Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Spread it thick

Food history is a fascinating subject, but you could be forgiven for imagining that for butter to make an interesting entry in any such history, it would have to be spread pretty thin.

Oliver Thring’s entertaining and educative Guardian blog about the great war between butter and margarine proves that’s not the case.

There were plenty of things that I didn’t know, but perhaps the most shocking was that we can blame – of all people – the French for the abomination that is marg.

Thring writes: “Margarine was formulated in 1869 by one Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, who was responding to Napoleon III’s call for a butter substitute to feed the soldiers fighting the Franco-Prussian War.”

Or as The Other Half points out, to be accurate, we can blame Napoleon III. You see, that’s what comes of trying to turn back a republic into a monarchy. I knew that the right side won in that little conflict.

For years, margarine has been peddled on the basis of being healthier than butter. Well, healthier in a sort of completely-artificial-and-containing-nasty-things-that-aren’t-very-good-for-you sort of way.

After all, this is something that, until recently at least, contained trans fats, which are not nice at all and can contribute to a large range of illnesses, including cancer. Which might make you lose weight, but probably isn’t on most people’s list of preferred diets.

The processes that are used to make margarine (and lengthen the shelf life of some cooking oils) cause trans fats to occur. A quick check of food labels will tell you if a product contains any: if the label mentions ‘partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils’, ‘hydrogenated vegetable oils’ or ‘shortening’, then it’s likely to contain trans fats.

The process of making margarine also makes it grey in colour: strip out all the fat and you strip out the lovely yellow: it needs artificial colourants added or else absolutely nobody would eat it. After all, imagine spreading something grey on your toast!

And whatever they try to tell you, marg does not taste like butter. Not even close to it. Butter is a little taste of luxury – which is precisely why, as Thring points out, it was on the church’s list of Things You Mustn’t Eat on Fast Days.

Nothing beats proper butter on a crumpet, dripping unctuously down through the holes and deep into that glorious floury squishiness, getting all over your fingers and all over your mouth and running down your chin.

While some people swear by unsalted butter – and so do I, for most things – crumpets, for me, require the salted variety: not any old salted butter, mind, but the sort with crystals of sea salt in it.

It’s about pleasure. Total, indulgent pleasure.

Butter has never claimed that it’s a health food – although perhaps it should. After all, if you really think about it, what’s healthier – pleasure or a monastic lack of it?

In his book, The World Turned Upside Down, historian Christopher Hill talks of ‘the death of sin’ as the English Revolution produced a massive growth in radical thinking, with people from right across the social spectrum shucking the ideas that had previously held sway.

‘Sin’, of course, is useful for controlling people – certainly in conjunction with ideas of heaven or, perhaps more saliently, eternal damnation.

At a time when few people live with the total conviction in such a concept, does that mean that we’re free from ‘sin’ now, that sin really is dead?

The reality is that we’ve replaced the authority of the church on ‘moral’ matters with the power of the mass media: celebrities ‘named and shamed’ for daring to step ‘out of line’. Which usually translates as: ‘they had sex in a way that we do not approve of’.

In the UK, the News of the World (appropriately nicknamed The News of the Screws) sells by revealing people’s secrets: who had sex with whom and how. It’s titillation for the readership, followed by the absolution of pointing fingers and nodding heads when the naughty celeb has been humiliated enough.

After Max Mosely won his case against the rag in question, Lord Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, bemoaned the court’s decision, stating quite explicitly that such personal revelations were important because they allowed people to be morally held to account.

Somewhere along the line, the honourable peer seems to have missed the point that such publications are bought because they titillate and because the readers then get to judge and metaphorically chuck a few stones – neither of which are renowned Christian values.

But in our modern world we have other sins too. And, since many sins are, by extraordinary coincidence, to do with pleasure, food is far from exempt.

As my mother used to intone: “We eat to live, we don’t live to eat”. Roughly translated, this meant that we should be careful not to take undue pleasure in things; food should primarily be regarded as a fuel, thus helping to avoid the dodgy sensual pleasure to gained from it.

