The Margarine Wars

“Mound of Butter” ~ Antoine Vollon, National Gallery of Art

Children of another age, we tickled one another beneath the chin with plump, pollen-heavy dandelions, giggling and asking, “Do you like butter?”

Of course we liked butter. Everyone did. Butter was a double treat, as palatable as ice cream or candy, but never consumed alone. With butter on the table, we knew there would be yeast rolls, or biscuits, or mountainous mashed potatoes surrounding an overflowing, golden lake. On special mornings there would be buttery cinnamon toast: crusty with sugar, and heavy with the scent of spice. When holidays arrived, butter flaked our pastries and lightened the crumbling cookies.

Had we been able, we would have lived an all-butter life, but lacking a cow and a churn, we had to find our butter at the grocery, and prices were high. For weekday toast and sandwiches; for slices of bread on the supper table; for pancakes and waffles adrift in syrupy seas, we made do with margarine.

Significantly less expensive than butter in late 1940s and early 1950s Iowa, margarine arrived from the store as an unappetizing blob of white fat encased in clear plastic. A deep orange color capsule, about the size of an egg yolk, was tucked into the package. Kneading it into the margarine turned the white blob yellow and created at least the illusion of butter.

It required some effort to make the margarine table-ready, but not so much that a child couldn’t do it. Sitting on a tiny, three-legged stool, I forced the deep orange yolk into one corner of the bag, pressing down with the flat of my thumb until it broke. Kneading the bag as though coaxing bread alive beneath my hands, I pressed the ribbons of color through the slick, white fat.

Rolling the bag itself like a rolling pin, pushing against the heavy plastic with my fist, I turned and kneaded and turned again until the color became smooth and even, no longer striated with ribbons of orange but lovely and light — the very color of butter.

At the time, I had no way of knowing my task was rooted in the work of French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès (1817-1880), a man I like to imagine invented the phrase “Je ne peux pas croire que ce n’est pas le beurre”  (“I can’t believe it’s not butter”).  Shortly after Michel Eugène Chevreul discovered a substance he called “margaric acid” in 1813, Mège-Mouriès won Napoleon III’s competition for the right to create a butter substitute.

Working at Faisanderie, the imperial farm in Vincennes, he produced his “oleomargarine” by extracting oil from beef fat, then combining it with milk to produce a butter-like spread. Mège-Mouriès received a French patent for his process in 1869, a U.S. patent in 1873, and the satisfaction of seeing American margarine production initiated by the United States Dairy Company in Manhattan sometime between 1874 and 1876.

Predictably, the dairy industry wasn’t pleased by the introduction of the new product. Their dissatisfaction transformed itself into the so-called “butter wars” — a series of impassioned national and international struggles marked by propaganda, protectionism, and populist rhetoric. After New York and Maryland enacted labeling laws in 1877, other states followed suit.  The language of the labeling law passed in Missouri, cited here in Missouri vs. Bockstruck, is typical:

“Be it enacted by the general assembly of the State of Missouri, as follows…
Sec.3. Every person who lawfully manufactures any substance designed to be used as a substitute for butter shall mark, by branding, stamping or stenciling upon the top and side of each tub, firkin, box or other package in which such article shall be kept, and in which it shall be removed from the place where it is produced, in a clean and durable manner, in the English language, the words, “Substitute for Butter”, in printed letters, in plain Roman type, each of which shall not be less than one inch in length and one-half inch in width.

Despite the clear regulations, enforcement was lax. After lobbying for state inspectors from within the industry, the dairymen formed the National Association for the Prevention of Adulteration of Butter (1882).  The Association’s work not only helped guarantee the purity of butter, it also allowed dairymen to claim that, with no Association for the Prevention of Adulteration of Substitute Butter, it was impossible to guarantee the purity of margarine.

After months of breathless reporting in the vein of Harper’s Weekly’s assertion that “affrighted epicures are being informed they are eating their old candle-ends and tallow-dip remnants in the guise of butter,” a group of dairy farmers successfully petitioned the 1884 New York State Assembly to ban margarine in order to protect a presumably endangered public. The resulting law read:

No person shall manufacture, out of any oleaginous substance or substances or any compound of the same other than that produced from unadulterated milk or of cream . . . any article designed to take the place of butter . . . or shall sell or offer for sale the same as an article of food.
“Oleomargarine bill passed both Houses, to please the dairymen”

State after state followed New York’s lead. Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio banned both the manufacture and distribution of “artificial butter” during 1884 and 1885. When the 1886 Oleomargarine Act imposed a tax of two cents per pound on the product, annual licensing fees of $600 on manufacturers, fees of $480 on wholesalers, and $48 on retailers, margarine sales plummeted.

Eventually, most states abolished anti-margarine legislation under pressure from the courts. When Massachusetts chose to pursue its case to the Supreme Court, it led to the 1894 ruling that states could prohibit importation of artificially-colored margarine, but not uncolored margarine.

Remarkably, a loophole had been left.  No law restricted the coloring of margarine at home, so manufacturers began to provide yellow coloring packets with their product – the “yolks”. Having regained the ability to make margarine look like butter, consumers became more willing to use margarine  – although even my mother wondered aloud, “Why not make it yellow at the factory?”

While my mother questioned and I kneaded away at my faux-butter-in-a-bag, a friend and her family were engaging in petty criminality. They lived in Minnesota, where colored margarine was illegal and all margarine was highly taxed. Like other frustrated Minnesotans, they made regular forays across the border into Iowa, their cars filled with aluminum coolers and dry ice.

To a casual observer, it would have looked like a fishing trip, but when our northern neighbors stopped at grocery stores in Estherville, Swea City, or Lakota, they revealed themselves to be what we called butter-busters: margarine-runners of the first order, veritable Smokey-and-the-Bandits of imitation butter.

They made no effort to hide their intent. Filling cart after cart with heaps and piles of margarine from the dairy cases, they just grinned at the checkout clerks who asked, “So. How’re things up north, then?”  They traveled from store to store and town to town until the coolers were full, then headed back across the border to Minnesota and home, where they transferred the contraband into refrigerators and chest freezers and smiled with satisfaction.

