This is a story about when a big industry stops competing, and starts trying to pass laws to protect itself instead.
Whatever you think you know of margarine, put that aside. When the spread was first invented in the mid-1800s, it was made very differently — and solved very real problems for the nutrient-starved people of the time. That sent the dairy industry into a full-blown panic, leading to margarine’s demonization (and then taxation and strange discoloration). In this episode, we explore how the dairy industry got politicians all riled up, what it says about industries’ ability to halt innovation, and why it took more than a century for butter and margarine to finally square off in the most fair fight of them all: a true food fight.
Jason Feifer: I am really excited about this sponsor, because it is a podcast that I have enjoyed listening to for years. It is called the a16z podcast. And if you're interested in the future or innovation or the impact of technology on our world, then you will be interested in what this show has to say.
Jason Feifer: The a16z podcast is produced by Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreesen Horowitz, and I will tell you, I have had the pleasure of talking with a bunch of partners there over the years, and they are smart.
Jason Feifer: The a16z podcast brings you direct, undiluted expert views from the front lines of the tech industry. Not just from their partners, but all kinds of experts all around the word. Its goal is to help you make sense of what's coming, where we've been, and where we're going. And the show does that through carefully curated, nuanced, high insight-per-minute conversations with business leaders and entrepreneurs, top industry and academic experts, as well as up-and-coming fresh voices and book authors, who you will hear there before they go on other podcasts.
Jason Feifer: The a16z podcast dives into complicated subjects but manages to keep it both in-depth and accessible, which I'm sure is why the show is regularly in the top ten various podcast charts and cited in countless best-of lists.
Jason Feifer: Subscribe to the a16z podcast wherever you get your podcasts if you want to stay on top of tech and the future.
Jason Feifer: This is Pessimists Archive. I'm Jason Feifer. After John Munson's father passed away, his mother told him a dark family secret, something she'd kept from her husband for decades. Something only she knew. And to really appreciate the power of this secret, I first need to tell you a little bit about the Munson family.
Jason Feifer: So first, you should know that they live in Wisconsin, and their Wisconsin bonafides are strong. John is actually a retired broadcaster who spent 27 years working for Wisconsin Public Radio, and John's dad grew up on a dairy farm participating in one of the great industries of the state. And that means, like most Wisconsinites, John's dad had a passionate love of butter. He would have never even considered eating that cheap knock-off called margarine.
John Munson: My father always used to say, you'll never see an ad for butter that says "tastes just like margarine."
Jason Feifer: Which is true, as best I can tell. Wisconsin lawmakers agreed as well. Over time, the state had passed a variety of laws against margarine, which we're going to get into later.
Jason Feifer: But the point right now is that before 1967 when John was growing up, margarine was a complicated thing to buy in Wisconsin. If people wanted yellow margarine, they had to drive across state lines to Minnesota or Michigan or whatever and then sneak the stuff back in. And people did that. It was common. John knew plenty of them. But he was his dad's son. He had grown up on #teambutter, and it was butter all the way for him. He wouldn't have touched margarine either. And frankly, he still feels that way.
John Munson: I don't like the taste of margarine, and I can always tell the difference. If you put it on a piece of toast, there is no way that you can pass that test and say, "that's not margarine."
Jason Feifer: Now, John's mom happened to be a great baker and was especially prolific with cookies. She made all sorts of cookies. She invented new cookies. And John's mom considered cooking to be a solitary act. So nobody was around in the kitchen when she made them. The baked goods would just appear in the Munson household, happily filling everyone with sugar and butter.
Jason Feifer: But the decades rolled by. John became an adult. And eventually, his father passed away. And that is when John's mom revealed the secret. Perhaps you see this coming.
John Munson: And then she told me about what was in that one kind of Christmas cookie. It was called an icebox cookie. And I remember the cookie. It was a very good cookie. I didn't know it had margarine in it.
Jason Feifer: Yes, you heard that right. There was margarine in the cookie. There was margarine in the cookie. The enemy is within. The enemy is within.
Voice Clip: We traced the call. It's coming from inside the house [inaudible 00:04:08] Just get out of that house.
Jason Feifer: I love this story because in one little contraband cookie, we capture so much about the tangled history of margarine. You may think margarine is just a simple and weak excuse for butter, but I am telling you, it's way more complicated than that. It's alternately a thing that we as a couple have embraced and pushed away and then embraced and then pushed away again.
