When I recollect the meals of my childhood, a distinct composition of flavors hangs on my tongue: heavy glugs of 2% milk, served cold; canned peas, the murky green of a fetid pond and mushy to the taste; and the ever-present, heaving tub of Country Crock that could always be counted on for a salty, creamy pick-me-up. Cheap, humble and plentiful, margarine’s oily charms formed the bedrock of my family’s potato-centric mealtimes. To tell the truth, I probably couldn’t have deciphered the difference between butter and margarine until — well, not as many years ago as I’d like to pretend. Imagine my surprise when I learned that margarine is as contentious as it is easily spread. Mental Floss recently culled the history of butter’s slippery cousin: a story which includes test tubes, political lobbying, and even stealth bootlegging.
It all started when Emperor Louis Napoleon III of France offered a prize to anyone who could make a satisfactory substitute for butter, which would ideally be suited for use by the armed forces and the lower classes. French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès invented a substance he called “oleomargarine,” which, for obvious reasons, was soon shortened to the trade name we know it as today. The new substance was created using beef fat and was naturally colorless, so, in order to court the butter lovin’ public, manufacturers dyed the margarine a golden yellow.
As you can imagine, dairy farmers were quite peeved about the new, cheap competition. They lobbied to tax margarine at a rate of two cents per pound — quite expensive for the late 19th-century —and enforced restrictions to ban the use of yellow dye. By 1900, artificially colored butter was contraband in 30 U.S. states and many areas of Canada. (Canadians were so desperate for the stuff that bootleggers produced faux-margarine using whale, seal and fish oil.) Some areas took more extreme measures to turn consumers away from margarine, requiring it to be dyed a sickly, Pepto Bismol pink, a fluorescent orange, or paradoxically, yellow.
As the coloring restrictions became widespread, margarine producers grudgingly accepted that they could no longer dye their wares. According to Mental Floss, the margarine producers came from a DIY state of mind, believing “there was no reason why they couldn’t simultaneously sell consumers margarine and yellow dye. When you bought a block or tube of margarine, you also got a packet of food coloring that could be kneaded into the margarine by hand.”
The margarine vs. butter battle has never truly died, with varying substances gaining favor through the decades: dairy during the Great Depression; margarine during wartime; as for today, the verdict is still out. And if you don’t believe the absurdity of this lobbying, hear this: Quebec only repealed its law requiring margarine to be colorless in July of 2008. Enjoy that yellow goodness!
Which do you prefer: butter or margarine? And does the color really matter?
Alison is Editor in Chief of the Etsy Blog. When she's not trawling Etsy for pottery, folk art, and vintage oddities, she enjoys exploring New York, historical nonfiction and thrifting. She loves a good cat video.