By all accounts, margarine-running was widespread. Minnesotans came to Iowa, but so did folks from Missouri. Once colored margarine became legal in Minnesota, people from Wisconsin headed west, seeking to circumvent their own state’s restrictions. The practice of crossing borders to obtain margarine was so common that The Invisibility Affair, one of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series written by Buck Coulson and Gene DeWeese under Thomas Stratton’s name, was set in Wisconsin; it portrayed Napoleon and Illya in a car trunk filled with colored margarine being smuggled from Illinois to Wisconsin.

Margarine was the product, but the behavior rivaled that of the rum-runners in the Prohibition era. The majority of margarine-runners were fine, upstanding citizens who mowed their grass, helped their neighbors, paid their bills, and coached their kids, but they were equally capable of plotting, conniving, hoarding, and conspiring on behalf of their beloved margarine.

Like taxes and regulations applied to alcohol, tobacco and playing cards, the regulation of oleomargarine was meant to control what people consumed. To some degree it was successful, but the story of the margarine laws also is the story of how remarkable creativity can emerge when people are determined not to allow government or business interests to dictate the details of their daily lives.

Today, the margarine wars are over. Even Missouri, whose 1895 law banning colored margarine was one of the most stringent in the country ($100 fines for a first offense, $500 and up to six months in prison for repeat offenders) has moved on to other things, and repealed the law.

More recently, light bulbs replaced margarine as the battleground, and incandescence became a hot topic. According to Reuters, a German entrepreneur named Siegfried Rotthaeuser evaded the European Union ban on incandescent bulbs of more than 60 watts by importing and distributing 75 and 100 watt light bulbs from China, calling them “small heating devices,” or “heatballs.”

Since incandescents produce far more heat than light, Rotthaeuser realized they could be sold as heaters without violating legislative provisions. Even he was surprised when the first 4,000 heatballs sold out in three days, but at last report, he was expanding his business. Clearly, you can’t keep a good entrepreneur down.

As hysteria over light bulbs reached levels rarely seen since the margarine wars, I couldn’t help wondering: would people leave fat, old-fashioned Christmas lights to family members in their wills? Would men in slovenly trenchcoats hang about hardware store alleyways, seeking business with a whispered, “Pssst! Lady! Wanna buy some hundred watts?” Would desperate needlework artists frequent seedy neighborhoods, tapping on closed doors with tiny windows and choking out the password, “Edison sent me”? Would there be a black market? Lightbulb-runners? Hoarding? Protests? Would users of incandescent bulbs be nicknamed the Illumi-naughty? 

In the end, of course, common sense prevailed, just as it did in the butter-and-margarine conflicts. Technology advanced, the markets adjusted, and people found creative ways to overcome restrictions they considered onerous.

What comes next is hard to predict, but that there will be a “next” is inevitable. As long as it doesn’t involve coffee, chocolate, or Tempranillo, I think I can cope. If it does, I may have to call my margarine-running friend for some tips.

 

Comments always are welcome.

137 thoughts on “The Margarine Wars

  1. Fascinating! I do remember my mother first getting margarine, because it was cheaper than butter, and her efforts in pretending it really was butter…. despite it being a pale imitation of the real thing. No coloured bags then. Today, I avoid anything that is an imitation of the real thing – no laboratory concoction for me thanks. To get the butter I consider acceptable, I have to buy butter from New Zealand. At least they aren’t corrupted.

    1. I laughed at that last sentence. Is it the New Zealanders who aren’t corrupted, or their butter that’s more pure? If it’s the butter that’s of better quality, what would cause your butter to be less palatable? So many questions!

      It’s intriguing that the butter-or-margarine discussion has taken so many turns. Once butter was available again, it was the margarine manufacturers who began promoting their product as a healthier alternative. For a time, even members of the medical profession supported the change. Now? We’re back to butter being promoted as the healthier choice. At least, I think we are. I stopped basing my food choices on headlines long ago, so I really don’t keep up.

      1. Like GrandMaman always said, “All things in moderation”… And, now that I’m really looking at that line again, I think the word “All” has been greatly undervalued(?) but, safe to assume that the closer a food is to its origins, the better it’ll be for us? (So butter has always gotten my vote; ) but have to agree that Eremophila’s hit it on the head… All butter/ cheese/ milk is not the same and Terroir is integral to flavour.

        1. Provided, of course, those origins haven’t been contaminated with herbicides, pesticides, and so on. I don’t even remember what it was, but I discovered this on a food item recently: “This product contains genetically modified ingredients.” I’m not paranoid about GMOs, but I do keep track, and whatever it was surprised me, because it was something I wouldn’t have expected.

          1. GMO Corn, Soy, Cotton – and derivatives…
            I’d be interested, if you happen to recall what it was you saw labelled as Modified. (And I wouldn’t call it being “paranoid”, either)

            Perhaps it was these Ag Chemicals to which Eremophila was referring as being “corrupted” in comparison to acceptable butter from NZ?

        1. That is a good summation. As for the headlines, when I think of the number of foods and beverages we’ve been told are going to either kill us or allow us to live to a hundred, I just laugh. Throw in the fad diets that make money for their promoters and do nothing for their adherents, and I’ll stick with the old ways: good, home-cooked food, eaten in moderation, with plenty of freedom for that occasional piece of homemade apple pie, eaten for breakfast — just because.

      2. On many levels NZ is in advance of Oz. So yes, I am saying they are less corrupted -:) And the butter is pure butter not a mixture. I quite agree about not following headlines, and besides one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

        1. I hadn’t thought of it, but the spreadable concoctions that come in tubs here are mixtures. The precise ingredients vary among manufacturers, but I was surprised to see that all of them contain water; that’s part of what makes them spreadable. I noticed one brand was 40% water. I suspect there’s a direct correlation between price and percentage of water. The next time I’m in the store I’m going to test my hypothesis.

          1. We’re not supposed to think about what’s in things but blindly buy. Australian labelling laws are not in favour of consumers. Sorry for the rant but it’s something I feel strongly about.

          2. “Hydrogenation” – making an oil spreadable that would normally be liquid at room temperature – requires the addition of hydrogen atoms for its creation and water would likely be the most common/cheapest source; but it’s also the easiest way to add zero calories to “light/lite foods”… On hydrogenated/trans fats.

  2. I had all but forgotten the days when we used to knead the little plastic bags to get the yellow coloring into margarine, but now I remember it well. Never did know just why we had to do that, but as a kid I sort of enjoyed the challenge.

