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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Which Qualifies as “Crap,” Butter or Margarine?


I'm writing from a slightly pissed off perspective, so proceed with caution. I'm still shaking with anger over something that happened during the holidays. I was visiting out of town and, as is often the case, I was asked to cook. Specifically, to cook breakfast. Now, when it comes to breakfast, the Italian side of my heritage is completely subjugated by other aspects of my ancestry. No prima colazione of coffee and pastry for me. Breakfast is some combination of bacon, sausage, eggs, potatoes, pancakes, biscuits, and toast. Bring on the syrup, the jam, jelly, or preserves, and most of all, bring on the butter. Paula Deen ain't got a thing on me when it comes to butter at breakfast.

So that's why when one of the people I was serving made his way to the refrigerator and pulled out a tub of margarine, I was confused. “There's butter on the table,” I said. To which he replied, “Oh, I don't eat that butter crap.” 

I was rocked to the core of my Dairyland upbringing. Never in more than a half-century of life have I ever heard the words “butter” and “crap” used in relation to one another. Creamy, delicious, wholesome, all-natural butter has been a staple of mankind's diet since humans and cows first developed a relationship in neolithic times. And it remained a staple until some 19th century French chemist developed oleomargarine as a cheap substitute to feed Napoleon III's army. The fact that Napoleon III was overthrown and sent into exile not long after should tell you something.

Right from the start, margarine faced a steep uphill climb on the acceptance front. It didn't look natural, it didn't feel natural, it didn't smell natural, and it certainly didn't taste natural. And, as you can imagine, dairy farmers were none too fond of it. I won't go into all the details of the legal battles between butter and margarine that took place over the next few decades. The subject would take pages to cover. But three things occurred mid-century that would enable margarine to gain prominence over butter. The first was WWII, the second was the post-war industrialization of our food supply, and the third was a fallacious war on fat.

In 1942, the US government implemented its wartime Food Rationing Program. In March 1943 the Office of Price Administration added butter, fats, and oils to the list of foods to be rationed. These were part of “Red Stamp” rationing that also included meats and most cheeses. People got sixty-four red stamps each month and when their stamps were used up, that was it until the next month's issue. Butter was a hefty sixteen stamps per pound. “Oleo” – as most people called it – was substantially less, resulting in an enormous boost for margarine on the home front. Oddly enough, many Americans were so unfamiliar with the product that they thought it was something Uncle Sam invented to help the war effort. Rationing of lard, shortening, and oils was phased out in early 1944, but butter and margarine remained rationed until late 1945. 

After the war, the industrialization of the country's food supply, which had been slowly building momentum in the preceding decades, took off like one of the rockets down at Cape Canaveral. And lucky ol' margarine was riding right there on the nose cone of that rocket. Buoyed by brisk wartime sales, margarine manufacturers organized and found some money and muscle. The 1950s saw dozens of federal and state laws restricting and regulating the manufacture and sale of margarine fall by the wayside, until only Wisconsin stood guard at the gate – at least until 1967. Once margarine manufacturers got their collective foot in the door, they milked their advantage (sorry) for all it was worth and by 1957 margarine was outselling butter for the first time. People's palates had been sufficiently dumbed down during the war and now folks didn't have to smuggle margarine like old-timey bootleggers anymore or add their own packets of yellow coloring to the milky white gunk. Besides, it was cheap! At an average of 19 cents per pound it was much cheaper than the 65 cents per pound price tag butter carried in the mid '50s. And you know how Americans like to save money – even if it kills them.

Which leads to margarine's last step up the slippery ladder of success. As “Space Age” science came roaring to the forefront of the American consciousness, the previously unheralded study of food science took on new importance. Suddenly our culture stopped eating food and started eating “nutrients.” In his book “In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto,” author Michael Pollan dubs this phenomenon “nutritionism.” No longer did we look at a pork chop as a pork chop. Under the aegis of nutritionism, a pork chop became a conglomeration of protein, fats (saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated), carbohydrates, dietary fiber, cholesterol, sodium, potassium, and a handful of vitamins and minerals. And it was as a result of nutritionism that margarine took the high ground in the war against butter.

Practitioners of nutritionism had launched an all out war on fat and cholesterol. Butter, a byproduct of animal fat, was just loaded with unhealthy saturated fat and cholesterol. Leading scientific studies of the time said that one tablespoon, with its seven grams of saturated fat and 31 mg of cholesterol, was going to close up your arteries, shut down your heart, and put you in an early grave. Chemically engineered margarine, on the other hand, was all fluffy and white and made from pure vegetable oil. With a miniscule 2.2 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon and no cholesterol, margarine was touted as the miracle health food of the age. It had much higher levels of healthy poly and monounsaturated fats than wicked old butter and with just a tiny touch of butterfat added in, why, it tasted just like butter! (A finer example of the dumbing down of the American palate cannot be found.)