Jason Feifer: Rewind to the 1800s, and margarine involves Napoleon III, a freaked out dairy industry, and fights among lawmakers. You've got a congressman vowing to destroy margarine by any means possible. You've got states mandating that margarine be dyed black or pink so as to make it unappealing to eat. You've got hilarious dueling ad campaigns.
Jason Feifer: And ultimately, for those of us interested in understanding how innovation proceeds, we are all left with one giant question: How far should one industry be allowed to go to halt change? Because margarine, I'm telling you, wasn't always so bad. It was once the solution to a lot of problems. But to some people, it was also the problem itself.
Jason Feifer: So we're going to get into the history of it all. But first, come on, John. It's time to come clean about that margarine cookie.
Jason Feifer: I guess you do have to admit that it tasted good in the cookie.
John Munson: The cookie was good, yes. And so I admit that, and that's fine. I don't think that's inconsistent. But you won't find me putting margarine on my English muffin.
Jason Feifer: The line has been drawn.
Jason Feifer: Okay. So let's first talk about the incumbent in this battle, butter. And butter has been the reining champion for a really, really long time. It is generally assumed that some form of butter, maybe made with yak's milk, was developed around the time that we started domesticating animals 15,000 years ago.
Jason Feifer: And then for many thousands of years, different cultures used butter not just for eating, but for all sorts of things. Hair dressing, religious ceremonies, medicine, even waterproofing.
Elaine Khosrova: Because it's greasy, oily, fatty, when water hits it, it kind of beads up, right? Probably you could see that on butter if you even spread it.
Elaine Khosrova: So it was used for that, especially in the different tents and sort of nomadic structures that they built.
Jason Feifer: Imagine the ancient real estate listing. Garden-level yurt, one bedroom, great views, covered in butter.
Jason Feifer: Oh, and that voice you heard was Elaine, our butter historian.
Elaine Khosrova:My name is Elaine Khosrova, and I'm the author of "Butter: A Rich History."
Jason Feifer: But despite being long beloved by eaters and yurt designers alike, Elaine says that butter had some serious downsides. So let's quickly talk about two of them.
Jason Feifer: First of all, it was really labor-intensive to produce, which made it expensive once we got into more urbanized economies when people weren't just making their own butter from their own cows. In fact, the price of butter basically doubled in Europe from 1850 to 1870.
Jason Feifer: Second, we're talking about an era before refrigeration. The average American didn't get a refrigerator until the 1930s. So even if you could afford to buy butter back in the late 1800s, you either have to use it really fast or risk that it goes bad. And for this same reason, it doesn't travel very well. And that, in fact, the traveling thing is why we have margarine today.
Jason Feifer: Because butter doesn't travel, and in 1869, Napoleon III was leading a French army who no doubt loved butter. I think we can assume that. But he knew that it wasn't exactly able to be schlepped onto the battlefield.
Elaine Khosrova: He was looking for a butter substitute that was not only cheaper than the real thing but also could travel well, because he wanted to use it to feed his troops, and he was anticipating a war with Prussia at the time.
Jason Feifer: So in 1869, Napoleon launched a contest. Whoever can create the best butter substitute wins. Woo!
Jason Feifer: A French scientist took first place with this crazy concoction made with... Well, here's the recipe from a video produced by the Science History Institute.
Voice Clip (Science History Institute): He heated finely-minced beef fat with potassium salts and fresh sheep's stomach and raised the temperature to 113 degrees Fahrenheit. Now the pepsin from the sheep's stomach combined with the heat to separate the beef fat from the cellular tissue. Then he added pressure to separate the softer oils from the stearin, mixed the resulting oil with milk, water, and annatto, that's the yellow food coloring derived from seeds of the achiote tree, and voila! Or abracadabra! Something that looked and tasted like butter!
Jason Feifer: Mm. You hungry yet? He called it olio margarine, a combination of Latin and Greek words that suggested an oily, pearl-covered substance.
Jason Feifer: The war with Prussia never actually came, but this butter substitute took off and quickly made its way over to America. Because remember, this solves butter's two biggest problems at the time. It was less expensive than butter, and it kept longer.
Jason Feifer: And this was really important, actually, at the time, because butter isn't just something that people just like to eat the way we like to eat it now. It is something that they were relying upon.
Megan Elias: If you're thinking about the early 19th-century, a working class person, what they had to eat was a crust of stale bread. And putting some kind of fat on that not only made it go down a little easier, but it also gave them something else, another nutrient that they weren't getting otherwise.
Jason Feifer: That's Megan Elias, the director of gastronomy at Boston University. And the point she makes is really worth pausing on because it forces us to look at the first margarine in a completely different context.
