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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.

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