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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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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Law Says Margarine and Butter Are Not The Same

Accept No Substitutes

“Would you like your toast buttered, sir?”
“Yes, please.”

Implicit in that exchange is the fact that I expect my toast to be “buttered” with butter, dammit, not some horrid chemical concoction made up of hydrogenated vegetable oil or worse. But far too many people fail to recognize the difference anymore. Thanks in part to years of idiotic pseudoscience and to generations of ultra-successful marketing, an alarming number of today's consumers make little if any distinction between butter and margarine. To “butter” something has become a verb applied to the liberal application of any butter-like substance to a food. But there are a few old fossils like me who do recognize the difference and at least one who decided to do something about it.

A Worcester, Massachusetts man recently sued doughnut purveyor Dunkin' Donuts for slathering his bagels with margarine rather than butter. Jan Polanik filed a pair of class-action lawsuits against Massachusetts franchise owners of twenty-three stores in Grafton, Leominster, Lowell, Millbury, Shrewsbury, Westborough and Worcester after he said he paid a quarter for butter on his bread and was not told a substitute was used. And he won. Polanik got five hundred bucks as an “incentive award” for representing the class and up to 1,400 other people are entitled to claim up to three free buttered muffins, bagels or other baked goods from the cited stores as compensation for the oversight. Those stores will be required to use only butter — no margarine or butter substitutes — for a period of one year and if they use butter substitutes in the future, their menus will have to explicitly state that fact.

For its part, DD claims that the majority of its restaurants in Massachusetts carry both individual whipped butter packets and a butter-substitute vegetable spread. A few years ago, a Dunkin' spokesperson offered The Boston Globe an explanation for why vegetable spread might be used. “For food safety reasons, we do not allow butter to be stored at room temperature, which is the temperature necessary for butter to be easily spread onto a bagel or pastry.” The spokesperson claimed that the recommended store procedure called for individual whipped butter packets to be served on the side of a bagel or pastry, but not applied. She said, “The vegetable spread is generally used if the employee applies the topping.”

I can buy into that explanation to some extent because after I banned liquid margarine from a restaurant I took over, I was dunned by a health inspector who caught an employee, unaccustomed to the changeover, leaving butter out at room temperature. After I had to toss several pounds of butter – and one employee – it never happened again.

But this kind of thing occurs all the time. You don't think they're buttering your toast with real butter at Waffle House, do you? Waffle House runs on liquid margarine; gallons and gallons of the stuff go into and on everything, including your toast. Let's face it, margarine is cheap and easy to use and most consumers either don't know the difference or they don't care.

They know and they care in Wisconsin. The state that bills itself as “America's Dairyland” is probably the only one that still carries laws on the books specifically restricting and defining the use of butter and margarine. “Oleomargarine Regulations” as outlined in statute 97.18 include subsection 3, which declares: “No person shall sell, offer or expose for sale at retail any oleomargarine or margarine unless: (a) Such oleomargarine or margarine is packaged; (b) The net weight of the contents of any package sold in a retail establishment is one pound; (c) There appears on the label of the package the word “oleomargarine" or “margarine" in type or lettering at least as large as any other type or lettering on the label in a color of print which clearly contrasts with its background, and a full accurate statement of the ingredients contained in the oleomargarine or margarine; and (d) Each part of the contents of the package is contained in a wrapper or separate container which bears the word “oleomargarine" or “margarine" in type or lettering not smaller than 20-point type.”

So I guess nobody will be confused by packaging. “Hmmm....I wonder if this is butter or margarine?”

Subsection 4 states: “The serving of colored oleomargarine or margarine at a public eating place as a substitute for table butter is prohibited unless it is ordered by the customer.”

Clear as a bell. You can't substitute margarine for butter in Wisconsin unless the customer asks for it. Oh, and as an informational aside, the reference to “colored” margarine dates back to the days when the stuff was sold in its natural state – a pasty white. Apparently, nobody wanted to spread a greasy substance that looked like Crisco on their toast, so manufacturers used to include yellow dye packets to make it look more like butter. At one time, the dairy industry pushed back, supporting legislation in several states that would have forced margarine producers to dye their product pink so it couldn't be mistaken or represented as butter, but the Supreme Court eventually intervened and quashed that scheme.

