What I didn’t know I didn’t know about butter

There has never been a stick of margarine in my house.

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I remember growing up with a sense of badness surrounding margarine. I grew up on a dairy farm after all, and my mother used the rich cream from our small herd of Guernseys (a heritage breed of dairy cows producing milk higher in butterfat and protein than most other cows) into thick, yellow hand-formed discs of butter.

I have been eating, baking, and cooking with butter, often made from the milk of cows I helped care for, all of my life. After finishing Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova, I am likely to forever eat butter with an even higher esteem.

Ends up, butter does have a rich history. That history includes countries around the world and multiple species of animals (elk, reindeer, camels, and bison, along with the sheep, goats, and cows we in the U.S. more readily relate to dairy products). Butter’s story isn’t just one of agriculture or economics, but of politics, gender dynamics, spirituality, even witchcraft, the rise of French and elevated cooking (those mother sauces!), and the hipster superfood known as Bulletproof Coffee. Khosrova covers all of that and a whole lot more. Don’t worry— she does dedicate an entire chapter to the health concerns around butter and to the science surrounding butter’s mid-century association with heart disease: what the research said then, what it says now, and what’s still missing. And Julia Child gets her moment too.

I was familiar with a chunk of what Khosrova reveals in the book, but was continually surprised at the new things I did learn. Here are three facts I almost couldn’t believe I hadn’t realized or learned elsewhere already.

Scientists don’t know why, but cows prefer to lay down on their left side. “Whhhhaaaaaat?” I said to myself after reading this quick statement on page 13 of the book. “I have spent hundreds of hours watching and caring for cows and never noticed this?” I had never even thought to pay attention to this, but now am keeping a mental inventory on which side the cows I see are laying. Khosrova writes that they “almost always” lay on the left side. I haven’t seen that decided of a preference. Cows definitely lay on their right sides, but it does seem like they may have a slight inclination to the left side overall.

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A butter tasting, inspired by Elaine Khosrova’s Butter.

The feud between butter and margarine goes way back before I thought it did — all the way back to 1869 when margarine was first created. Long before the “good fat, bad fat” debate, countries were creating legislation to help consumers distinguish between butter and margarine/butterine. Khosrova explains that this had less to do with allowing consumers to make informed decisions about what they were buying and more to do with making the line between rich and poor classes visible. (The rich ate the more expensive option, butter, while legislation forced margarine companies to make their butter alternatives look distinguishable from the real thing. They couldn’t have poorer families even looking like they could afford butter.)

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I grew up knowing that our dairy equipment (milking machines, pipeline that transports milk from those machines to the bulk tank, etc.) was from a company called DeLaval. Ends up, Gustaf de Laval (1845-1913) invented the first centrifugal cream separator, which helped pave the way for the bulk production of butter. A little more research shows he’s credited with a slew of inventions and patents, but it’s the dairy equipment company he helped start that still bears his name today.

I may have found Khosrova’s Butter an especially engaging read because of my background, but I think anyone interested in learning more about the food they eat —even something so commonplace as butter— will be in awe of what you didn’t know about this pantry staple.

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