Let’s bring this forward into our era, where the revelation of people’s sexual proclivities and activities is somehow perceived to be a service to morality – presumably on the basis that is might scare others into ‘behaving’, lest they too be humiliated by some gutter-scraping scandal sheet.

What we also have now is the ‘sin’ of being overweight – for which one can also be vilified and humiliated: media, government and medical obsession with the issue over a number of years has pretty much created a bully’s charter where the fat are acceptable targets.

I know of one person, for instance, who was approached in a shop by a woman who started telling him that, as a rather large individual, he should select the jar of diet mayonnaise instead of the full-fat one that he was examining at the time.

The culture of dieting has been with us for some decades, but now it has this extra impetus. And thus butter is considered unhealthy, while a completely artificial product, with or without downright unhealthy trans fats, is considered healthy. And the companies that manufacture marg spend millions spreading their gospel and even trying to convince us that it tastes just like the real thing.

If you’re worried about your consumption of saturated fats, then cut down, don’t cut out. Just as research is increasingly revealing that there is far more to weight issues than being greedy (for instance, recently-published work has suggested that a virus is involved in some people at least), there’s more to saturated fats than people imagine.

We tend to like foods that are high in saturated fat because they’re comforting and pleasurable. Think cheese, for example. And butter, of course.

But those things also help us to feel satisfied quicker than if we were eating other ‘healthier’ foodstuffs. And some research has suggested that, in order to reach the same level of satisfaction, we’d end up consuming more calories of the ‘healthier’ foodstuff.

When women diet, the first things they tend to knock off their personal menus are dairy products, which is not unconnected to the lower levels of bone density found in dieting women. Fancy some osteoporosis later in life girls? Well, at least you’ll be slim, with brittle bones.

From a health perspective, food is all swings and roundabouts anyway. Take those French again – they eat more dairy produce than absolutely any other nation on Earth, yet have a lower rate of heart disease, which seems completely counter-intuitive on the basis of what is drummed into us Brits.

Research suggests that red wine counteracts the unhealthy aspects of all that wonderful cheese.

So hang on a minute – you get to drink red wine and eat more cheese than anyone else on planet Earth, and you don’t get the heart disease that you’re promised by government, medical professionals and media in the UK?

Now admittedly, the French do have higher rates of liver disease. But do you really want to live longer if doing so requires that you live like a puritan?

The price of the new ‘sins’ might be humiliation – the new ‘heaven’ appears simply to be the possibility of a slightly longer life with less pleasure than if we all just used a little bit of commonsense and ignored those who would have us eating an exclusive diet of rabbit food and minced cardboard. The possibility – there is no certainty in this – of adding a few years to our lives has turned dieting and denial of pleasure into a sort of food version of Pascal’s Wager. In terms of butter, it gives a whole new meaning to spread betting.

A modern heresy, you say? Well, possibly – in the UK (and probably the US) at least.

It is, however, a heresy that I for one will continue to enjoy.


  1. Butter is at the heart of Ballymaloe cooking and we had a lecture on its making and uses. It is also a natural product the conversion of vegetable oils to long chain molecules in Margarines etc is not exactly natural and I personally will be avoidng it in future.

    For a really good, challenging and informative food history I must recommend John Dickie's Delizia, a history of Italian Food and Taste by Kate Colqhoun a study of UK food.

  2. Thank you, Bill. I've actually read Kate Colqhoun's 'Taste', which is a brilliant book; utterly fascinating.

  3. Interesting! I grew up on margarine (my mother called it oleo). With new information about trans fat, I began using butter however I use it sparingly and prefer olive oil.

  4. Hello the house... I sort of stumbled over here from Jerry Chicken, been laughing ever since.
    My Gran always used real butter, though my mother used the slimmy oleo, or wished it was butter. I've used only butter myself. Nothing else tastes that good.

  5. Completely concur with you Syb - especially about butter with crumpets; it MUST be salted! Another fantastic post, cheers! :) ॐ

  6. Thank you all – and welcome, Brighid.