by Larkin Vonalt
In the second grade, under the watchful eye of Mrs. Opylacz, we made butter. We gathered around her desk to watch her peel open the carton of cream , pouring a thick ribbon into a sparkling clean glass mayonnaise jar. The metal lid was screwed on tight and then the jar was passed from hand to hand, each of us shaking it. One of the little girls in the class put a real shimmy into it, shaking allover with abandon and we laughed. It seems we shook that jar all afternoon before anything began to change, but of course it wasn’t nearly that long. When the transformation began, we were transfixed– in the bottom of the mayonnaise jar was a pale yellow fist of pure butter and a few ounces of palest buttermilk. We returned to our desks and awaited our reward, a Saltine liberally spread with the butter we’d just conjured out of a jar of cream. On the other side of the room a shy girl in a murky green dress declined the cracker, whispering “No thank you I’m not allowed” when Mrs. O stopped at her desk.
When I bit down on the cracker, it was as if I was tasting butter for the first time. The cracker crumbled in my mouth, but the butter was like sunshine on my tongue, sunshine and silky warmth. When I got home from school that afternoon I waltzed into the kitchen slamming the door behind me and demanded that we make butter. My mother thought I was being silly and sent me up to change my clothes. In those days she might have bought “real butter” if we were having company for dinner, or if a recipe demanded it. Otherwise, it was a pallid tub of Blue Bonnet or Parkay.
Then we moved to England and butter came to stay. The kitchen of our stone house at Buckley Hill was 300 years old, heated (somewhat) by an AGA coal stove and refrigeration limited to a tiny fridge, about two cubic feet. No matter, butter would stay cool on the counter on a day in high summer. Bread came from Pogson’s, unsliced and crusty. We’d saw off hunks of it, and carefully piece out bits of butter over the bread. The bread was no match for cold butter, but the combination of the two was sublime. Pogson’s was also the source for “butties”– ham butties, cheese butties, jam butties. As a bakery, the atmosphere there was considerably warmer and their butter spread beautifully over the slice of bread, a thin gold sheen topped with ham, or cheese or whatever it was you wanted. That was it: bread, butter, and something. It was the best kind of food heaven — simple and perfect. Even now, if I am so lucky to have good bread and a good meat I’ll use just butter to wed the two. Otherwise, you have something that just tastes like condiments.
I’ve never brought margarine into my house. Even when I was so poor in Boston that I had to sell records to In Your Ear in order to buy groceries, I always made the grocery money stretch to buy at least a single quarter-pound stick. My first husband had grown up with Fleischmann’s margarine. When we moved in together, he fell in love with butter. He’d put a whole stick of it in a pot of brown rice, which meant there was one thing in the pot worth eating. That much butter made the rice almost palatable. Occasionally, he’d lift the lid of the butter dish, slice off a pat and pop it in his mouth, like a chocolate.
All of the best comfort foods are better because of butter. Butter in a little golden pool melting into clam chowder. Butter seeping down through a bowl of perfect southern white rice. Folding the melted butter into grits, watching it spread gently across a pan before laying in the eggs, or mushrooms, or sweet onions. Butter in a little pot for lobster. Oh, God.
The popularity of butter and oil coincides roughly with the development of spoken language. According to A History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, the Indians of Vedic times (1100 BC) invoked butter as a primordial deity: “Tongue of the Gods, navel of the immortal, let us praise the name of butter, let us maintain it with our sacrificial homage . . .” the Rig-Veda reads. “As a wild steed breaks through barriers so does melting butter caress the flaming logs and the fire, satisfied, accepts it.”
In many cultures, the offering of butter became a form of prayer. In Tibet, where a rancid cheese-like Yak milk butter was mixed with tea for consumption and spread on statues for worship, they also would simmer dead lamas in boiling butter prior to embalming them; a custom that only ended with the Chinese annexation of Tibet in 1951.
Ancient Romans and Greeks were less enthusiastic about butter, considering it a food of the “northern Barbarians,” an opinion probably influenced by butter’s rapid spoiling in the Meditteranean climate. The Greek comic playwright Anaxandrides referred to Thracians, on the northern edge of the Aegean sea, as “the butter eaters.” (A real laugh and a half those Greeks.) But in the first century Pliny the Elder conceded that butter was “the most delicate food among the barbarous nations.” There were some physicians in early civilizations that considered that butter had medicinal properties, and Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat writes that it was “Not for nothing did Little Red Riding Hood take her grandmother a little pot of butter.”
Scandinavian countries were involved in the exportation of butter as early as the 12th century, and texts from Iceland document prayers around 700 AD to the God of the Forge, Gobhin, to watch over the butter . In medieval Ireland, firkins of buried butter were left to ferment in the Peat Bogs. This “bog butter” was more cheese-like in consistency and so immune to putrefaction, that some still exists in museum collections. By the 1500s, the Roman Catholic Church allowed for the consumption of butter during Lent, and within the century, melted butter had become a popular sauce for meat and vegetables among the English.
In “The King’s Breakfast,” A.A. Milne charmingly describes the popularity of butter with a member of the monarchy. The King requests butter for his breakfast, and it is suggested by the Alderney (the cow!) that he might prefer marmalade instead. In the end, he gets his butter:
The Queen took
And brought it to
The King said,
And bounced out of bed.
“Nobody,” he said,
As he kissed her
“Nobody,” he said,
As he slid down the banisters,
Could call me
A fussy man –
I do like a little bit of butter to my bread!”
In the 20th century, the consumption of butter in the western world has declined, due to the popularity of margarine, first introduced in the late 1800s as beef tallow worked with milk. I’ve eaten margarine. Friends serve it and what can you do? It was thought for a period of time that margarine was healthier than butter, until we sorted out “trans-fats” and how terrible hydrogenated oils are for our well-being. Margarine puts up a good front– they’ve figured out how to make it look like butter, but as soon as you put in your mouth, there’s no mistaking that greasy mouth-feel. It’s always such a disappointment– like kissing someone for the first time and discovering that they don’t really know how. I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, my ass.
Missing is that glorious slippery spreading warmth on your tongue, that sense of langour, that delicate pale yellow perfection, that prayer. Butter is an offering, a culinary spell, bliss. And margarine? Well, margarine is just margarine.
These days I’ve been fortunate to have a first class ciabatta to serve as vehicle for my butter, but because I’m never happy, now I find the butter is not good enough for the bread. I’ve been practically living on toast. I love toast in all of its varieties– I can sing the praises of toast made from Wonder Bread if called upon– but this is really fine bread. This is the kind of bread that makes people feel humble and grateful and I think I’ll make another piece of toast all at once. It deserves better butter.
Better butter. The very concept takes my breath away.