    Lately I have found special sales in the closest market where real butter is priced lower than most of the margarine and I stock up. I still like the real stuff much better!

    1. It was a challenge, wasn’t it? As I recall, the bags were heavy enough that puncturing them wasn’t much of a concern, and of course it would have been possible to just dump the whole mess into a bowl and do it that way. But it was a bit of a challenge to do it “in bag” — and a good bit of fun.

      One of our household rituals when I was younger was buying butter on special in the fall, and then freezing it for Christmas baking. Most of the cookies recipes that were passed on to me from my mother and grandmother begin, “Take one pound of butter…”

        1. You bet. For example, one pound of butter equals about 120 Sprits. Give me two pounds of butter and a pound of pecans, and I can make a lot of people happy. Add in another pound for four pecan pies, a pound for rolled sugar cookies… Well, you get the drift. Nothing makes me happier than Christmas baking!

  3. This is great post, almost you took me to the old days…. butter and margarine… what days… and now we are between butter and olive oil… This should be another subject. Dear Linda, as always it was great enjoy for me to read your search and wrting. Thank you, have a nice day and weekend, Love, nia

      1. You are so nice, Thank you, I haven’t used yet, both of them, in same meal, but I know big chefs are using both of them… By the way, I don’t eat butter, I am olive-olive lovers :) Love, nia

      2. You’re right about that, Deb. There’s a place for butter alone, or for olive oil alone, but they really can shine in combination.
        (I smiled when I saw Nia’s question. We’re all waiting to find that blog….!)

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Nia, and I’m glad you mentioned the olive oil-butter combination. I use olive oil quite often: even in some baking. And as Deb says in her comment, a butter-olive oil combination can be perfect. Other oils are used here for specific purposes, like peanut oil for deep-frying turkeys. But for hot breads, or fresh vegetables, or cookies and pastries? There’s nothing like butter.

        1. I like to do a split of olive oil and butter whenever possible: melted in a bowl for brushing onto corn on the cob, pre-cooking the veggies for Pasta Primavera, baking in Zucchini Bread or Apple Crisp(Crumble) or totally replacing butter on Garlic Bruschetta… Oh yum!

        2. Tourtière was new to me, but it looks delicious. Grandma used that half-and-half for pie crusts, but she preferred leaf lard. There’s a meat processor outside Houston where it can be found; one of these days I’m going to give it a try.

          1. Yes, leaf lard (according to a friend who grows her own livestock) is the fat from inside the animal and, because it’s not attached to the outer skin, is pure white and produces the highest quality of lard.

  4. What a fascinating story. Having grown up on a Dairy farm, my Mother came from a butter-only background but soon succumbed to margarine when we children were young.

    Now, if I want a spread, (and I’m dairy intolerant), I only have pure, natural BUTTER :D

    ……and I haven’t had ‘instant’ coffee for years.

    Despite my overly large waistline, I still believe in pure & simple fresh food.

    1. I wonder if post-war shortages, or cost, contributed to your mother’s change? Perhaps it was only a desire to have the “new and improved” spread. The margarine manufacturers certainly advertised it as healthier, more “modern,” more convenient, and so on.

      I once knew someone who refused to eat butter, even though she preferred it. She said it was unhealthy, and that we shouldn’t be consuming so much fat. Then, she’d head off to the closest fast food emporium for her cheeseburger and fries. What interesting creatures we are!

      1. I suspect my Mother (and the rest of us) ate margarine because it was supposedly healthier and cheaper. I prefer butter (if I don’t use hummus or some other non-dairy item), simply because it’s usually additive/preservative/colouring free.

        1. That it is. If you read the ingredient list for some of the margarines — especially the spreads — it can sound pretty bad. I prefer foods with ingredients whose names I can pronounce, not something that looks like it came out of a chemistry lab.

  5. Margarine-running… BLECK!! I mean SERIOUSLY, why on earth would anyone actually prefer to eat margarine rather than butter? Especially Dutch butter.

    Actually, the wonderfully reusable plastic tubs were the best thing about my GrandMa’s use of Marge, as she called it; )

    1. I’m sure people who prefer margarine exist, but I don’t know any. Over the years, there have been three primary reasons to choose margarine: the scarcity of butter post WWII, the cost of butter, or health claims for margarine. Particularly for owners of cafés and restaurants, the cost of using butter rather than margarine could be considerable, as the profit margin in those business is slim at best, and in the 1950s and 1960s, butter was twice as expensive as margarine.

      On the other hand, some of the contemporary advertising for margarine suggests that butter’s pulled ahead. They certainly have revised their pitches, as well as their products.

    2. We orthodox Jews had a reason, but it caused a public controversy as well. According to our laws, we do not mix milk and meat. That means that if we have a meat dinner, there can be nothing containing milk on the same table. So when vegetarian margarine was developed, there was enthusiasm for that. But many (my father among them) refused to use this product of ‘modern technology’ because of another rule, called ‘the look of things’. According to this second law, you are not supposed to do anything which appears to be unsavory (even if it has some good reasoning behind it and doesn’t really break any law) because that would mislead others, causing them to break the law. Today, many use the vegetarian margarine as a condiment while consuming a meat meal.

      1. I’ve had some knowledge about the practice of keeping a kosher kitchen, but it’s been quite general, limited to such things as separate dishes and cooking utensils for meat and dairy. Now I’ve learned another word — pareve — from this humorous and informative piece about dealing with the “margarine problem” in a kosher kitchen, particularly where desserts are concerned. I enjoyed it a good bit.

        That aside, I appreciate your father’s conviction about “the look of things.” It certainly applies well beyond the bounds of the dinner table. It used to be that public officials were to avoid “even the appearance of impropriety,” and parents counseled their children to act not only with good intent, but also with a little thought for how their behavior might appear to those who saw only their actions.

        There’s a graciousness inherent in considering “the look of things” that reminds me of my own parents’ advice to always put the best construction possible on someone’s words or actions: to give them the benefit of the doubt. If we took your father’s advice, and my parents’ advice, to heart as societies, I suspect things might improve a bit.

