Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Food Fight

   Memoirs are my favorite research sources. History books provide dates, and sequence of events, and results, but memoirs are filled with participants' experiences. Those experiences frequently form the basis for my characters' antics.
     A problem to beware of with memoirs is faulty memories. Often the authors write decades after the events, and their details can be flawed.
     Case in point: a World War II Navy wife tells of buying oleomargarine, "a clear package of white grease resembling lard" which contained "a little button of yellow coloring," during the war. Housewives, or their children, kneaded the button of color throughout the margarine to achieve a uniform butter-yellow color.
     That's an accurate occurrence. My dad's spoken of the margarine with added coloring. Before I have a character kneading her margarine, though, I needed to know more about why this was necessary. So I did some research.
     Uh-oh. I found accounts of the button of color being introduced in 1947 and 1951. Both dates are post-World War II. None of my characters will be kneading her "grease."
     Why was that coloring necessary?
     Margarine was developed by churning beef tallow with milk as a cheap substitute for butter. The dairy industry jealously guarded their butter market, and demanded restrictions. First, a tax of two cents per pound of margarine--a hefty sum in the late 19th century.
     During World War II, a shortage of butter led to oleomargarine gaining popularity. The dairy industry became alarmed and succeeded in lobbying for restrictions to prohibit coloring the margarine to make it look more appetizing, more like butter. Some states even required the margarine be dyed an unappealing pink.
     Margarine makers found a loophole: consumers could add color themselves. A packet of yellow dye was included with the product, which together were placed in a bowl and stirred with a spoon. This could be a messy exercise that often resulted in uneven results, light and dark yellow, or even white and yellow stripes.
     The margarine industry then demonstrated its inventiveness by placing a pellet of yellow dye inside a plastic package of margarine. After purchase, the pellet was broken inside the package and the package was kneaded to distribute the dye, considerably less effort than mixing with a spoon in a bowl.
     Post-war, margarine was widely accepted and the industry gained lobbying power. Restrictions were repealed, as late as the 1960s in some states. Some unenforced laws remain on the books in others.
     America's Dairyland, I was surprised to learn, still fights for its butter. According to Wisconsin author Erika Janik, "If you eat a meal in a Wisconsin restaurant and want margarine instead of butter, you have to ask for it. Wisconsin law forbids the substitution of margarine for butter in a public eating place. A few lawmakers tried to overturn the law in 2011 but failed in their effort. Under the law, students, patients, and inmates in state institutions will be served butter with meals unless a doctor says that margarine is necessary for their health.
And when you shop for margarine in a Wisconsin grocery store, you must buy a whole pound colored a certain shade of yellow and labeled in letters of a specific size. And don't even think about making that margarine with imported oil--only domestic vegetable oil can be used in Wisconsin margarine."
     I've lived in Wisconsin most of my life and never realized that. Have any other Wisconsinites looked for margarine in a restaurant?


  1. Fascinating. I only ever buy butter. It's what I grew up with. Margarine does not taste right at all.

    1. I remember we used margarine for several years, but by that time, we didn't need to mix it up.