Issue 30

It’s Getting Butter All the Time

It’s Getting Butter All the Time

“You’re not really from the South, are you?” was my sister-in-law’s accusation when I once again reminded her that I don’t do butter. Yes, I am from the South, from Arkansas and anyone who has heard Bill Clinton talk (most of us) knows what my family sounds like. But I didn’t grow up in Paula Deen’s butter-tastic-buttermilk-butter-biscuit-with-butter-in-buttery-butter-sauce kind of South. There are different southern cooking traditions just like you have different pizza crust, barbeque and chili traditions. A vast portion of southern folks use butter and more butter, but not the Appalachian South.

I grew up in the Oleo South. A dreadful euphemism for margarine, oh-leeee-oh, is a mid-south tradition perpetuated by terrified men and women with high-blood pressure, a dubious cardiological history, and a cultural cuisine soaked in lard and butter. Those things would kill you (never mind cigarettes and fertilizer) so the poor dears slopped “healthy” margarine all over everything and fried the daylights out of their catfish in 10-gallon vats of “slimming” vegetable shortening. Now we know the awful truth: that hydrogenated fats (in oleo, shortening, and over-heated veg-oil) are even worse for the body’s plumbing than good old animal fat. They would have been better off with lard. Now, butter is making a comeback, and one can even see chefs (on late-night shows when the kids are in bed) using lard in the pastry. Gack! You say. How revolting! Lard is … it’s just gross! And it is, sort of, and so are schmaltz (chicken fat), and beef suet, but they are natural, which is more than you can say for oleo or olestra or whatever chemically engineered nightmares are out there. Of course, not everything natural is good. Take cyanide, for instance, or sarin gas… So you can see my dilemma.

But, I finally decided that no matter what my family heritage, it would be all right to eat a little butter. I still don’t love it, and butter cookies to me are a waste of good sugar. But it’s easier to bake with than oleo-right-health-balance-yogurt-enhanced-spread stuff with real milk solids, and it was a done deal when my two children refused to eat anymore fake butter. I was happy to feed it to the skinny children, in whose food I slip heavy cream whenever I have the chance—they don’t like French fries, and think McDonald’s is a song about a farmer—but I was still on the fence about eating butter myself. It was only when I started baking all my family’s bread, and finally let myself enjoy a freshly cut yeasty slice (we’re talking old-school bread here, I don’t have a bread machine, I am the bread machine) layered with a little salty sweet fresh butter … I decided I would live.

So, I’ve done the nutrition research and here’s what I think about the whole “French Paradox” thing. For those of you unaware, this does not refer to the fact that the French sound very cool, but are actually incredible dorky, but to the unsubstantiated fact that French people eat kilos of butter daily but are thin and chic. Anyone who watches as the Tour De France cycle race as it wends its way through the countryside, bedazzled with over-fed spectators knows this paradox is fiction. They could be riding through the Mall of America. But there is a basis for most myth and this one as well. The French eat real food, they enjoy it with their friends, and they eat lots of fresh vegetables, and at least they used to walk, cycle and move around a lot. Put butter into a typical American diet full of processed junk food and trans fats, and add an immobility factor and you get a really fat person with high-cholesterol who can blame it on the butter. But if that same person started walking, chopping wood, doing yoga, lifting large rocks, and ate lots and lots of fresh veggies with butter, you would get a normal-looking person, and a paradox. How can you eat butter and not be fat? That’s it, and that’s what most of France did, until perhaps they quit all that and put a Mickey D’s in the Louvre.

Here’s what you do. Throw out your fake oil spread. Go to a market that has more than one kind of greens. Pick out some fresh vegetables—the kind you tell yourself are too expensive: greenhouse baby asparagus, organic yellow beets, tightly bundled fresh artichokes, tender baby patty pan squash … use your nose, touch them, smell them, turn them over. Take them home and cook them as little as possible and put some fresh unsalted butter on them, maybe a squeeze of lemon. Bake some bread. You can do it; it won’t hurt a bit, and put a little butter on that first slice. And forget all that stuff that comes out of the door of the fridge or the freezer boxes that is supposed to be dough or rolls or whatever, and mix up a simple butter crust, a pate brisee, (2 c. flour, 1 ½ sticks butter, pinch salt, 2 tbsp. water) slap it into a tart pan and fill it with sliced apples, sugar, and a little flour, and bake for an hour at 375. Go for a run or swim while your bread and tart are baking, and when you get back, eat some. Now tell me you don’t like butter. And biscuits! And simple baked potato. And a boiled egg with a soft center just sliced and topped with a sliver of sweet butter and salt and pepper. And little toasts with butter, smoked salmon and capers with fresh chives.

Local butter is hard to come by. The more local, the fresher, and pastured cows really do make better butter. If you can get it, it freezes well, which is how I store it for baking. If you’re going to do what I did and go butter, get the best you can find and savor it. Even if you’re struggling to maintain weight or lose it, you can have butter. But spend a lot on it, and then you won’t end up scooping it onto your toast in huge slabs with a pie server. Rather, you can spread tiny flakes onto excellent bread or biscuits the way you would treat fine Beluga caviar, or heritage goose liver foie gras with 25 year-old cognac.

I am reformed. My sister-in-law is smug about it. But it wouldn’t have happened if my children hadn’t turned up their noses at spread. Babies, however, have the finest palette on the planet, and when they said it tasted like chemicals, I realized, “Hey, you’re right! This is nasty!” So let’s get rid of other bad stuff and keep the butter. Let’s learn to accompany our luscious farm-fresh veggies and home-made bread with lovely fresh butter, and try to remember what food really tastes like. My grandmothers didn’t eat much butter, but I’m sure they could recall why they loved it. If only they’d known, their favorite food was really just fine.

Ann Summers

Ann Summers

Ann Summers is not a 40-umpthing-year old rock climber who got shut down in Boulder Canyon and drowned her failure in a microbrewery. She is neither a mother of two, a fan of Latin plant names nor a lover of fine Italian Grappa. You’ll not catch her shooting guns for fun or hollering like a redneck. She hates Shakespeare, and doesn’t call a certain fast food chain “The Scottish Restaurant.” She turns her nose up at organic yellow beets, eschews fresh oysters, and loathes chubby guinea pigs with Violent Femmes hairdos. She is also a dreadful liar

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