        1. Thank you so much for the link to the amusing article. I did enjoy it. But I have to tell you that I have been cooking and baking since before I got married, pretty much all my life, and I never dealt with such problems. I would just prepare what I was making according to the demands of the occasion, and not using substitutes. I’m sure I have much less variety than that of the author of the article… but when I encounter American Jews and their concerns, it always seems like a peek into another world entirely. As for my father’s advice… my attitude towards much of what he said changed over the years. At this point, even when I read something really terrible about a local politician, or the like, I refuse to consider it until he has been proven guilty. Why feel bad about someone and then regret it later?

          1. Your observation about peeking into another world made me laugh, Shimon. I have no doubt that’s true. There are times when my own country seems like another world to me.

            Your other point — about withholding judgment — is especially wise in a time when the concept of innocent until proven guilty is eroding. There have been occasions recently when the Salem witch trials have come to mind. It’s a tendency that shouldn’t be encouraged.

        1. Hi Deb. Actually, the law does grow along with us from generation to generation, trying to find solutions to different moral dilemmas that are specific to each time.

    1. Thanks to my midwestern roots, I grew up with Land O’Lakes and still use it for baking and most cooking, but I do like Kerrygold for table use. Still, none of it tastes as good as the home churned I remember. Of course, there could be a bit of nostalgia churned into those memories, too.

    1. Which we choose to use is fascinating to me. So many factors play into the decision: personal taste, the latest expert opinion about which is best, availability, and so on. I just tried to find the canned butter we used when I lived in Liberia. I think it was from Denmark, but I can’t be sure. That’s a long time ago, and it may not be produced any more. But it was very good — much better than margarine that was imported.

  6. I never would have guessed margarine had such a fascinating history. I always assumed it was invented during World War II when so many things were rationed. Our family, growing up, always used margarine and to this day I prefer it over real butter. My husband was raised on a farm and his mother actually made their own butter so he preferred the real thing. So we always had both in the refrigerator when he was alive.

    You find the most interesting things to research and write about!

    1. It makes sense to me that many of us assumed margarine was related to the deprivations of WWII. Particularly in states like Iowa, where yellow margarine finally was legalized and began showing up on store shelves in 1953, the timing was such that it would have been easy to assume those awful white globs had been a war necessity, and that an end to war finally allowed an improved product to hit the shelves.

      Now I’m wondering about a few recipes I have that call specifically for margarine. I don’t know if there’s some difference between butter and margarine that would cause the end result to differ, or if it’s just a matter of the person who passed on the recipe preferring margarine, as your family did. It is interesting how tastes formed in childhood can linger.

  7. One of my grandmothers talked about the farmers delivering to her mother’s back gate (live chickens, vegetables, etc.) but they usually made their own butter for some reason, unless it was holiday baking season. They used a big mason jar with a crank that screwed on the top. But I remember her talking about margarine being introduced into their house during WWII. She didn’t have the squeeze bag, though – she described a tiny paper tub of coloring, that came with a little wooden paddle, like the ones that came with ice cream cups.

    She also would mention sometimes a distant cousin in Philadelphia, who’d drive around the countryside outside town, in an old car, visiting a regular route of farms, collecting butter and eggs, for the markets in Philly. The eggs went into special cases, and when they were full, he’d drop them off at the railway station, and someone would collect them at the other end, in the city. He was always referred to as “The Butter-and-Egg-Man,” just another one of those occupations that no longer exists, like “iceman,” “block shaper,” etc.

    Well, your article is such a wonderful, warm, buttery slice of history and reminiscence. This was just so interesting, and I had no idea about the margarine warfare. I love butter, especially buttered toast, and there’s not too many things better than fresh, warm bread with butter.
    But I like olive oil a lot, too, and recently, some folks in Geneva have been making grape seed oil, for wok cooking, and pumpkin seed oil, which is pretty good, too.

    1. “Big butter and egg man” also was slang for a big spender, someone given to spending time impressing people in speakeasies and nightclubs. A famous Dixieland tune is known as “Big Butter and Egg Man from the West.” Here’s a good cut from Louis Armstrong. I think May Alix might be the vocalist. The song was written in 1926 for Armstrong and Alix by Percy Venable. I played clarinet in a Dixieland band for a while, and spent a good amount of time trying to imitate Matty Matlock’s performance in versions like this — not that I ever did.

      I wonder if your grandmother knew that more colorful meaning of the phrase. I suspect she did. The occupation may be gone, but the personality type endures.

      Your mention of Mason jars took me back to one of our second grade field trips . We visited a dairy farm. Then, back in our classroom, we “churned” butter by shaking cream in Mason jars. Good times. At home, we whipped cream in a glass container that had the beaters attached to the lid. It was very practical, actually.

      I love toast and hot, homemade bread with butter, too. Believe me, it’s taken some discipline to not whomp up some biscuits and get after it. All this buttery talk is tempting!

  8. I remember the color packet and kneading the margarine into looking like butter. My mother put her foot down (the margarine was my dad’s idea) and margarine disappeared from our house. Excellent post.

    1. Sorry for the delay in responding, John. I just found your comment in my spam folder. I primly informed the Great Algorithm that you most certainly are not spam, so that should be the end of that.

      It’s been interesting to see who remembers coloring margarine at home and who doesn’t. I suppose age is a primary factor, but it’s also true that people in certain parts of the country didn’t have to mess with it. I learned only yesterday that in some states the stuff was colored pink. Can you imagine? I’d never eat pink margarine, even if it beat butter in every taste test in the world!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for stopping by.

  9. It’s fun to learn of people going over the border to scoop up coolers-full of margarine. When I was a child we had that once in awhile but I thought it was pretty gross and won’t have it now. It’s butter or nothing for me. Like you, I’ve thought what I’d do if chocolate or coffee became forbidden for any reason. What a thought!

      1. I had chicory coffee during the holidays at my parents’ house – – a gift from a co-worker, originally from Louisiana, where it’s still popular. It was a blend with real coffee, and delicious, but I don’t know what %. The Confederates tried all sorts of substitutes, including roasted hickory nuts, which I’ve never tried, although the nuts themselves are delicious.

          1. If the coffee rust/blight keeps spreading around the world, we’ll probably see more of these ersatz creations. I looked up that Café du Monde, looks like a wonderful place to visit, I’ve got to visit New Orleans. But I think we were drinking Community brand, the couple that gave it to us, has lived in NY for 40 years, but they’ve had their relatives mailing up coffee from Louisiana all those years!