Jason Feifer: So maybe you, like me, were pretty grossed out by that margarine recipe, with its beef fat and sheep's stomach and whatever else. But we also live in a time where we are surrounded by fat. I mean, if you want fat today, all you have to do is stand still and open your mouth and Ronald McDonald will personally walk over and shove 33 grams of fat in your mouth. That's what's in a Big Mac, by the way.
Jason Feifer: So in response to all this, we've been taught to cut down on the fat from our diet.
Megan Elias: I mean, nutrition was so different from what it is today. There was so much less of everything. I'm skipping around a little bit here, but there are a lot of campaigns now to stop people from drinking so much milk. And for about 50 years, there were big campaigns to get people to drink more milk, and oh, children need milk.
Megan Elias: And the difference is that children have a lot of other access to protein now. But in the period when they start pushing milk, that might be your only, a kids' only source of protein in the day.
Jason Feifer: Right? So in an era when there's just so much less of everything, and you're relying upon that little bit of fat from the butter, and then you can't afford the butter, margarine and its fat just fills a need. It was useful.
Jason Feifer: Also, margarine happened to be introduced to America during a really interesting and revolutionary time in food. And it's important to understand this as well so that you can really appreciate what people of the time were seeing when they saw margarine.
Jason Feifer: So, okay. This is going to go on a bit of a diversion, but I promise it will circle back. So stay with me.
Jason Feifer: Okay, so, here we go. My wife Jen many years ago dated this guy from Alabama. Now you're really wondering how this is going to come back to the episode, but it is. All right, so this guy's mom gives Jen a cookbook from her church. And the cookbook is called "Heavenly Bites." And Jen hung onto it because it's this amazing cultural document. I actually have it right here. I'm just going to flip to something.
Jason Feifer: Okay. So the thing is, and I need to admit this right up front, my wife and I live in Brooklyn, and we shop at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. We're a stereotype, and we know it. We're not spending a lot of time in churches in Alabama. So this cookbook is a window into a totally alternative universe where, like, and then this is the thing, everything comes from a can, and it's loaded with fat. Everything in this cookbook is just coming from a can. Sometimes we flip through it and just gawk.
Jason Feifer: Read the apple cheese casserole recipe.
Jen Miller: Okay. One stick of margarine. One stick of butter. Eight ounces of Velveeta cheese. Three-fourths cup plain flour. And one can of sliced, unsweetened apples.
Jason Feifer: That was Jen, as you can imagine. And quick plug: We actually wrote a book. It's a novel called "Mr. Nice Guy." You should check it out.
Jason Feifer: Anyway, as we read through this cookbook, we think, what is going on here? Don't they have fresh food in Alabama? But rewind to the late 1800s, the same time as margarine is becoming popular, and you've got this other issue going on. Fresh fruits and vegetables are making people sick. The people then didn't realize it, but this was a fertilization problem.
Megan Elias: So night soil, which was the chamberpots, the contents of chamberpots was called night soil.
Jason Feifer: Okay, okay, wait. Let me just translate. Poop turned into fertilizer?
Megan Elias: Yeah. I mean, not even really turned into fertilizer. But people would take the chamberpots and dump them onto the fields.
Jason Feifer: Ah.
Jason Feifer: But it took a while for people to make the connection between night soil and getting sick from the food that grew from night soil. So as the nation became more industrialized, they turned to industrialized food for a solution.
Jason Feifer: The answer was canned food from factories where food could be trusted. And also, canned food meant that you could eat fruits and vegetables all year round and not just when they were in season in your area. So that meant that canned foods were actually pretty fancy.
Megan Elias: If you made a whole meal out of stuff that you got out of cans from a supermarket, or not even a supermarket at that point, but from your grocer, you were signaling that you had disposable income. And so what to us now looks like really kind of uninspired, trashy food, at the time was high status.
Jason Feifer: And from that grew recipes and habits that were beloved and passed down for generations and leads to the kind of stuff my wife and I find in that cookbook. Fascinating, right? And here we were just laughing at it. Canned egg in our face!
Jason Feifer: So this gives us a complete sense of the world into which margarine is entering. These people need a cheap source of fat that won't go bad, and they're increasingly welcoming of industrialized food as a way to solve very real health problems. And with all that said, you'd think everyone would be like, "Yay! Margarine!" Like they'd throw margarine a little margarine parade. But you know who wasn't happy?
Alex Guarnaschelli: The Subcommittee of the Butter and Cheese Exchange have recommended the passage have recommended the passage over the following resolutions in reference to the manufacture of artificial butter.
