Many of us remember our moms (or dads) preparing food with shortening. A can of Crisco, Spry, or a store brand can of the stuff was the product of choice. The vegetable grease was so ubiquitous that it was taken for granted.
Being the curious boy, I once asked my great-aunt Emma what the word shortening meant. She explained that there are two types of dough. There is long dough, a dough that stretches. Bread dough is the most familiar form of long dough. Then there is short dough, the kind that is used for pie crusts and fine pastry.
To make long dough oils are kneeded and stretched into flour and yeast. To make short dough a grease like butter, lard, or vegetable fat is “cut” into the flour with a fork, pastry blender, or similar implement until the dough has a fine, mealy texture to it. When the short dough is ready, often a very small amount of liquid is “cut” in before the short dough is shaped or rolled out for baking.
Technically speaking animal fats like lard or butter can be used as the shortening fat in short dough, but vegetable grease has been marketed as vegetable shortening and has been widely used for the preparation of short dough for many decades.
So, what about vegetable shortening? For that, we need a capsule history of Proctor & Gamble, Inc.
In 1837, William Proctor, a candle maker convinced his brother-in-law James Gamble, a soap maker to form a partnership in order to compete more aggressively with the other candle and soap makers in the Cincinnati, Ohio area. By the 1890s, the meat packing industry had a monopoly on thee lard and tallow used in candles and soap and thus controlled the prices.
The business partners wanted “turnkey” control over the supply and price from farm to manufacturing. By 1905, P & G had acquired several cottonseed mills in Mississippi. Two years later, the company teamed up with E.C. Kayser, a German chemist to develop the process of hydrogenation. With the addition of hydrogen to the fatty acid chain, liquid cottonseed oil became a semi-solid that looked and felt like lard. With this, P & G could more economically produce candles and soap.
Unfortunately for the candle business, around the time that vegetable lard was perfected, electric lighting had gained a foothold in many areas of the United States. To supplement the soapmaking mainstay of P & G, the company needed a new market for their hydrogenated cottonseed oil. Because the stuff looked and behaved like lard, why not sell it as a lard substitute?
The new product needed a brand name. They first tried Krispo, but they ran into trouble with a trademark infringement lawsuit. Eventually they came up with a name derived from a near acronym, CRYStalized Cottonseed Oil. Crisco. The Crisco brand made its debut in 1911.
To sell the product to housewives, P & G looked back to the origins of hydrogenated oil as a substitute for lard and tallow for candles and soap. The company came up with the idea that all vegetable shortening was healthier than animal fats and cheaper than butter. The advertising campaigns touted it as healthier (digestable), economical, and modern. This perception positioned Crisco, and later, the other brands of vegetable shortening into the dominant baking and cooking fat market share.
By the 2000s, medical research started pointing the blame for serious health problems at hydrogenated fats. Vegetable shortening and commercial products produced with it fell out of public favor. In 2002, P & G divested the Crisco trade name due to stockholder pressure to the J. M. Smucker Company. In May of 2002, Crisco along with P & G’s Jiff Peanut Butter brand became part of the Smucker company.
The Blue Jay of Happiness says that if you don’t want to use that can of shortening sitting in your cupboard for cooking, you can insert a wick or string and use it as an emergency candle. Isn’t that ironic?