Imagine bread without it. Pies, cakes, pastries – they’d all be bereft. What’s a world without butter?
Click start to play today’s Spell It, where you can create the word ‘butter’ with the letters provided. Don’t forget to check out Gulf News’ Food section for recipes using butter, and information on everything related to food, cuisines and more.
Rich, delicious and a staple in most homes around the world, butter has been at the centre of economic and culinary development for centuries. It’s been around for at least 9,000 years, and like most delicious foods, likely began as an accident.
According to a February 2017 report by US-based nonprofit media organisation National Public Radio (NPR), a nomad travelling somewhere in the rolling hills of ancient Africa made the discovery. He had a sheepskin bag of milk attached to the back of his pack animal. But because of the long journey and rough terrain, the bag of milk was joggled and jerked about for kilometres – until it transformed into butter… and it tasted incredible.
No one knows how butter went from accidental discovery to purposeful manufacturing, but the earliest written reference to it is a 4,500-year-old limestone tablet depicting how butter was made in Mesopotamia.
One of the best-preserved examples of ancient butter was found in Ireland, and was known as bog butter. Some of the samples date as far back as 400BC, giving archaeologists a glimpse into how people used to pack butter in carved wooden containers, and preserve it in peat bogs and wetlands.
Fast forward to the 19th century, and butter, which long held pride of place at dining tables everywhere, found itself with a rival: margarine. This new spread got its start in 1869 thanks to French emperor Louis Napoleon III. He wanted a ‘cheap, plentiful butter substitute’ to feed soldiers and the lower class, in the face of an unprecedented butter shortage and potential war with Prussia. So, he issued a cash prize for anyone who could create this new, alt-butter.
According to the book Butter: A Rich History by American award-winning food writer Elaine Khosrova, a French chemist named Hippolyte Mege-Mouries rose to the challenge – she combined beef fat, milk and salt to make the first margarine. The spread was a hit, and when it reached the US, its popularity rose so fast that American butter makers instantly identified it as a threat. They launched a fierce political campaign and used all the means available to them – legislation, registration and taxation – to quash the rise of margarine.
In fact, some butter manufacturers convinced state legislatures that margarine could not be dyed yellow, since people would confuse it with pure butter. So, margarine producers were ordered to dye their products a completely different colour – some made their margarine red, others black, and still others, pink!
Margarine would have been further marginalised if it wasn’t for a bigger disruption – the Second World War. With men going off to war, and the Great Depression arriving at US doorsteps, there was a massive butter shortage, and margarine – which was longer lasting and inexpensive – couldn’t be suppressed.
Today, butter and margarine both have their respective places in people’s pantries. With a wide variety of butter – from cultured and clarified forms to whipped and unsalted versions – we continue to enjoy its addition to our dishes and diets.
Which kind of butter is your favourite? Play today’s Spell It and tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org.