Jason Feifer: This is from the New York Times on May 2, 1874. The headline is "Artificial Butter." And the article is just a printing of this resolution that was drawn up by the Butter and Cheese Exchange, a local trade association, which it says had been quote on quote "urgently called to address this issue."
Jason Feifer: And by the way, that voice who was reading it, if you are a Food Network fan, you might have been thinking, hmm, sounds familiar.
Alex Guarnaschelli: Hi, my name is Alex Guarnaschelli. I'm an iron chef, a judge on Chopped, and the executive chef at Butter in New York City.
Jason Feifer: Oh, yeah. Could I have found anyone more perfect to read old quotes about butter?
Jason Feifer: Okay. So Alex is going to be reading some archival stuff for us, and then later on in the episode, we'll actually hear from Alex as Alex. But right now, here's Alex bringing us back to that resolution in 1874.
Alex Guarnaschelli: It is of the first importance that every effort be made by the trade, individually and as a body, to ensure the entire freedom from adulterants of the new crop, upon the purity of which depends the future of American butter as an article of export and indeed, the supremacy of the dairy in our agriculture.
Jason Feifer: In other words, it is time to shut this thing down.
Jason Feifer: The dairy thing was not about to go substituted without a fight. It started a marketing campaign aimed at politicians, claiming that margarine was unhelpful and that it was made from the fat of diseased animals. And then, like the good puppets they are, many politicians picked up the message and ran with it. Senate Joseph V. Quarles of Wisconsin, for example, said:
Voice Clip (Senator Joseph V. Quarles): I want butter that has the natural aroma of life and health. I decline to accept as a substitute caul fat, matured under the chill of death, blended with vegetable oils, and flavored by chemical tricks.
Jason Feifer: Now, not everybody was going full-on anti-margarine. In 1880, mocking the hysteria that the butter hysteria was trying to whip up, Harpers Weekly wrote that:
Voice Clip (Harpers Weekly): Affrighted epicures are informed that they are eating their old candle-ends and tallow-dip remnants in the guise of butter.
Jason Feifer: But the campaign worked. By the mid-1880s, 17 states had passed some kind of law to regulate butter, and seven states outright prohibited its manufacture and sale. And the dairy industry was just getting going, which was how in 1886, we make our way to the halls of Congress in Washington, D.C., where the House of Representatives is debating whether to, I think the correct term is to tax the shit out of margarine. Just make it so margarine that it's no longer a cheap substitute for butter.
Jason Feifer: And they're not even hiding the motive here. It's not one of those things where politicians are like, "This is going to be good for everyone." But it's really just a gift to some industry. Nah. Why even hide it? This is Representative William Price, a Republican of Wisconsin.
Voice Clip (Representative William Price): If I could have the kind of legislation that I want, it would not be a source of revenue, as I would make the tax so high that the operation of the law would utterly destroy the manufacture of all counterfeit butter and cheese, as I would destroy the manufacture of counterfeit coin or currency.
Jason Feifer: But Representative Price is of course from a state with a robust dairy industry. Congressmen from less dairy-focused states didn't take kindly to this argument. I went through the congressional record on this one because that's just the kind of history dork I am, and there's amazing stuff in there. Opponents just kept throwing in amendments to make a point, like one that would charge $10,000 to anyone who makes a glass egg, presumably because glass eggs would threaten actual eggs.
Jason Feifer: And then there's this delightful little speech from Rep. George Tillman, a Democrat from South Carolina. And yes, I'm going to say, the laughter you're going to hear is noted in the record.
Voice Clip (Rep. George Tillman): The public health needs no protection against olio margarine, which is a discovery of science for which the world ought to be grateful and proud.
Voice Clip (Rep. George Tillman): A-ha. You laugh, but you laugh from ignorance.
Voice Clip (Rep. George Tillman): Half of you do not even know how to pronounce the word.
Voice Clip (Rep. George Tillman): Why, when we were boys, we were taught that G before E, I, and Y has the soft sound like J, but before A, O, and U has the hard sound-
Jason Feifer: Wait, what? All right, let's stop that gag right there. Tillman goes on a while longer and eventually concludes by telling the assembled lawmakers that, quote, "You know about as much in regard to the materials and the method and processes of its manufacture and the science of chemistry involved in it as you know about the pronunciation" end quote.
Jason Feifer: And as I was reading this, and as you're listening to it, I'm sure we're all thinking the same thing, which is, wait. How were they saying margarine back then? Is Tillman saying it the way we know now, or is he saying something else?
