OLIVIA JOHNSON | FAT + FALLOW | West Marin
Most freezers are merely homes for forgotten, unfinished, and ultra-convenient foods, but if you open up Olivia Johnson’s freezer, you’ll find a few unusual delicacies. Among soup stocks, chili, ice cream, and bolognese sauce, you’ll also find roadkill, deer hides, nettle butter, pig brains, and ground suet—almost 20 pounds of suet, in fact. Suet is the raw, cream-colored fat found in the cavities around the kidneys and loins of cows. When bagged and vaccuum-sealed, as the suet in Olivia’s freezer is, it’s dense and lumpy, resembling the reticulated surface of a brain. But between 113 and 122 degrees, the suet melts into liquid, and can then be rendered into tallow, which hardens into a smooth, waxy, and creamy solid. If one could literalize “living off the fat of the land,” Olivia might be the one to do it. The 20 pounds of suet? Olivia will render it all into tallow, and then turn the tallow into body balms, candles, and soaps. Her line of products is fittingly called Fat + Fallow.
Three tree stumps of ascending height double as a stairway to the entrance of their home. Just outside the trailer, there’s a weather-worn picnic table, littered with dead flowers and the skeletal jaws of a horse. “I can’t separate myself from the land,” says Olivia. “It’s intrinsic and integral to me. Every time I step outside, I learn something new.”
Three years ago, Olivia received a jar of tallow balm for Christmas and noticed how healing and soothing the balm was on her skin. When Olivia found out that Thistle Meats, a butcher shop in Petaluma, had a surplus of suet—they receive half a cow a week—, she asked her partner Liam, a butcher at Thistle, to bring the tallow home for her. Thistle Meats, a shop that believes in using the whole animal, gladly obliged. Though Olivia had experimented with tallow on occasion in years prior, she now had a weekly, free source, and she saw an opportunity to create a business by reclaiming a part of the cow that, though typically not eaten, could still be used well, to heal and to soothe.
As Olivia researched and experimented, she learned that though rare in commercial beauty products, tallow is actually remarkably compatible with human skin. “It mimics your sebum,” says Olivia, sebum being the natural, lubricating oil secreted by human skin and scalp. As a result, tallow is easily absorbed into the skin and can heal dry, chapped, calloused, and cracked skin. “Everything you put on your body, it’s going in—it’s medicine. It’s going to have an effect.” Though Olivia was taking herbal medicine classes when she first discovered tallow, she discovered that plant oils lacked some of the properties that tallow has, like a high percentage of fat-soluble vitamins, and conjugated linoleic acid, which has anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties. “You won’t necessarily find a plant that will act quite the same way tallow does,” says Olivia.
For now, Olivia makes all her balms and candles in her home kitchen. “Home,” at the moment, is a Fleetwood RV parked on Black Mountain Ranch, a 1500-acre family-owned farm filled mostly with vegetable garden plots and orchards, northeast of Point Reyes Station. Olivia and Liam were invited by the owners to move there in November of last year after leaving the Regenerative Design Institute in Bolinas just a few months earlier, where Olivia was working as a garden manager. Though unconventional and more compact than most houses, the trailer is a cozy abode tucked in a sweet valley surrounded by large trees and shadowy, contoured hills. The Lagunitas and Nicasio Creeks converge nearby. Three tree stumps of ascending height double as a stairway to the entrance of their home. Just outside the trailer, there’s a weather-worn picnic table, littered with dead flowers and the skeletal jaws of a horse. “I can’t separate myself from the land,” says Olivia. “It’s intrinsic and integral to me. Every time I step outside, I learn something new.”
In Olivia, who is also a gardener, there’s a sense that living with the land is learning from it, constantly attuning herself to the cycles of life and death in the plants and animals that surround her. “I have a big respect for any ingredient that I’m using because it came from something that was alive,” she says. “But a relationship to a cow is different from a relationship to an olive. It’s a living and breathing being that was raised for nourishment.”