And just in case you might be tempted to foist off margarine on Wisconsin's helpless students, patients, or inmates, subsection 5 of the statute covers that thusly: “The serving of oleomargarine or margarine to students, patients or inmates of any state institutions as a substitute for table butter is prohibited, except that such substitution may be ordered by the institution superintendent when necessary for the health of a specific patient or inmate, if directed by the physician in charge of the patient or inmate.”

You catch that? Ya gotta have a prescription for margarine!

Violators “may be fined not less than $100 nor more than $500 or imprisoned not more than 3 months or both; and for each subsequent offense may be fined not less than $500 nor more than $1,000 or imprisoned in the county jail not less than 6 months nor more than one year.”

And you can rest assured that while miscreant margarine peddlers are doing time in the county lockup, they'll be eating nothing but good ol' natural Wisconsin butter.

I told you Wisconsin is serious about butter. So serious, in fact, that imported Kerrygold Irish Butter cannot be sold in Wisconsin because it hasn't been graded for quality by state or federal authorities. This has led to bootlegging as scofflaws nip into Illinois and return with carloads of contraband butter, much the same as my dad used to do back in the 1950s when margarine was actually an illegal substance in “Dairyland,” prompting him to take orders from family and friends and venture across the nearby state line on weekends to fill them. (Proving, I guess, that the nut didn't fall far from the tree. My grandfather was busted for violating the Volstead Act back in 1921. Oh, the shame!)

In spite of my father's nefarious hobby, I have had a lifelong love affair with butter. Like Mr. Polanik, I accept no substitutes. I have visited most of the municipalities he's suing and although my dyed-in-the-wool Krispy Kreme-born-and-bred wife would never allow me to darken the door of a Dunkin' Donuts shop unless it were the last possible resort, I would definitely be among the customers demanding my pound of flesh – or butter – from his legal action. Don't sell me something “buttered” with margarine. It does make a difference to some of us and now the law has recognized that difference.

My wife, raised far from “America's Dairyland” in “The Heart of Dixie” often chides me for making a fuss in restaurants that bring me little bowls full of little packets of plastic butter masquerading as the real thing. And despite my best efforts, I have my share of friends and relatives who are willing to clog their arteries with trans-fats in order to save a dime. A few among them are not only parsimonious, they also lack taste buds. I have a friend who swears he can't tell the difference and an in-law who wounds and offends me by referring to my beloved butter as “crap.” Which only goes to prove that people who have been inured to and inundated with cheap substitutes all their lives wind up not knowing their culinary asses from holes in the ground.

“I Can't Believe It's Not Butter.” Yeah? Well I can. “Country Crock?” It's a crock, alright. “Everything's Better With Blue Bonnet On It?” Not on your tintype, tootsie. “Promise” wants you to “Love Your Heart.” Okay, so don't eat “Promise.” “Fleischmann's” exhorts you to “Eat Well, Live Well, Be Well.” Great advice. What's it got to do with “Fleischmann's?” Remember “Chiffon?” “It's not nice to fool Mother Nature?” Well, I assure you, Mother Nature is not that easily fooled and neither am I. How about these Top Ten New Margarine Slogans from a 1994 Late Night With David Letterman?

10. I can't believe it's not healthy.
9. Little pats of poison
8.You can't spell margarine without angina.
7. Pure chemical satisfaction!
6. Thought you were healthy? Well guess again Pepe!
5. For external use only
4. Which are you gonna believe – boring laboratory studies, or cool TV commercials?
3. Give us a week, and we'll shut off your heart.
2. Elvis ate it, why don't you?
1. Mmm, mmm, dead!

If margarine is so all-fired marvelous and better than butter, then why does margarine always claim to “taste like butter” while I've yet to hear butter claim to “taste like margarine?”

Hooray for Jan Polanik, my butter buddy and great hero of the cause. You know, people in the Midwest have butter sculpting contests at state fairs and such. Out in Iowa, they've done Elvis and John Wayne in butter. How about somebody sculpting Jan Polanik? He certainly deserves the honor. And maybe save a few pats for the judge who ruled in his favor.

Richard Nixon probably knew something about butter. Well.......Butterfield, anyway. (Alexander Butterfield was the guy who revealed the existence of the White House taping system in 1973.) So, in my best Nixon voice, let me make one thing perfectly clear: butter is butter and margarine......is not.

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