Tallow is, essentially, rendered meat fat which is a solid, waxlike substance at ambient temperatures. Historically this was an important by-product of the meat industry and has become only slightly less so with the introduction of petroleum based products and other synthetics.
For a start, it was a key source of candles - cheaper than beeswax, but not as bright or clean-burning it would still serve for common use. It was also a key ingredient of soaps and polishes, cosmetics and topical medicines such as salves and ointments. As a food-grade material it could be used for frying, used to preserve meat by "potting" or processed into other forms of cooking fat or, in a pinch, eaten as a high energy food in its own right. Tallow also served as a mechanical lubricant for wheels and bearings.
Rendering is, like tanning, a dirty and foul smelling process that people want to live upwind and upstream of wherever possible and is usually low status and - where relevant - restricted to unclean castes. It is, however, vital to most economies that practice it, leading to the usual cognitive dissonance that applies in these situations. Renderers are (in)famous for hovering up all sorts of dead things, even those that the animal food industry may not touch and, in the right circumstances, may be into unlicensed funerals as well. Likewise, food industry by-products such as slush and dripping are historically likely to end up in the process, rather than blocking the sewers as they do in the modern era.
Game and Story Use
- For all your dungeoneering needs, remember that the cheap candles also serve as grease for pulleys, door handles and stone slabs and can also be eaten, cooked with or fed to monsters. Also for polishing your boots, waterproofing you equipment and dressing your burns1.
- Also, if you need to cook, remember that the axle grease off the wagon will do (see Sharpe's Waterloo for an example).
- In some RPG systems, barrels of fat are likely to be treasure (this is an example of the disconnect between - say - Harnmaster and D&D … in one, four barrels of tallow are set dressing, in the other, they are the treasure2).
- Remember the industrial district when designing your towns - no-one likes them, but they need to be there. Especially if the town or city also has a significant slaughtering trade3.
- Also the potential for monsters attracted by the amount of meat and fat being processed.
- And the thieve's guild dropping their victims into the rendering pots.
- On the other hand, anyone from a farming background before the mid to late C20 is likely to have at least some idea how to do this, so if your PCs want to engage in a bit of impromptu rendering when faced with a dead monster…
- In a fantasy setting, humanoids like orcs might well end up in the rendering trade … low status work, but for the not-too fussy eater there's plenty of lumpy meat skimmings to snack on4.