            1. Community Coffee’s in all the stores here, and it is beloved. My favorite’s their whole bean dark roast. It far exceeds Starbucks in quality, at least in my book. Starbucks seems to over-roast, but Community’s never has that “burned” or bitter edge.

            2. We all loved it, may have to get some more through the mail. But Boston has some pretty good coffee roasters – there’s a nice old-fashioned Italian place in the North End, called Polcari’s that’s been selling coffee and spices since 1932, and seems like they’re doing business pretty much the same way, nice folks and very good coffee.

      2. I’ve read that the French/Acadians brought a fondness for chicory with them to Louisiana, or at least developed a taste for it there. Café Du Monde, established in 1862, is famous for their chicory/coffee combination, and it’s available in stores here.

        If someone doesn’t want coffee but would like a little caffeine, there’s always Texas yaupon tea.

    1. The only direct experience I’ve had with bootlegging didn’t involve margarine, but Coors beer. When I was in college in the ’60s, Coors had developed a reputation as the best beer in the world, but it wasn’t available outside western states. Guys would pack their cars with ice chests and make a run into Colorado, bringing back as much as they could cram into the cars.

      I don’t know if I’d do that for chocolate, but I might do it for coffee.

  10. Not having run across the word faisanderie till now, I wondered whether it has something to do with pheasants. Sure enough, a faisanderie turns out to be a place where pheasants are raised, originally so that they could then be hunted. I also discovered that English has the similar word pheasantry. Some wouldn’t find shooting birds raised in a pheasantry a pleasantry.

  11. That was sure an amusing story. I had no idea margarine had such a long and ‘colorful’ history. I never saw those yolked plastic bags as a kid. I did make butter with mom in the churn.

    You find some of the most interesting things for stories. :-)

    1. I read an article tonight about the Wisconsinites who’d go across the line into Illinois to get their margarine. It said gas stations along the border sold more margarine than gasoline. What a world!

      Churning butter was fun, just like making ice cream with a hand-cranked freezer. There’s just something satisfying about having a hand in what shows up on the dinner table — literally. Those experiences leave good memories, too — memories that a lot of kids never will have.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the story. I do try to find little oddities — for my amusement as well as yours!

      1. We humans are a curious bunch. Literally curious and odd-curious. A source of never ending amusement. The margar-unners probably made some money doing it.

        I agree about the childhood memories. I guess kids today will have their own memories that will warm their hearts later. I can’t imagine what they will be. Maybe a YouTube video that went viral for them, or a tweet. Somehow that doesn’t seem right.

        I’m glad you find those stories. Keep them coming.

  12. When I was a child I loved to eat fresh baked bread with butter. Now I eat plain bagels with hydrated vegetal butter. My cholesterol is borderline and my Doctor said “No more butter ever!” Great post Linda, it brought me pleasant memories. :)

    1. We all have to make adjustments as the years pass, don’t we? One of the reasons I don’t bake as often as I used to is that it’s so tempting — and one of the great lessons of life is that if a little butter is good, a little more is better. Still, eating a bagel in good health has a lot to commend it, and if it extends the years we have to enjoy our memories — well, that’s even better.

  13. I recently heard about margarine wars on a podcast. I had no idea before that it was an issue, but I do remember light bulbs and plans to go to Mexico for old full flush toilets. As Roseanne Roseannadanna says, ” It’s always something”.

    1. I completely missed the competition for the old toilets, although I do remember hearing a lot of people complain on home improvement shows about the new ones. That no doubt led to some interesting exchanges with the immigration officials at the border.

      I’d not heard about the margarine wars until several years ago, when a friend whose family had been dairy farmers in New York mentioned them. You’re exactly right that it is “always something,” and it’s interesting to see what that “something” was in previous years.

  14. Why have I never heard of kneading plastic bags to put the color into margarine? Why have I never heard of margarine wars? Gee, one would think I never studied history at all! Thanks for a fascinating look into the past, Linda.

    1. Honestly, Debbie? I suspect you’ve not heard about the “wars” or the old way of coloring margarine because you’re just enough younger to have missed most of that. I was thinking last night about things I grew up with — like coloring our own margarine — that probably are as foreign to most people today as oiling paper for window coverings would be to me.

      The telephone’s another good example — I grew up with a phone that didn’t even have a dial. You depended on a human operator to connect your call, and you never got calls from people trying to sell you a Caribbean cruise. Sometimes, the old days were better.

    1. I’ve decided most of us associate margarine — and its invention — with the 1950s because that’s the time period when its legalization began to spread among the states, and it was more commonly found in stores in its present form. I came across this wonderful photo from Hamburg, Iowa associated with legalization in Iowa. I had to smile; any time I see a dairy case, wax beans, and laundry products in the same photo, it’s got that small town feel that I love.

  15. I well remember mixing the yellow blob into the white fat during the war. I have always been a great butter eater, piling it on every imaginable food. including the cereal which looked like large Triscuits. Margarine was never a good substitute, but we were glad to have it. Today I eat far too much of the good stuff. This was a great post Linda.

    1. You were one of the people I thought might remember margarine-coloring, Kayti. I can remember my mother adding a sprinkle of salt to that margarine, too. I don’t know if it made any difference in taste, but I do remember her doing so.

      Like you, I’m a great fan of butter. When I took my first college French class, our instructor introduced us to the practice of combining butter curls with radishes, and mixing butter half-and-half with blue cheese and spreading it on good bread. It certainly broadened my horizons. I’ve never tried it on cereal, but I wouldn’t be averse to the idea. Thanks for the tip!

  16. Husband has said his mother colored the margarine but I don’t remember my mother doing it. For a time she churned and we had fresh butter. I had never heard of margarine wars – fascinating! It does conjure up all sorts of scenerios as we as humans get used to certain things. More and more companies change their products when I liked the old better. Fascinating post! Butter is better!

    1. Isn’t it frustrating when a beloved product suddenly is “improved” to such a degree it’s hardly recognizable? It frustrates me nearly as much as the grocery store chains’ move to computerized ordering that’s based not on local preferences, but on regional. When the non-fat milk I prefer disappeared from my usual grocery, while the 2% and whole milk remained, I asked why, and was told — this is a direct quote — “the computer says no one wants the non-fat.” I just laughed, and changed stores.

