Peggy Keener: Churn, baby, churn

Published 10:32 am Friday, September 30, 2016

I have only eaten lutefisk once. It was … well … frankly … delicious! I loved it!! That gastronomical experience happened at one of those good old Minnesota church basement affairs and I’m not sure if it was the fish, the mashed potatoes or the dessert that so captured my taste buds, but I suspect none of the above. In truth, it was all about the butter.

Butter! When in my life have I ever been offered … encouraged … and assisted (with the church ladies’ blessings) … in helping myself to it? By the ladle full! And only with the very thinnest of will was I able to control myself. Actually, if truth be told, I thought I’d died and been delivered straight up from that sub-strata basement into Land O’Lakes heaven.

It was, after all, butter. Butter, I tell you! Butter!

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It’s a very good thing I was never chosen to be Princess Kay of the Milky Way for I would have surely driven the sculptor to despair. For how, I ask you, could a girl like me be expected to sit there posing for hours on end without occasionally swiping a finger through her buttery body? And just what, I’d like to know, would be so almighty bad about Mary Kay having fingertip-shaped grooves gouged out of her thighs and stomach? Such yummy cannibalism!

I know—yes, I do—what God’s master plan was when He finally got around to working on His dairy creations. First He invented the cow, then the milk, then woman and finally the churn. And, boy, did He ever get it right on this deified project; how else could something so divine be explained?

Having said that, would someone please tell me how civilization then, in all its wisdom, could have stooped so low as to invent margarine? That’s like Tang replacing fresh squeezed orange juice. Like Velveeta replacing Wisconsin cheddar. Like William Macy replacing Poldark!

The argument, of course, is that margarine is supposed to be better for us. Puuleeeeze. Butter is butter. Margarine is … what? A product as mysterious as the Vienna sausage. And really now, should a perfectly good cod sacrifice its life to a long lye soak, then a thorough rehydrating in icy water, only to end up swimming in fakey Parkay?

We can hold Napoleon responsible for initiating this feckless substitute for butter. In 1813, His Nobleness offered a prize to anyone who could come up with a cheap replacement. And just why he thought one was needed will remain one of life’s mysteries, but a man named Hippolyte (don’t you love that name?) Mege-Mouries took on the challenge. He named his new concoction of beef tallow and milk “oleomargarine.” Yum! Er, yuck!

Unfortunately, this did not make Hippy a tycoon. He needed help and found it in the coffers of a Dutch company. The only problem was that the Dutch consumers did not like their spread to be white. It was, I suppose, like asking them to replace their windmills with turbines or wearing cloth tennies instead of wooden shoes or growing transparent, colorless tulips. Just didn’t hack it. Thus, the clever Dutch dyed their margarine and with that move made it an international success. The company took the name of Jurgens—sound familiar?—not only a world-renowned margarine manufacturer but also the maker of fine soaps.

But, then, like everything in life, there had to be a great uproar. It came from the American dairy farmers who, despite the fact that margarine was partially made from milk, rose up in protest. To add to their consternation, they realized that margarine was taking the U.S. market by storm and thus were convinced the legislature needed to tax the product at a rate of two cents per pound, no small sum in the late 19th Century.

Additionally, those farmers successfully lobbied for an all out ban on the use of the yellow dyes, the very secret to making margarine appear like butter. By the 1900’s, artificially colored “butter” was contraband in thirty states, several of them taking the extreme measure of requiring that margarine be dyed pink, a color so unappealing that customers were turned off in droves. All consumers, that is, except little girls who wished their whole world could be pink.

Poor margarine! Not only was the U.S. against it, but then Canada got on the bandwagon. From 1886-1948, Canadian law banned any and all margarine. The only exception to this came between 1917 and 1923 when World War I created a shortage of real butter, thereby allowing the Canadian government to temporarily permit the substitute.

Into the 20th Century, however, margarine still remained distressingly white. Who wanted to stare at a pearly, opalescent spread on their toast? A solution to this monochromatic, Crisco-like product was once again, what else, but dye? This time it came in the shape of a small packet of yellow food coloring which the housewives kneaded by hand into the margarine. Many of you will well remember seeing your mom do this. Or maybe it was you!

In the meantime, stiff, pliable butter was not living the good life. In a quirky reversal, butter was trying to reinvent itself into its bitter rival, the smooth spreading margarine. But at that time (1920s), government restrictions forbad any added ingredients to butter that would make it more spreadable. The crutch was that consumers had gone bananas over how beautifully margarine glided over bread in comparison to the hard and clumpy butter. Unable to make their butter slide onto toast, supple margarine surged ahead in sales.

Ironically, it was another war (WW II) that further endorsed margarine. A scarcity of butter caused it to be front and center at the dinner table.

Converts, who had been reluctant to give up their pure dairy product, found that by then margarine had come a long way from its unappealing inception. But quite possibly the most unexpected and bizarre use of margarine was executed by American prisoners of war in German camps. Benevolently, the Germans allowed these troops to receive care packages from the U.S. Red Cross. In them were 16oz. cans of margarine. Unfortunately the margarine was rancid and unfit to eat by the time the prisoners received it. This did not stop the enterprising, astonishingly clever prisoners from using it, however. They melted down the margarine and soaked their shoes in it to make them waterproof, thereby helping to prevent the men from getting chilblains. How could we have not won the war with enterprising thinkers like this?

Finally in 1950, a time many of us remember, the U.S. government repealed its heavy tax on margarine, followed by state after state reversing their ban on the artificial coloring. Seventeen years later, the last state to join them was … wouldn’t you know … Wisconsin! Their hesitation gives me pause to reflect on just how naturally bright their yellow cheddar is and if Mother Nature ever intended for cheddar to be the color of saffron, daffodils, or the hair of Minnesota Swedes?

By now, dear readers, we are intimate friends. Therefore I am going to reveal two things about myself: the kind of grandmother I am, plus one of my most splendid grandmothering techniques. This procedure is best used when ordinarily sweet natured grands have become belligerent, rebellious, snarly and down right cantankerous.

Here goes. Lay towels on floor. Position grands on top of towels. Remove shoes and socks. Slather feet with butter or margarine (both equally effective), and particularly between the toes. Bring in family dog.

Giggles like you’ve never before heard will ensue. Grands will forget about being belligerent, rebellious, snarly and down right cantankerous and revel in the delight of a dog’s tongue massaging their feet. I would fervently add that when the grands return home, this same technique can be used by weary grams the world over who need an instant and cheap foot massage.

For decades a culinary debate has raged over whether the partly hydrogenated fatty acids in margarine are good for us. As it turns out, they are not. Who knew they were even more harmful than the saturated fat in butter! As the world turns, will the battle ever be over?

Meanwhile, I, for one, will never stop loving my butter. In fact, when I die I’m thinking I might like to be buried in a butter mold. And wouldn’t it be just my luck for my demise to have been caused by clogged arteries!

In the meantime, would someone please pass the lutefisk … and the ladle.
Peggy Keener of Austin is the author of two books: “Potato In A Rice Bowl” and “Wondahful Mammaries.” Peggy Keener invites readers to share their memories with her by emailing Memories shared with Keener may be shared or referenced in subsequent editions of “Full Circle.”