Watch Your Mouth: I Can't Believe That Anti-Margarine Law's Still on the Books Butter vs. Margarine: A Legal and Cultural History

Wisconsin is wrestling with a little law that's a last vestige of a former battle over butter. Here's what that means for fake food everywhere.

After Googling “Stupid Wisconsin Laws” recently, Dale Kooyenga stumbled on a 1973 law prohibiting “colored margarine” from being served at a restaurant unless a customer specifically orders it. The regulation sounds like something straight out of Lake Wobegon, but it remains on the books in real-life Wisconsin.

For Kooyenga, Googling legislative stupidity constitutes work. Kooyenga, a freshman Republican state representative, moved to rectify the dairy state’s reputation by introducing a bill earlier this month to repeal the antiquated anti-margarine law. Because the statute also prevents institutions from serving non-butter butter replacements in prisons, Kooyenga argued that a repeal could save taxpayers money: Real butter is three times as expensive as the tubbed stuff.

Rolling back the snub of synthetic spread wouldn’t revolutionize menus throughout the dairy state outside its penal institutions, since the law had rarely, if ever, been enforced since the earlier part of the 20th century. But the move raised cloying questions about who says what foods are fake, adulterated, or imitation, and what foods are the real deal.

Margarine was one of the first synthetic foods to slip into the American diet, in the late 19th century. Its reception has been tepid. Sorry, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter”—we can. Distaste for margarine is spread thick across popular culture. Julia Child was not a fan (“If you’re afraid of butter, as many people are nowadays, just put in cream!”). A Tribe Called Quest (“Not no Parkay, not no margarine/Strictly butter baby, strictly butter”) and the Hee Bee Gee Bees (“The world is very, very large/And butter is better than marge”) concur.

The first margarine spreaders ate it because they didn’t have a choice. Margarine was developed in 1869 to address a European butter shortage. French emperor Napoleon III offered a prize to the inventor who could whip up a cheap and palatable butter substitute. French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriez offered oleomargarine, a prize-winning combination of water, tributyrin, and clarified beef fat.

The initial American hostility toward margarine stemmed from its origins as a French food designed to feed poor people cheaply. As with horsemeat, that pedigree didn’t sit well in the American stomach. But early margarine—essentially, beef tallow dressed up in butter’s clothes—also extended the industrial tentacles of the meatpacking industry. As environmental historian Benjamin R. Cohen writes in an excellent forthcoming article in Endeavour, “If the pork industry would use everything but the squeal, beef concerns like Armour and Swift & Co. would similarly use everything but the moo.” To the agrarian mind, non-lactating cattle should neither churn out butter nor be churned into “butter.” Opponents of adulterated foods found something particularly insidious about imitating the “wares from nature’s bounty,” and turned to chemical and scientific analysis to establish the superiority of real butter.

The subsequent criminalization of the production, sale, and consumption of this new “artificial compound of grease” came largely at the behest of the dairy industry. “What they were doing was beyond the pale,” Barry Levenson, a Wisconsin-based food law expert and author of Habeas Codfish, told me. “There was even a blacklist of stores that sold margarine. There was a lot of nonsense that went on.” First, a 1886 federal tax on margarine went into place. Dozens of state laws across the country prohibited margarine manufacturers from coloring the stuff yellow, though butter manufacturers did the same thing. Other state laws mandated that margarine be colored pink. The New York Times breathlessly covered the story: “He Got Oleomargarine; Though He Asked For Butter at a Railroad Restaurant,” one headline read. Many of these more egregious laws were struck down, but some remained quietly on the books, like the Wisconsin law mandating that margarine be sold in one-pound increments.

To beat Big Dairy, margarine makers eventually turned to partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, which nutritionists heralded as a “healthy” fat. The science of spread had come full circle: Food chemistry legitimized a fake food on some of the same grounds that had once rendered margarine “impure.” As Michael Pollan argues in In Defense of Food, margarine’s ascendancy represents a dangerous hallmark of “nutritionism”: It’s a prototype for elevating fake foods to the sum of their nutrient parts.

Repealing Wisconsin’s anti-margarine statute would do little more than streamline the state’s rulebook. But the law shouldn’t be dismissed as entirely silly. We’re still wrestling with underlying moral questions of lab-grown meats, raw milk, high-fructose corn syrup, genetically-modified foods, and Bisphenol A. Margarine’s greatest danger may not be in duping unsuspecting consumers into thinking it’s butter, but in radically redefining our idea of what’s “natural.”

Photo via (cc) Flickr user orphanjones.

via Chela Horsdal / Twitter

Amazon's "The Man in the High Castle" debuted the first episode of its final season last week.

The show is loosely based on an alternative history novel by Philip K. Dick that postulates what would happen if Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan controlled the United States after being victorious in World War II.

Keep Reading Show less
via Mike Mozart / Flickr

Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast food chain in America, behind McDonald's and Starbucks, raking in over $10 billion a year.

But for years, the company has faced boycotts for supporting anti-LGBT charities, including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

RELATED: The 1975's singer bravely kissed a man at a Dubai concert to protest anti-LGBT oppression

In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

RELATED: Alan Turing will appear on the 50-pound note nearly 70 years after being persecuted for his sexuality

Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?


Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

The Italian region of Veneto, which includes the city of Venice, is currently experiencing historic flooding. Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has stated that the flooding is a direct result of climate change, with the tide measuring the highest level in 50 years. The city (which is actually a collection of 100 islands in a lagoon—hence its famous canal streets), is no stranger to regular flooding, but is currently on the brink of declaring a state of emergency as waters refuse to recede.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via Gage Skidmore / Flickr and nrkbeta / flickr

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) dropped a bombshell on Tuesday, announcing it had over 900 emails that White House aide Stephen Miller sent to former Breitbart writer and editor Katie McHugh.

According to the SPLC, in the emails, Miller aggressively "promoted white nationalist literature, pushed racist immigration stories and obsessed over the loss of Confederate symbols after Dylann Roof's murderous rampage."

Keep Reading Show less
via Twitter / Bye,Bye Harley Davidson

The NRA likes to diminish the role that guns play in fatal shootings by saying, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people."

Which is the same logic as, "Hammers don't build roofs, people build roofs." No duh. But it'd be nearly impossible to build a roof without a hammer.

So, shouldn't the people who manufacture guns share some responsibility when they are used for the purpose they're made: killing people? Especially when the manufacturers market the weapon for that exact purpose?

Keep Reading Show less