      It amuses me that Country Crock “churn style” spread advertises itself as a “fresh-from-the-farm butter taste from real ingredients like a blend of delicious oils, water and a pinch of salt.” People who’ve never tasted freshly-churned butter don’t have a clue. Butter is better!

  17. I grew up without the taste of butter, pretty much. I don’t know when my grandmother quit keeping cows or making her own, but probably once the big dairies pushed out the small producers and it was no longer profitable to keep cows, even for her own use. My mom who was firmly laced into a very rigid budget, never bought it.(especially not in the days of my early childhood when four pieces of bread toasted, four eggs, a little milk and a can of Gebhardt’s chili was supper for four). Later, my dad would buy it when he baked,but my mom always bought margarine for the table and that’s what we grew up on — and called it “butter.” I don’t think I ever saw margarine that had to have the color added, although I somehow knew there had been such a thing. I can afford butter these days, but I don’t buy it because it’s not nearly so “spreadable” as margarine.. It all comes in sticks for baking, except “Land o’ Lakes” which does come in a tub, but you even have to leave that out a while before it will spread well.

    1. I’d never throught about the spreadability of butter being an issue, because I leave mine out, in a covered butter dish.

      In my grandparents’ home, butter, sugar, cream, salt and pepper, and a spooner filled with clean spoons always stayed on the table, covered with a cloth. I think the cream might have stayed in the icebox in summer, but otherwise, it was all there — just in case someone decided a cup of coffee and a pastry was required. Mom carried on the tradition of a butter dish, and now so do I. I still have one of Grandma’s spooners, but I use it for pens on my desk.

      We called margarine “butter,” too, but we distinguished between products by calling butter “real butter.” We never called margarine “fake butter,” but I suppose it was implied.

  18. I have never heard of this margarine in a bag. I also had no clue margarine had been around since the late 1800’s. As a kid, I remember margarine in a tub at the dinner table, and I also remember it marketed as healthier than butter. Mom used Crisco for a lot of her baking or a combination of Crisco and margarine. I know we had butter only for special occasions, like Thanksgiving. When I was out on my own, I bought real butter. I prefer Kerrygold now, and we also get Irish and New Zealand cheeses since those are from grass-fed sources.

    1. I still use Crisco for pie crusts, but no longer fry foods with it, like my mother and grandmother. On the other hand, they both could produce some wonderful fried chicken with the stuff. Like you, I enjoy Kerrygold, but mostly use Land O’Lakes for baking. I’ve never tried Irish or NZ cheeses; a taste test may be in order. Thanks for the tip about that.

      Every time I stumble upon little historical oddities like this, I wonder how much there is that we don’t know about the past. For that matter, even with all of our media and communication tools today, there’s a lot we don’t know about our own contemporary culture. We like to talk about there being one world, but that world is filled with millions of smaller worlds, all of which are worth exploring. Of course, the worlds closest to us are filled with their own rewards, like your pecan orchard, and all the animals there who like to butter you up!

  19. I had no idea about this history of margarine, and I had no clue there was a time when it had to be mixed in some way. At one point, we all switched to margarine when it was touted as the healthier spread, but most of us switched right back even before it was fully known that it really wasn’t. I remember a college friend who used to call butter “real butter” with margarine being the fake, I guess!

    1. I still call butter “real butter,” and I can remember asking Mom, when I was sent to the store with a list, “Do you want real butter or margarine?” I went through my own “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” phase, and then there was Benecol. Then I said, “Oh, phooey” and went back to butter.

      I think the history of all this is fascinating, particularly the early history. I can’t help wondering whether Julia Child knew the French origins of margarine. One of my favorite quotations from her is, “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.”

  20. There was a book I read some while back I think called ‘Kitchen Literacy’ that detailed the history of the butter-margarine wars. I’d had no idea about such a thing — we had always just eaten margarine without thinking too much. How cool to have firsthand memories of mixing coloration into vegetable fat!

    As a young adult I discovered the decadence of butter and for decades that followed I willingly spent the extra $ to enjoy the spoils of desserts made with nature’s fat. Nothing beats dairy butter for tasty cookies!

    Recently I discovered how we’ve unwittingly created a whole unseen market called ‘disposable male babies,’ and how females of two species in particular —cattle, chickens — are held in something of a reproductive slavery their whole shortened lives for no greater reason than my enjoyment of said cookies. So … back to margarine! LOL

    1. I have the perfect solution for you when it comes to your concerns about the cows’ well-being: butter from pastured cows from local organic farms. There’s a list here of some that sell butter. There are others. There’s one farm selling pastured pork and beef that comes to a local farmers’ market every weekend; they don’t always have butter, but sometimes they do. I can’t remember their name, but I think they’re from Montgomery County. I’ll see if I can find them. I buy Promised Land milk, which isn’t organic because they can’t guarantee all-organic feed, but it’s an all-Jersey herd that began in Floresville, and the milk is wonderful.

      I almost missed the experience of coloring margarine. I was seven years old when yellow margarine became legal, and you could buy Blue Bonnet (the brand I remember) in the stores. But you’re right about the cookies. People love butter cookies. I don’t recall anyone singing the praises of margarine cookies, even though I’m sure plenty of them have been eaten.

      1. Kind of you to offer alternatives, but neither ‘local’ nor ‘organic’ address the issue of animals raised for sale of reproductive by-products: sex is a 50/50 game and males neither make milk nor eggs. Even the best conditions provided for dairy cows are inconsequential for male babies. They are, by design, trash.

        So margarine it is.

          1. Very interesting ~ thanks for sharing the link. On another topic entirely, I just downloaded the Merlin Bird ID app from Cornell. It’s so easy to use, and already has helped me identify a blue-gray gnatcatcher. Birds in bushes certainly can be hard to see and photograph!

            1. A history lesson on dairy butter would be incomplete without mention of the untold lives taken to satiate our pleasure palate. That’s what butter is, pleasure from fat.

              Invest in a good sound app and you will be able to ID birds on sound, habits, and habitat without ever laying eyes on it! iBird Pro app is worth all the $15 I spent and more. Happy birding.

  21. I missed out on the dance of diet and preparation when I was growing up. I do remember sticks of stuff we smeared on toast, usually margarine. Apparently, I missed out on the margarine bag. Crisco, however, I do recall, that big can with the distinctive label. Just the fact that I remember that is testament to my mom’s baking and cooking. She was good at farm-type fare.
    Who would have thought? Margarine running! What a great historical tidbit. Living near the border of Minnesota, this will become a query or two on my part with some of the olders in the area. What a hoot!