The problem with food science and the cult of nutritionism is that it changes its mind on a daily basis as new information becomes available. The nails in yesterday's coffin are transformed into the pillars of today's health with amazing alacrity. Eggs, for example. And yesterday's nutritional marvels, like margarine, become today's detritus just as quickly. See, what the floggers of margarine didn't tell us – because they didn't know – was that the very process by which liquid vegetable oil becomes solid – a process know as “hydrogenation” – creates a compound called trans-fat, an almost completely unnatural and chemically produced substance that will grease your slide into heart disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer faster than any natural fat – saturated or otherwise – ever found in “that butter crap.” Can you say “oops?”

Another problem with nutritionism is its persistence in the public mind. Like any good lie, once told and spread around, it can never be untold. We raised at least two generations on the fallacy that chickens laid little death bombs and that in order to survive, you needed to eat either just the whites or, better still, packaged, processed, pasteurized egg substitutes. Only through science, brothers and sisters, could you truly be safe. Eventually that lie was thoroughly discredited, but because it was around for so long and believed by so many, it will never entirely go away. I guarantee that if you were to ask any ten random people today, eight of them would still say eggs are bad for you. The same holds true with “healthy” margarine.

For me, if I am going to be led to my premature death by a natural substance that is lightly sweet with a pleasing mouthfeel, containing an amazing variety of natural vitamins and minerals and that has been a part of man's diet since prehistoric times or a stick of bland, greasy, hydrogenated, bleached, deodorized, artificially flavored and colored, chemically processed goop containing mutagenic and carcinogenic trans-fatty acid compounds – well, I think you know upon which side my bread is buttered.

Well, margarine's all we had growing up and it hasn't hurt me yet.” Not that you know of, anyway.

I don't taste any difference between butter and margarine.” Really? And you probably liked New Coke, too, didn't you? Can I interest you in palate replacement surgery?

I can't afford butter. It's too expensive.” Okay. Put the money you save into a fund for a nicer funeral.

Well, if it wasn't safe or good for you, the government wouldn't let it be sold.” Thalidomide anyone? By the way, do you smoke?

You know what else is cool about butter? With cream and a little salt, I can make it myself. I can make a small quantity by putting the cream and the salt in a tightly covered glass jar and shaking it up for a few minutes. Tah-dah! Butter!

Have you had any fresh homemade margarine lately? Let's see......first you steam clean the vegetable oil to remove impurities – and any vitamins and antioxidants it might contain. Then you heat it to extremely high temperatures, which makes it go rancid. Then you inject it with hydrogen and nickel – two of my favorite all natural ingredients. This produces a lumpy gray grease. Tah-dah! Margarine! But wait. We're not finished. Next you add emulsifiers to smooth out the lumps. And don't forget the bleach. It takes away that ugly gray color and makes the grease a nice milky white. The unpleasant rancid smell is then removed by another steaming session. Now you're ready to add the synthetic vitamins and the artificial flavorings and colors. Yum-yum.

Butter is “crap?” I think not.

And apparently a lot of people are right there with me. According to recent industry figures, US butter consumption has reached a forty year high, increasing twenty-five percent in the last ten years alone. The word about the healthy antioxidants in butter, the omega-3 fatty acids, the protein, folate, vitamins A and D and other nutrients is getting around. Does that make butter a health food? No. Not by a long shot. It's still loaded with saturated fat and cholesterol, and should be used in moderation, not as a snack food. But it's far and away healthier than its plastic counterpart. Especially, the medical folks say, if you're a man who has already suffered a heart attack, which, by the way, the “butter crap” man is. Oh well. His funeral. Literally.

People have also figured out that there is no substitute for the natural flavor and texture of butter, not only on toast at the table but in the preparation of foods. A savvy new generation of home cooks has caught on to the fact that margarine has never been used in quality food preparation. Even while home cooks of the '50s and '60s were using “margarine or butter” in accordance with the directions on their box mix recipes, the pros have always relied on real butter. Just ask the folks at New York's International Culinary Center where they go through 21,946 pounds of butter a year. That's a lot of “crap,” wouldn't you say?

To the people who persist and say, “Well, they make healthier margarine now that they used to,” I can only ask, “why do you insist on putting chemically processed man made artificial food-like substances in your body when nature provides everything you and your ancestors have needed since they came up from the seas and down from the trees?” The words “they make” should scream at you. It is precisely the things that are “made” and “processed” that are turning us into a nation of obese, disease-ridden corpses that are, at the same time, artificially sweetened and wonderfully well-preserved.

Margarine was created to win a prize. Today, the only prize it should win is a booby prize. Butter is "crap?” Get real – and get real butter.

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