I have a vivid memory of my father beating coloring into a bowl of butter. He is sitting at the kitchen table in our house in Hayward. World War II had ended but good butter was expensive and still difficult to buy in the grocery stores. However, from time to time my mother’s older sister Helen and her husband Ernie supplied us with butter.
Aunt Helen and Uncle Ernie lived with my cousins in the caretaker’s house on a modest estate east of Hayward owned by the Kobzy family. Like some of the more substantial lake homes at that time, the property included a small farm with horses, cows and chickens. Most of the year Aunt Helen and Uncle Ernie and my cousins were supplied with eggs from the flock of chickens and milk from the small herd of cows that provided those items for Mrs. Kobzy and her family who spent the summer in the lodge on Little Round Lake.
In early summer, Mrs. Kobzy and her children rode the train to Hayward where Uncle Ernie picked them up and brought them to the lodge. In addition to serving as a chauffeur he was responsible for maintaining all the buildings, managing the farm, mowing the lawns, clearing the riding trails and planting a large garden, so there were fresh vegetables for both families.
When summer ended, Uncle Ernie drove Mrs. Kobzy and her brood to the train depot in Hayward. The cows kept producing milk and cream which Aunt Helen churned into butter. By December, however, the cows’ diets no longer included fresh green grass and clover with the carotene that turns butter yellow. The butter was white, the color of lard or, even worse, oleomargarine.
I refused to eat it. At the age of four, I was already a principled diner. It was illegal to sell colored oleomargarine in Wisconsin at that time, so drug stores sold annatto food coloring to people who bought oleo. The annatto turned Aunt Helen’s butter into a delicious golden spread that pleased my young palette. That was why my father was grumbling while stirring annatto into a bowl of butter.
Our niece Gina got me thinking about butter by giving me Elaine Khosrova’s book, Butter, A Rich History, for Christmas. Gina has a talent for finding really appropriate gifts for friends and relatives. She knows that I like butter on toast, pancakes, French toast, steaks and spice cakes and that I use it in cooking almost everything from apple cake to Yorkshire chicken.
When I finally got around to thanking her for the book, I told her that I especially appreciated Chapter 8, which documents how questionable medical research promoted by the oleo industry gave butter a bad name. Prompted by claims of “Better than butter,” millions of people began eating a chemical product high in trans fats. Those fats are associated with higher rates of coronary heart disease.
My wife Jerri, like Gina, knew that I had long rejected the claims that oleo was better for my health. I tried to be polite, but when a supposedly gourmet restaurant tried to foist oleo off on me, I would ask, “Why don’t you serve butter?”
If the waitperson made the mistake of saying “Margarine is better for you,” I would then ask, “If that’s true, how do you explain why the French have less than half as many deaths from heart attacks even though they eat more than three times as much butter as we do?”
The innocent server would mumble something and hurry away. Jerri would be irritated with me and say something like “Maybe the French walk more than you do.”
“And they drink more wine, too. Maybe that’s the reason,” I would say as I drained my glass and called for another. I am often amazed that she has put up with me so long.
For a long time I felt like a prophet crying in the wilderness. Today I am someone who can smile and say, “I told you so.” Butter has regained its reputation. Doctors now say it is just fine to eat butter, as long as you do it in moderation. The Greeks and Romans said the same thing over two thousand years ago.
As Ms. Khosrova so clearly explains in her book, butter not only has a place in a healthful diet but is also an indispensable ingredient in many recipes. Here is one from a friend of ours.
When I asked Judy for a favorite family recipe, she brought me a photocopy of a cookie recipe in her mother’s handwriting. Judy’s mother, Dorothea Lang, made these cookies for Christmas every year. It is her recipe for “Swedish Cookies (Xmas),” but as you can see by the list of ingredients below, they are really a butter cookie that you can enjoy anytime. My mother would have called them an icebox cookie. I call them simply wonderful.
1/2 lb. salted butter
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup chopped pecans
Cream the butter and powdered sugar together, add the vanilla and beat the mixture until it is light and fluffy. Sift the flour gradually into the butter mixture and stir until you have a smooth dough. Chop the pecans into a rough quarter-inch dice and fold them into the dough.
Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and shape it into an oblong shape, transfer it to a piece of wax paper and make a roll about an inch and a half in diameter. Put the roll into the refrigerator overnight or at least twelve hours.
Preheat the oven to 350º. Use a serrated knife to cut thin slices (about a quarter of an inch thick) and arrange them about half an inch apart on ungreased baking sheets. Bake for ten to twelve minutes or until the edges of the cookies just begin to brown.
Hide a few before they disappear. The cook deserves some too.