Like Buttah

Butter has made a comeback. Once we all got over our mistaken fear of fats (search my past posts on www.urbanfarmjunkie.blogspot.com if you didn't get the memo), there didn't seem any earthly reason to eat margarine ever again, unless it was for the original reason--that margarine is cheaper than butter. Back in the day when oleomargarine was made from beef tallow, milk, and annato-seed coloring, it gave industrial butter of uneven quality a run for its money, but those days are long gone. Even the most blah supermarket butter nowadays beats margarine hands-down.

In fact, attacks on butter in our time now come from the environmental direction. Check out this graphic Michael Pollan retweeted this morning:

 

Yep. Butter has been lumped in, so to speak, with environment-killing beef. We live in sad times. Omnivores like myself either have to (1) go vegan; (2) cut back; or (3) be richer. Out of the three options, I've chosen (2) and (3). Our family eats beef 1-2 times per week, and we fork over more money for pastured beef and milk and butter. This week I picked up Elaine Khosrova's delightful microhistory Butter: a Rich History.  

Yep. Butter has been lumped in, so to speak, with environment-killing beef. We live in sad times. Omnivores like myself either have to (1) go vegan; (2) cut back; or (3) be richer. Out of the three options, I've chosen (2) and (3). Our family eats beef 1-2 times per week, and we fork over more money for pastured beef and milk and butter.

This week I picked up Elaine Khosrova's delightful microhistory Butter: a Rich History.

 

She opens with a scene in Bhutan, of a little boy following his mom up the steep mountainside to go milk the yaks. (And if the thought of yak butter makes you yak, consider that is has "less milk sugar and more protein than cow's milk." Could it be the next hot Paleo food?)It reminded me of nothing so much as Heidi, and it turns out Heidi's life and food experience had more in common with Norbu and his mom than with us, her modern, post-Industrial-Revolution counterparts. Khosrova's account of historical dairying around the world brought not only Heidi to mind, but also Laura Ingalls Wilder making butter with Ma in Little House in the Big Woods and fallen-woman Tess Durbeyfield going incognito as a dairymaid in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Butter is big in literature. I doubt margarine shares its literary pedigree.

 

Tess at work (1891 Joseph Syddall illustration)

Tess at work (1891 Joseph Syddall illustration)

Butter: a Rich History is larded with fascinating facts. Who knew that goat butter was white, because goat milk lacks carotene? Or that camel milk has three times the vitamin C as goat milk (to which it is otherwise similar), but often the butter made from camel milk contains sand and--blurgh!--camel hair? Who knew that, in the 14th century, your average cow yielded 140-170 gallons of milk per season, but today's Holstein can flood us with 2,574 gallons? Who knew that what we call cultured butter today used to be the norm, when setting milk would attract environmental bacteria as it sat for a couple days? What we eat is "sweet cream butter," a pretty modern invention that arrived after cream could be instantly separated from milk and turned to butter, no wait period required. Before refrigeration, butter had to be salted to keep it from going rancid--salted to the point that you had to rinse and repeat before serving! And butter has always had a complex history with the environment: in the "Butter Belt" of the 18th century, dairies around Philadelphia wreaked havoc by dumping their excess buttermilk in the streams and rivers.

I especially enjoyed the discussion of how dairying and buttermaking moved from a woman's domain (think Tess and Marie Antoinette frolicking and posing in her Hameau de Versailles) to a man's industrial world. Quality went down; distribution and profits went up.

While I haven't finished the book yet (look for Part II next week), I'm already eager to try some of her recommended butters listed in the appendix. One warning: "many big brands...add 'natural' flavor (diacetyl) to their butter." I'm going to check that out, too. Keep you posted.