    1. There was panic in the land when the rumor began that Crisco was going to be pulled from grocery store shelves. I believe it had to do with transfats. Being smart corporate cookies, the Crisco people reformulated the product to make it acceptable, and it’s still there. It does make wonderful pie crusts, and if I have my way I’ll never be without it.

      I’m sure you’ll find some people who remember those days. You’re actually in a corner of the state that got it from both directions: Minnesota and Nebraska. Look at this great photo from Hamburg, just after the colored margarine was legalized.

      I tried to find a date for legalization in South Dakota, and couldn’t do it quickly. However, I did learn that South Dakota required their margarine to be dyed pink. I can’t even imagine.

  22. I remember my Business 101 professor telling the class that there were “only three business strategies. They were as follows:

    1) Compete on price.
    2) Compete on quality.
    3) Compete on uniqueness.

    As he lectured, a snicker arose from the back of the room. The professor glared at the offending student and asked what was so funny.

    “You missed one,” the student said.
    “And what would that be?”
    “Use the government to make money,” he said.

    1. Well, yes — and the number of organizations, corporations, individuals, and loosely organized groups who’ve been able to refine that technique are legion. Now I’m wondering whether lobbying and bribery would be yet another strategy, or a subset of using the government.

      Do you suppose today’s palm-greasing is done with butter or margarine?

  23. We keep whipping cream in the frig for Sammy’s coffee. He left one out because he said it wouldn’t pour out. I tried and sure enough it didn’t for a bit, then it drippled a bit and I saw it looked like cream does when it begins to become butter in the churn. So I poured in it a quart jar and shook it for a few minutes and I had real butter. Poured the liquid off, molded it with a spoon and had real butter. It was delicious. I laughed at him because he will not use anything except real butter from the store, but he would not try my butter until some relatives came. The loved it so he gave it a try. So funny. By then I had feasted on it! I don’t have any idea why it turned out like that in the carton. Sammy said he had frozen it. I’ve been curious. I might try freezing one and see if it works again. I think someone might have turned the wrong switch in the dairy and I got one of their mistakes. I don’t know. But that butter was good! That happened before Christmas so my diet was being put off – making it more important that I diet.

    1. It seems that it was the freezing that did it. If heavy cream is frozen, the fat and water separate when it thaws, and it’s no longer good for whipping. But it can be turned into butter — as you discovered. The site I found the information on is here. The fellow who writes the blog calls himself “Joe Pastry,” which tickled me. But he seems to know his stuff, and the entire site was pretty interesting.

      I’ve read that you can freeze already whipped cream sort-of-successfully, but I don’t have any experience with that. Whenever we had whipped cream, we’d just keep using it one way or another until it was gone. But, yes. Your experience was just like the experiences the people on the website were describing — there wasn’t anything wrong with it at all, as it came from the dairy.

  24. I remember the fake butter that came white with yellow packs to color it, Linda. I wasn’t in on the coloring, however. I was allowed to mush up the meat loaf but not the margarine. Wonder why. My mother didn’t play fair, however, since even when we were eating our margarine, she was eating her butter. Today, margarine doesn’t make it into our house. We are a 100% butter family! –Curt

    1. I wonder if your mother was afraid you’d puncture the plastic bag? I remember our bags being fairly thick and sturdy; perhaps yours weren’t. On the other hand, it’s possible she thought you might have been a little too — enthusiastic — in your approach to the task.

      It’s amusing that she got butter and you got margarine. Apart from issues of fairness, It seems like it would have been more complicated to maintain two butter dishes than just to let you have butter — or for her to have margarine. But here’s the question — did you carry on the tradition of parents-only butter with your kids? :-)

      1. It’s possible, Linda, that we didn’t like butter. As for our family, we always ate the same thing, whether it was butter or margarine. We’ve only become snooty about it in the last few years. :)
        There’s a good chance my mother was concerned about what I might do. She was very territorial about her kitchen. Looking back. I’m surprised she let me make meatloaf and cornbread, my other speciality. –Curt

  25. We have pretty much moved from margarine to butter, with the price difference being marginal and the the taste difference being maximal. But I grew up on margarine, and while I ate margarine on toast, my parents drank instant coffee. My early years were a time of deep processing. Now it seems that things have changed but we always live with pendulums, I think. Maybe margarine will come back again with more than a vengeance, but with a taste bettering butter?

    1. That’s a perfect summation: price difference marginal, taste difference maximal. It’s interesting that you mention instant coffee. We went through an instant coffee phase in our house, too, but it seems that in those early days, it was convenience that trumped taste. We knew it didn’t taste like “real coffee,” but were willing to accept the tradeoff. There’s some irony in the fact that many today are going back to perked coffee or French presses, even though instant coffee has improved and drip pots are convenient as can be.

      It’s interesting to ponder a future with better margarine. Even if the taste was identical, I’m reluctant to extend my acceptance of better living through chemistry to my food!

  26. Hi Linda,
    Excellent research and writing on a topic sure to bring out nostalgia and hunger. Some of us like natural products like cotton and wool, bread and butter.

    Rayon and spandex, fake meat and margarine just do not cut it, so to speak. One by-product of the latter is the promotion of fear and guilt.

    So here’s to a little whipped cream on a latte!
    Here’s to a little butter with toast and jam!

    My grandmother Rosalie from Anna, Texas lived to 92,that butter-loving little lady.

    Grampa Harry lived to 91, that pipe-smoking, chocolate-loving gent.

    And to all the GMO organic tofu folks out there, enough already!

    1. Food-guilt seems ubiquitous in our society. Whether it’s a result of worrying about weight, or nutrition, or waste, or not keeping up with the latest food fads, it certainly eats away at one of life’s pleasures. I’m not opposed to such things as tofu and kombucha on principle, and don’t mind others indulging. But they’re not going to be part of my daily diet — and I’ll not be shamed into feeling guilt over my hamburger or cup of coffee. “Live and let live” used to be a more widespread attitude than it is today. Spreading a little more of that on our slice of life wouldn’t be a bad idea.

