Friday, July 20, 2012

On Crisco, Christ, and the Crisco Kid


When you like words as much as I do, you end up spending more time than you’d care to admit pondering where they come from. Why?, one might very legitimately ask. Does it really matter where they come from? In the final analysis, probably not, but you know what they say. There are two types of people: those who think about words and those who don’t. I’m solidly in the first camp.

Lately I’ve been thinking about Crisco. Maybe it’s that I’ve just moved into a new home, and while packing up the old one, discovered a great big dusty can of the stuff in the back of a cabinet, not to mention a few half-used sticks lurking in the nether reaches of my fridge. (Sidenote: convenient, isn’t it, that Crisco now comes in easy-to-measure sticks? I can remember either having to pack measuring cups with greasy white globs to get the requisite third of a cup or resorting to the displacement method, using a Pyrex measuring cup and a given quantity of water.)

Anyway, the fact that I had so much old Crisco on hand suggests that I don’t use it all that often. I’m not much given to frying chicken, and when it comes to baking, I’m very much of a butter person, although I do acknowledge that the flakiest piecrusts are made with lard. Mostly I use Crisco only when I bake molasses cookies, which, for some reason, never come out as good any other way, although for the life of me, I don’t know why this should be.

So what is it about Crisco that appeals to me? Certainly not its nutritional merits, hydrogenated fats having long since been tarred, feathered, and run out of town. Truth be told, it’s the name I love. So made-up. So cheery. So expressive of early 20th century optimism, commercialization, and infatuation with technology. Jell-O, Nabisco, Oreo. Crisco. Something about names that end in -o just seemed to work—and still do. 

But there’s more. I used to think Crisco had something to do with Christ. It is a kind of oil—hydrogenated soybean oil, to be precise—and Christ comes from the Greek christos which means “anointed,” as in with oil, so you can understand why I would think the words are related. I’m not alone in this belief. In his The Rector's Blog, Archdeacon John W.G. Clarke similarly connects the two: “The word ‘crisco’ comes from the same Latin root word as ‘Christ,’” he writes, concluding that Jesus “is, after all, the Crisco Kid.” 

Unfortunately we’re both wrong, the archdeacon and I. There’s no connection whatsoever between the lard-like shortening and the son of God. Crisco doesn’t come from a Latin or Greek root; it turns out that it’s a sort of acronym derived from the first letters of CRYStalized Cottonseed Oil, the product from which it was originally made (before the cottonseed oil was replaced by soybean). So much for the Crisco Kid.

That said, it did almost start life under the name Cryst, which certainly sounds a lot like Christ. Originally Procter & Gamble had thought to market its new solid all-vegetable oil shortening under the name Krispo. Another company already sold crackers by that name, however, and so Krispo briefly became Cryst until someone in management expressed concern that the new name sounded vaguely—or perhaps overtly—messianic. Renamed once again, Crisco appeared on the market in 1911 with the name by which it is still known, loved, and scorned to this day. 


  1. I have a tub of the substance in my cupboard which I bought for a baking experiment that I decided not to repeat. Frankly I find the idea of using it disgusting, perhaps it's the years of doctors brainwashing me into eating healthy, or perhaps it's that it vaguely looks like some kind of ointment.

    1. I don't like the stuff either--just the name. But you should try those molasses cookies. I've never met anyone who doesn't love them and they don't come out the same way with butter. Do you know why that would be?