Any kitchen’s larder should include butter: without butter, cakes lose their savor, eggs can’t find their flavor and biscuits just get lost. Butter has no substitute; a chemist is no match for a cow. Butter owes its decline as a kitchen staple to its high saturated fat content. In a sly aside, Julia Child said, “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream,” which makes you wonder if she was talking about cooking at all. She wasn’t; she was talking about taste, which is an altogether different matter. Julia died in 2004, two days short of her ninety-second birthday, and I’ll bet good money she never nicked a stick of Blue Bonnet in her life. Most butters (there are many types and grades) are yellowish because of beta carotene, the same nutrient that gives most sweet potatoes, winter squash and (of course) carrots, its highest sources, an orange coloration.
My first taste of homemade butter was in the kitchen of a boyhood friend, Dean Wright, whose family owned a farm on the edge of town. The butter was almost chalky-white. The Wright’s cows didn’t eat much carotene, but they lactated nonetheless, and Dean’s family made good use of fresh, whole milk, thick, sweet cream and pale, pure butter. Margarine, the earliest version of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter,” made its dubious debut during the reign of Napoleon III, arguably the dimmest bulb on his Euro-trash family tree, who remembered (or was probably reminded of) his brilliant uncle’s observation, “Une armée marche à son estomac.” Intending to maintain France’s position as a military power, an ambition that was soon to be quashed by “Blood and Iron” Bismarck, he offered a prize for a butter substitute that would be “suitable for use by the armed forces and the lower classes”. (To paraphrase an earlier French ruler: “Let them eat ‘Country Crock’”.) In 1896, Napoleon awarded the prize to the spiffily-named Hippolyte Mège-Mourié. The ensuing Franco-Prussian War ended eighteen months later, shortly after the men from Berlin reduced Parisians to paying premium prices for plump vermin.
Margarine probably helped make cats Shanghaied from the Left Bank more palatable, but long after the armistice, this artificial butter, like the Second Empire itself, remains a blot on France’s lilied escutcheon. (It’s worth noting that the first margarine factory opened in Germany in 1871.) Nowadays margarine, once a means for upper-class French to reserve the best for themselves, has taken a demographic volte-face. Thanks to nutrition Nazis and Madison Avenue, butter rates as a heart-stopping Colt .45. As a result, margarine finds its way into the “butter compartments” of affluent refrigerators all over the place. The fact of the matter is, many brands of margarine contain saturated fats due to hydrogenating processes that enable vegetable oils to remain solid. As a final shot in this vein, let’s tote out the infamous French paradox, which casts light on the low incidence of heart disease among the French despite the fact that they eat a lot of saturated fats. The French paradox has oh-so-aptly led to the promotion of wine as a health food, an endorsement that covers a multitude of sins. Margarine as a spread insults any honest piece of bread. Either butter or olive oil makes much more sense. If you cook with margarine, you shouldn’t; given its high water content it’s just a bad idea. Butter, on the other hand, is essential in too many recipes to recount. A final swirl of butter adds gloss and aroma to a sauce, it browns nicely on broiled fish, and potatoes beg for it.
Here’s a very simple recipe that unites butter with its cousin cheese in a great way. Pepper Cheese Biscuits Cut six ounces of butter into four cups self-rising flour. Add one cup grated cheddar cheese, one cup raw chopped mild red pepper and enough milk to make a stiff dough. Roll out, cut into rounds and bake in an oiled skillet in a hot oven until lightly browned. Serve hot or cold. These are great split and filled with shaved ham.