Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 20, 2012

"Pass the butter, please"

Fresh corn on the cob is one of my family's favorite summer foods, so we buy a dozen or so ears every week from the local farmers' markets. One evening a couple of weeks ago we were at Mom's home finishing up our recent purchase, when someone commented that the margarine kept slipping off the hot corn before it melted.

Husband Art, always a great source of trivia, piped up to all those assembled, "When do you think margarine was invented?"

I didn't have a clue.

You could see the wheels turning in daughter Mariya's head, searching through her storehouse of miscellaneous data.

Daughter Katie used a different approach. She tried to find some clue in Art's face. However, this proved ineffective as he just kept working down the rows on his corn.

But after a short pause, Mariya's friend Josh said, "1880."

"Hey, that's pretty close," Art replied.

I'm sure my face matched the startled expressions on the others around the table. We had no idea it was that old. Our surprise also afforded Art the perfect opportunity to launch into an explanation of how margarine was invented and how dairy farmers fought the new product because it infringed on their butter market.

The reporter in me kicked in! Here was something I use every day - mashed with potatoes, spread on toast, sauteed with vegetables - and I didn't have any idea what its history was. It was obviously time to do some research, which, of course, meant doing some Internet browsing.

I checked the website, mentalfloss.com - which somehow seemed appropriate - and learned that in 1813, French scientist Michel Eugene Chevreul discovered a fatty acid that contained pearl-like deposits. So he called it "acide margarique" after the Greek word "margarites" - pearly.

Emperor Napoleon III wanted his subjects and his navy to have access to a cheap butter substitute, so he offered a prize for anyone who could create a replacement. In 1869, French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès perfected and patented a process for churning beef tallow with milk - modern margarine is made from vegetable oil - to create a butter substitute. He called it "oleomargarine" - "oleo" for the Latin word oleum meaning oil and "margarine" from the margaric acid that Chevreul had discovered earlier in the century.

Mège-Mouriès won the emperor's prize, but the market didn't take off. So in 1871, the Frenchman showed his process to a Dutch company that improved on his methods. One important step was they dyed the margarine yellow - it is naturally white - so it would appeal more to consumers.

Mège-Mouriès never saw his invention widely accepted as he died in 1880. But the Dutch company, Jurgens, eventually became a well-known maker of margarines and soaps.

Dairy farmers were not excited about the invention as they were afraid margarine would take over their market. In the United States, they convinced legislators to tax margarine and they lobbied for restrictions such as banning the use of the yellow dye that made margarine look more appetizing. They were moderately successful in these efforts and so by 1900, artificially colored margarine was not allowed in 30 U.S. states.

But margarine producers weren't deterred. They started selling margarine with yellow dye. When people bought a block or tube of margarine, they also got a packet of yellow food coloring with it.

Art, who is from Wisconsin, remembers those days.

"When I was young, oleo came in a large plastic bag. It looked something like a bag of lard. On one side of the bag there was a 'color button.' If you pressed hard on it, it would break and then you kneaded it throughout the bag's contents. Then you broke the bag and scooped it out," he said.

"The legislators wanted you to have to go out of your way to have margarine. So first you had to choose to buy this unappealing bag of grease, then you had to work the bag to color it and finally you had to contend with scooping it out of the inconvenient container and find something to put it in."

Ironically, the pure foods movement of the 1920s helped undermine natural butter and elevate the status of margarine. In 1923, Congress passed a law that made it illegal to add any other ingredients to butter, even additives that would help make the butter more spreadable. Butter makers couldn't tweak their products, but margarine manufacturers could.

Margarine also got a big boost during World War II. When wartime butter scarcity forced consumers to switch to margarine, people realized it wasn't so bad after all. In 1950, the U.S. government repealed the margarine tax, and the market continued to grow as states reversed their bans on colored margarine. Wisconsin, America's Dairyland, was the last state to repeal the ban on dyes. It didn't allow dyed margarine until 1967.

Art recalls when his father, whose job was hauling mail between the trains and the Appleton post office, paid one of the train's postal workers to periodically buy a case of margarine in Upper Michigan for his family and bring it back with them. A lot of "bootlegging" like that went on during the "oleo wars."

Art said that in the 1960s, Wisconsin state senator Gordon Roseleip, who was a man given to rants, stated that margarine would NEVER enter the dairy state and it would NEVER be as good as butter. Another state senator got Roseleip and some others to do a blind taste test. Roseleip got it wrong. The ban was repealed the next session!

In my own family, both my grandmothers churned butter on their respective farms. Grandma Mostrom's gray crock churn with wooden paddle is now in Mom's kitchen right next to her refrigerator. Grandma Freeland's glass Dazey churn with metal paddle has a place of honor on top of my kitchen hutch.

Yet on the farm when I was growing up, I only remember using margarine. Mom said she thought we switched because butter became so expensive at times. We called it oleo and it came in a package with four sticks rather than in tubs like today. We used Blue Bonnet brand and the slogan - "Everything's better with Blue Bonnet on it." - immediately comes to mind.

So now with both my trip down memory lane and Internet research over, I know just a bit more about margarine. What I still don't understand is why when that hot ear is set on my plate I say, "Pass the butter, please?"

CORRECTION: Kudos to daughter Katie who noted an error in the fourth paragraph from the end that has now been corrected. The original was:

"Art said that in the 1960s, Wisconsin state senator Gordon Roseleip, who was a man given to rants, stated that margarine would NEVER enter the dairy state and it would NEVER be as good as margarine."

It should have been:

"Art said that in the 1960s, Wisconsin state senator Gordon Roseleip, who was a man given to rants, stated that margarine would NEVER enter the dairy state and it would NEVER be as good as butter."

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