Food Facts & Lore

Pass the Butter, Hmm… Margarine, Please

You know something is precious when ancient cultures sent their dearly departed into the world beyond with large quantities of it. Butter, in this case. Humans have produced butter for at least 10,000 years, ever since we started domesticating animals. But butter was not merely used as food.

In addition to eating it, ancient Asian tribes used butter to protect the skin from the cold and as fuel in primitive lamps. The Greeks and Romans valued butter for its cosmetic properties. It was smeared on skin to make it smooth and applied to hair to make it shine.

Later, the English would value butter as a most distinguished gift to offer to newlyweds. Not only was it a welcome delicacy, but it also represented a wish for good health and fertility.

The Irish, it seems, had a more down-to-earth relationship with butter. This was brought to light when archeologists unearthed a large cache of butter-filled barrels deliberately buried in bogs. This, historians believe, was not merely to preserve it, but also for safekeeping from butter thieves.

As with all good and desirable things, high demand led to high prices and the supply of butter in the fast-growing European nations was simply inadequate. In the 1860’s, Napoleon III, Emperor of France, announced a contest offering to pay anyone who could come up with an affordable substitute. Not only would this satisfy popular demand, but it would also help supply his army.

French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès offered the winning solution in 1869 when he devised a process for churning beef tallow with milk. Two years later, he introduced his product to a Dutch company that would soon bring margarine into the limelight of international fame.

They did so, in part, thanks to one small, revolutionary modification. They reasoned that margarine would be readily accepted as a suitable substitute for butter only if it looked like butter. Margarine is naturally white. They dyed it yellow. It is said that the greatest visionary moments of marketing gurus were inspired by food. Margarine may very well have been the initial spark.

This is but a small bite of the story, and we must add one delicious detail as our final word. In 1813, French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul discovered a fatty acid in animal fat when luminous, pearl-like deposits caught his eye. He named it “acide margarique,” from the Greek “margarites,” meaning “pearly.” The name was later adapted to the butter substitute, and its fame spread worldwide.