I was in my early twenties before I fully appreciated the tasteful difference between oleomargarine and butter. You see, in my childhood home, it was oleomargarine that was the staple for spreading on toast, tossing into a pot of hot potatoes, or merely slathering on saltine crackers. Ma’s frugality called for margarine, a taste she had developed most assuredly from living through the depression and World War II.
While butter, the real stuff, is a standard US agricultural commodity, its purity, made from real milk and maybe even cream, means it costs more at the grocery store. As such, it didn’t qualify for inclusion on Ma’s shopping list. Come to think of it, often the list called for a single stick of oleomargarine. Times were tough.
When I was finally introduced to butter, most likely while out to eat where tiny discs of butter graced a side plate, simply put, there was no turning back. But because I was still living at home, those grotesque artificially-colored sticks of grease prevailed.
By the way, oleo without the margarine ending was invented by a French chemist (Sacrebleu). The oleo was made from rendered animal fat and flavored milk. Things that make you go, “No, thank you!” Decades later, it was created from vegetable oils; yellow food coloring was added to give it a hue other than paraffin; it was renamed oleomargarine and became a less expensive choice versus butter for many households.
As far as Ma was concerned, certain things denoted whether or not you were trying to reach above your station in life, such as driving a new car, owning a home, or eating butter instead of margarine. Much later in her life, when I did own a new car and a home, I had the audacity to place a full stick of butter on the Sunday dinner table. Looking upon the pale log of butter, she said, and I quote, “Oh, so fancy.” The tinge of sarcasm lay like a flattened souffle in the center of the table. “It just tastes better, Ma,” I quietly responded. “Says you,” her barbed retort. I remember retrieving the tub of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” that I kept at the ready for her visits to my table.
So how did this exciting theme, butter, bubble to the top of my imagination? Well, I’ve had a lot of time on my hands, or should I say on my mind since last March when you know what cast a shadow across the globe. Luckily municipal governments and many boards and committees have found ways to conduct meetings, keeping local news outlets busy. But not busy enough for my liking, thus the mind wanders, especially when closeted in isolation.
And so, I remembered making Ma breakfast. My culinary arts were limited, but Ma didn’t care as long as things were prepared to her standards— golden slices of toast and a cup of instant coffee served at her bedside. She didn’t sleep well and spent most of her life staying up all night long after Johnny Carson’s show was off the air. If still not sleepy, she’d gather the blankets around her shoulders and snuggle in to read a paperback until dawn.
Getting her up in the morning, especially on school days, was a challenge. We didn’t depend on her during the early hours of the day. Dad was up. But I was taught how to make her breakfast, and that included margarine.
The proper preparation of toast was so important to Ma that even the spreading of that yellowish mound melting across the toasted bread had to be carefully applied. “All the way out to the edges, don’t miss a spot,” she’d call from her bed. Failure was not an option.
For her part, Ma cooked with margarine, baked with margarine, and even licked it off a knife. It ruled in her kitchen.
In remembering all these insignificant bits of family history, it made me start to wonder about butter, its history, its place in world economics, and its full-flavored wonderfulness. Proudly, I say, I am a butter eater.
“Butter eaters” was a term used by Mediterranean people for people living in the north who ate butter. The southern regions preferred olive oil. Tribal conflicts and such being very commonplace in the history of humankind (surprise), names were called. Thus, the southerners called the northerners “butter eaters” as a form of disparagement.
Looking deeper into the history of butter – well, why not, I have the time – it is interesting to note that butter was inadvertently discovered about 3,000 years ago. True story.
A person somewhere in the Middle East placed a sheepskin filled with milk over the back of their horse and rode off to market. Upon arrival, they were surprised to find that the milk had been churned into butter from the jostling of the horse’s stride. It was a eureka moment, one that would forever change not only how milk products were consumed by people but also by changing the market economy.
Other facts on butter’s history that I suspect you are on tenterhooks to learn include the Pilgrims, who brought barrels of butter with them. While over in Norway, butter was so prized that the king demanded a full bucket every year as a tax. By the 12th century, butter was big business and central to the Scandinavian economy. In the Indian subcontinent, ghee, a type of clarified butter, had been a staple for centuries. Ghee, not to be confused with butter but of worthy note, is a milk byproduct that is 100 percent butterfat, no water. Call it a butter’s older cousin.
But, yes, it was the economic collapse from the Great Depression that brought oleomargarine to the forefront of home cuisine, and we can’t forget rationing created by WWII.
Today, California is the largest US producer of butter with whopping statistics. In 2019, the US consumed 1.99 billion pounds of butter. That equates to well over 18 pounds per person per capita or 1.5 sticks every week. In my book, that’s about average.
The largest overall producer of butter in the world is India, followed by the European Union. That is not surprising, given that butter eaters populate northern Europe. Lurpak, a Danish butter producer, won the World Salted Butter Championships in 2018, fending off 30 competitors. Wunderbar! Oh, wait, that’s German, sorry. Imagine a butter competition. Do the judges swirl pads of butter around in the mouth before spitting it out, as a winemaker would do? It’s a pretty disgusting thought, but I do wonder about the judging process.
Ma never switched to butter. I, on the other hand, never returned to margarine. Lines were drawn and never crossed. I was always considered the rebel in the family. Here is evidence.
Like a naughty child, it always gave me great pleasure to serve my mother something that contained butter. Cakes, pies, gravy, sauces, beloved mashed potatoes, all contained real, 100 percent butter if made in my kitchen. She would often say, “I didn’t teach you how to bake like that,” as she licked her fingers. No, you didn’t, Ma, but that’s okay because you became an unwitting member of the butter eater’s tribe anyway… Moo.
This Mattapoisett Life
By Marilou Newell