  27. Great post, Linda. I hadn’t known about the butter/margarine wars in the USA. Here in the UK, particularly in England where I was brought up, I didn’t really become aware of margarine until the 60s or 70s as my mother was dead against it because she thought it was artificial. I don’t like margerine now but many years ago – probably the 1980s – I used a very low-fat version of it when I was dieting and I loved it then, but I no longer understand how I could have enjoyed it. I’ve tried it since and can’t stand the stuff!

    Your mention of “I can’t believe it’s not butter” reminded me of an excerpt from a British comedy called The Vicar of Dibley (about a woman vicar and, amongst other characters, her rather simple female verger).

    1. I suppose I’m with your mother in thinking of margarine as artificial. Even though I call margarine “butter” (as we did when I was growing up) I still distinguish it from “real butter” — implying that margarine is fake. I do think some of the spreads that came out more recently are relatively tasty, but they can’t be used for baking and don’t do as well for cooking in general. Since I only rarely add table butter to anything but muffins, biscuits, and homemade bread, I stick with the real thing now.

      How can I have missed The Vicar of Dibley? It may have been shown here after I ditched my television set. That’s an amusing clip. I’ll have to do a bit more exploring.

  28. It’s interesting for sure. Modernity is always there to “assist” with technology and “guidance”. As far as food is concerned it can easily have one shifting from one product to another. Ah… the package… That could also be a small part of the story!

    1. The package, indeed. I laughed out loud at the grocery store when a product I use from time to time showed up on the shelf with this announcement on its box: “Same Great Product! New Packaging!”
      Do they really think we purchase things for the packaging? Perhaps they do.

      “New and improved” is one of those slippery phrases that often translates as “different, but not so much that it’s going to increase our production costs.” You have to keep an eye on them all the time, whether its cereal or cars that are doing the advertising.

  29. Oh, Linda! What a delightful post. I never knew that margarine makers didn’t just blend in the color (annatto-based?) and forced it on the consumer. Reminds me of the Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey story (‘Murder Must Advertise’) where Peter goes undercover to write slogans at an advertising agency. One of my favorite lines: “You don’t need an argument for buying butter. It’s a natural, human instinct.”

    1. I’m surprised some butter manufacturer hasn’t snapped up the right to Peter’s line for their own purposes. It’s memorable, and it’s true!

      Even though the little “yolk” of coloring was added as a way to get around legal restrictions, I suspect it also functioned the same way as adding an egg or a quarter cup of oil to a boxed cake mix. When they first were introduced, the market researchers found that mixes that required the addition of at least “something” were better accepted by homemakers. Apparently it helped assuage their guilt for making use of a modern mix, rather than making a cake the old-fashioned way. I can remember my own mother’s pride at being able to “pass off” the occcasional box mix to her bridge club friends. After all of the compliments were offered, she took great delight in confessing a dessert wasn’t make from scratch. Now, I’m back to making desserts from scratch, and haven’t had a box mix in the house for years. (Well, except for brownies. Ghiradelli does just fine for those.)

    1. That’s something I never would have expected, Jim. Hard as lead and sour as an old candle doesn’t exactly sound appetizing, but I come from a line of people who think soaking fish in lye and then soaking it again to get the lye out is the way to eat fish, so who am I to criticize? As interesting as the Hunza approach is, I was just as surprised to learn about bog butter. Thanks for passing on the article.

      Now that I think about it, I wonder if they eat regular butter, too? If they save the buried butter for special occasions, they just might.

  30. Thank you for the history lesson, Linda! I remember the big cans of Crisco my mother used for cooking. I think we had real butter until my father had a heart attack, and then she changed over to margarine.

    1. I still have a can of Crisco I use for pie crusts. It’s the only thing I use it for, so one small can lasts a good while — sometimes nearly a year. If I made the five or six pies a week my grandmother used to make, I’d need a three-pound can!

      We made the change from butter to margarine, too. And then, about twenty years ago, I went back to butter. My mother fussed and fussed at me, until her doctor told her to get rid of the margarine and go back to butter. It’s always something! One thing is certain: there’s nothing like the taste of good butter on freshly baked bread.

  31. This was fascinating! I used to hate using butter on my bread because it wasn’t as easy to spread as margarine is, UNTIL I learned to leave my butter out on the counter so it could soften.

    1. Exactly! I grew up in one of those families that never put butter in the icebox or refrigerator. It stayed on the table or counter all the time — and still does, at my place.The biggest problem, before central air, was that it would soften a little too much, but I’ve never known it to go bad. I suppose part of the reason is that it never stayed around long enough.

  32. Oh, my stars… Butter wars? I knew about the oleo and Napoleon bit but not the fact that oleo was illegal or for so long.

    I see one of our own, Rep. George Tillman, was one of the few defenders of oleomargarine on the House floor.

    I don’t remember those bags with the yolks; the law was repealed shortly before I was born.

    I had to laugh at your description of men in trenchcoats on corners selling oleo and patrons giving the password at the local oleo “Blind Hog.”

    1. I didn’t know anything of this history until a friend mentioned a few years ago that she and her family had engaged in margarine-running. The more I dug into it, the more quirky it seemed. Of course, once the legislators and lobbyists get involved, the quirks can multiply fairly quickly.

      Another detail I didn’t know until I wrote this post is that some states mandated pink margarine, to make it appear even more unpalatable. It would have worked for me — no question about that.

      When it comes to getting around unappealing laws, there’s no end to human ingenuity. Remember the big tree that they moved here in League City? There’s another big tree quite close to it known as the “moonshine oak.” Sure enough, that’s one place where the fellas buried their home brew to keep it hidden from the revenuers: in the area around that tree. At least, that’s what the family members say, and there’s no reason to doubt them — particularly since the remains of a still also were found under the tree.

    1. The current conclusion seems to be that margarine is as bad, or worse, for our health than butter, so we can enjoy it in good conscience. Besides, butter tastes better: at least, to me. It really can be fascinating to track the development of many of the products we take for granted today, and when it comes to food, more and more people are beginning to realize that the so-called “manufactured foods” leave a lot to be desired.

      I will say that coloring the margarine was a good bit of fun!

        1. That’s right. I smile, sometimes. In the past twenty years I’ve been told that coffee, wine, chocolate, milk, and a whole assortment of other things are going to kill me. I’m still here, and most of those opinions have been revised!

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