Butter – Elaine Khosrova

I love a good micro-history. I waffled about requesting this (sorry) (no, I’m not – I’m just trying not to make culinary puns all throughout), but I went ahead hoping for some fascinating details about how butter was invented/discovered, and how it has impacted history, and all the hows and whys and wherefores of it.

There was a great deal of that, of course. The first half of the book was all of that – how someone might have discovered that agitating a skin of milk would result in this wonderful substance, and how it affects the lives of those who live in areas where it is produced. “It seems hardly a coincidence that most of the dairy-rich countries producing and using butter were the same nations that broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century” is one sentence from a chapter that was everything I could have asked for. Oh, and the fact that “‘Top o’ the morning to you’ has its origins in the dairy world”.

The second half of the book, discussing the homogenization of the industry, and in fact the industrialization of the industry, started to lose my attention a bit.

Once the book reaches the present day and the author’s attempt to explore the world through the flavors of its butter it definitely loses me. For those of us who don’t, or can’t, globe-trot, “seek out a verifiable grass-fed butter (and be prepared to pay a little extra for it!).” See, there are grocery trips when I can’t afford plain ol’ Land o’ Lakes, much less some artisan small batch butter from Sweden. And I have to say, the idea of a “sheepy” or “goaty” butter is not compelling. I am also not made sorry that such travel is out of my reach when the author talks about one artisan using “a salvaged container that had once held some kind of industrial product” to hold milk. There is no amount of sanitization which would make me comfortable using that container to hold consumables. None.

I was completely and utterly horrified to read how margarine was originally made, “from rendering oil from caul fat of beef”. My family ate margarine in the usual – and come to find out completely misguided – attempt to cut cholesterol for decades, and for a little while there I was aghast at what we had been consuming. But we weren’t: “This original animalderived margarine, by the way, was nothing like today’s version of the stuff, which is made with hardened vegetable oils.” Okay. Phew. Don’t bury the lead, there, ma’am. I love the quote “As for butter versus margarine, I trust cows more than chemists.” And the revelation that, yeah, actually stick margarine is probably worse for you than butter is “the great tragedy of science: the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” (Thomas Henry Huxley.) Darn those pesky facts.

I do wonder if low-fat diets have been looked at as a possible cause of autism. “Our bodies depend on fat-soluble vitamins, cholesterol, and fatty acids to run all kinds of internal systems optimally, especially in the brain; among children, this fat function is even more essential.” But what do I know …

There is a considerable section of recipes at the end, which all more or less feature butter as the star (some rather less, and confusing to me), and that’s always a good thing. (I’m looking forward to trying turkey cutlets sautéed in lemon and butter. I’ll try almost anything sautéed in lemon and butter…)

The writing throughout is entertaining – I never thought I’d see a pun on plaque buildup as part of heart disease, or that kind of reference to Marlon Brando. (Heh.) I guess it mainly just lost me as it begins to discuss what almost amounted to a conspiracy to promote margarine and the theory of its healthiness and, once all that money and time had been spent on that, to quash the data that began to emerge that … yeah, that’s not right. That’s hard, if you’ll pardon my pun, to swallow.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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