Growing up as a kid in the '80s, butter was for eating out — the cool discs served on a rimmed plate at the country club, the rip-open individual packets accompanying toast and pancakes for Sunday diner brunches — but margarine was our everyday meal accompaniment. The heavy beige tub of Country Crock was a permanent fixture on our kitchen table. It was so big it occupied nearly an entire refrigerator shelf on its own. I haven't looked closely at my parents' fridge in a while, but that tub actually might be still there today.
A Brief History
Margarine was originally developed by a French chemist in the mid-1800s as a blend of beef fat and milk. It morphed into the spreadable substitute we're familiar with once hydrogenation — the chemical process of hardening liquid fats into solid ones — was invented in the early 20th century.
As with so many other food trends, margarine's place at the table was helped along by those two great signifiers of so much culinary history: the Great Depression and World War II, when the public clamored for affordable dairy alternatives. In the 1950s, more barriers to margarine consumption fell as the government repealed pre-war margarine taxes and states lifted bans on artificial yellow coloring, paving the way for supermarket aisles piled with plastic tubs.
But it was the fat-free craze of the 1980s that solidified margarine in my culinary memory.
The Frenzy About Fat
As Rosie Schwartz, dietitian and author of The Enlightened Eater's Whole Foods Guide, explains, the health experts' overarching recommendation back then was to "eat less fat" — proclaimed without any other context. "They didn't say 'eat less saturated fat' because they thought people wouldn't understand," she laments, nor did they offer education on the benefits of naturally occurring fats such as those in avocados. "That's essentially how the whole thing happened — fat became a bad word, and the scramble to make anything fat-free left the door open for trans fats."
Schwartz calls it "the Snackwell's phenomenon," and I'll cop to scarfing a lot of those green boxes around the same time as I was spreading faux butter on my toast. I was just one of many kids receiving an unwitting indoctrination into a processed foods diet. Even when I went to college and began trying out new eating habits, my tastes didn't change too much: I switched from Country Crock to Brummel & Brown for its "healthier" addition of yogurt, but avoided real butter except for baking experiments.
Butter Is Back
Today, the pendulum has swung back drastically in favor of butter in many culinary circles. "In the '90s, trans fats were implicated as being even worse for you than saturated fat," explains registered dietitian Shirley Fan, MS, RD. "Back then, margarine was made from partially hydrogenated fats — which are trans fats — and that's when the tide changed." Although many margarines, or "spreads," as they're likely branded these days, are made without trans fats, the once-mighty butter alternative hasn't regained its former cachet.
Fan also credits the farm-to-table movement for boosting butter's comeback. "Butter is more popular now because it's considered less processed and conjures up images of small farms," she says. Even though the sticks at the supermarket might be mass-produced in factories, the connotation is that of something more wholesome and fresher than something made in a machine.
Personally, I can't believe I thought the taste of margarine was comparable or even preferable. But even though my days of snarfing down "buttered" noodles slicked with Fleischmann's at my grandma's house are long behind me, I'm not shunning butter alternatives completely. I've got a jar of coconut oil in the pantry along with a tub of vegan shortening and a few sticks of Earth Balance for good measure when baking for dairy-free friends. However, if you look in the fridge, you'll find at least two pounds of butter at any given moment. I may have shifted my dairy allegiance back to the farm, but family hoarding habits die hard.
What are your thoughts on butter and butter alternatives?