enjoyed not only during cold-weather activities but also at house-party buffets.
It also became somewhat of a symbol of Polish hospitality and is often served as a complimentary starter at restaurants in Poland much as Mexican restaurants serve salsa and chips here in America.
Simple to dressed up
Polish smalec recipes vary from region to region. Some of it is just rendered pork fat with very little added flavoring. Some smalec, such as this recipe, is a chunky spread, full of crispy cracklings and other delicious – and surprising – flavors.
OMG…LARD?!? Yes, lard. The thing that got an undeserved bad reputation thanks to aggressive marketing by hydrogenated vegetable shortening manufacturers to get you to use their product.
Just the facts, ma’am
Did you know non-hydrogenated lard has less saturated fat, more unsaturated fat, and less cholesterol than butter and none of the trans fat found in shortening and highly processed margarine? Lard is also a good source of vitamin D, and is dairy-free.
Unlike many processed oils, like soybean and cottonseed, organic lard is not hydrogenated and contains no trans fat. Lard is a good source of vitamin D.
But be aware that lard sold in supermarkets in the baking section is hydrogenated to make it shelf stable, therefore that variety contains trans fats and saturated fat.
Eating smalec can be likened to smearing a piece of bread with butter. Yes, it’s full of fat (which is not automatically a bad thing). It’s also full of history. Keep that in mind as you partake of this classic spread.
Not just Polish
Smalec is not unique to Polish cuisine. In Hungary, it’s known as disznózsír while Lithuanians say taukai. Croatians, Serbians, and Slovenians say mast; Czechs and Slovaks say sádlo. Bulgarians saysvinska mas, Romanians say untură, and in Germany, it is griebenschmalz.
This recipe for smalec includes of apples and marjoram. Serve this flavorful spread with a good quality rye or pumpernickel bread and top with slices of pickles and/or onions. Beer or vodka is the classic accompaniment.
Finding pork fat
Here in the Coal Region and throughout much of Pennsylvania, we are blessed with local butchers, shops, and farmers’ markets that can be great sources of pork fat. You can also make a request for leaf lard (the fat around the pig’s kidneys) or raw pork fat the next time a farmer near you butchers his or her pigs. In other areas without access to these, local supermarkets may be willing to save pork fat for you from their trimmings.