Jason Feifer: So that's why I called this guy.
Dan Jurafsky: My name is Dan Jurafsky. I'm a professor at Stanford University, and I'm chair of the Linguistics Department here.
Jason Feifer: I read Dan the transcript of Tillman scolding lawmakers over the pronunciation, and he said, yeah. The original pronunciation of margarine was different from what we know today. It sounded like this:
Dan Jurafsky: Margarine.
Dan Jurafsky: Actually, it's complicated. We don't know if it was margarine or margarine.
Jason Feifer: How about that? Though, Dan told me this isn't actually an especially remarkable thing. The way we pronounce and even spell a lot of our food and words changes across time.
Jason Feifer: For example, allow me another tangent. I guess this is, the pronunciation thing is already a tangent, so allow me a tangent from a tangent. You know how ketchup has two spellings? There's catsup, like C-A-T, and then there's ketchup with a K. Now, want to know why?
Dan Jurafsky: Ketchup, it turns out to come from Chinese. It's a Chinese word originally. And probably in Chinese, it was pronounced ganzup or something. And the British, when they got to Asia, it was actually in Indonesia, not in China, but they ran into ethnic Chinese sellers of fish sauce, which is what ketchup originally was.
Dan Jurafsky: And my best guess is that the Portuguese spelled it catsup with a C, and the Dutch spelled it ketchup with a K, and the British got it from both of them. And we kind of had both spellings. And they went back and forth in popularity, which one was more popular, for a long time. The American spelling was catsup with a C, and the British spelling was ketchup with a K.
Dan Jurafsky: And then for complicated, I think branding reasons, Heinz picked ketchup with a K to make themselves be more distinct, and they turned out to be the ketchup that ended up dominating the market, and so American spelling just changed.
Jason Feifer: Fun, right? Okay. End of tangent. We are now back to Congress passing a tax law. The tax law gets passed in 1886. What's known as the Olio Margarine, or I guess the Olio Margarine Act, is passed, which adds a two-cent per pound tax on the stuff and steep annual licensing fees for any manufacturer, wholesaler, or retailer who deals in margarine. Margarine.
Jason Feifer: President Grover Cleveland signs the bill 10 days later. The dairy lobbyists go on to celebrate the traditional way, which of course is to cover the outside of their yurts in butter. But is the dairy industry done? No.
Jason Feifer: Next up, a state-by-state campaign to stop margarine from being dyed yellow. The dairy industry wants to make sure margarine doesn't even look like butter, that there is no confusion.
Jason Feifer: A lot of states go along, banning margarine from being dyed yellow. And a few states go even further and mandate that margarine is dyed pink, red, brown, or black so that it looks as unappetizing as possible.
Jason Feifer: Now, is any of this legal? Good question. That makes its way all the way up to the Supreme Court in 1898, and the Court makes a ruling. Yes, you are allowed to ban margarine from being dyed yellow. But no, you can't mandate that it's colored anything else. So that's how, for much of America, margarine would become known as this pasty, white substance. It was just banned from being yellow in a lot of states.
Jason Feifer: But the margarine industry had a clever way to fight back. And before we get into that, let's pause for a moment to consider just what the hell happened. Like, what? What did we just witness here? Remember the context. Butter was expensive, and many people lacked fat in their diets, which meant that margarine was an affordable and nutritionally valued solution. It solved a genuine problem.
Jason Feifer: And then, both the federal and many state governments stepped in and said, no. If butter is going to be expensive, then margarine is going to be expensive, too. And for good measure, it's going to be pink.
Jason Feifer: This is the reason I wanted to do this episode, to be honest with you. Pessimists Archive is about understanding the opposition to innovation. And this moment right here with the butter industry and the government colluding to stall innovation in the food industry captures a recurring problem. And it has a name, in fact. Regulatory capture. And I found someone who knows it well.
Robert Galati: My name is Robert Galati, and I'm assistant professor here at the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago.
Jason Feifer: So when I explained the whole margarine situation to Robert, he said, yeah. That fits pretty neatly into how major industries see regulation.
Jason Feifer: It's funny. We usually think of big business as opposed to regulation. It's become kind of a political religion, right? No regulation. Down with regulation. Donald Trump keeps bragging about how many regulations he's eliminating. But in truth, Robert says, big industries often advocate for regulations. And not just of the butter/ margarine type.
Robert Galati: While you might think that the big companies that are engaged, like the multi-nationals are engaged in international trade, where most of the trade is being done by these multi-nationals would advocate for lower barriers, they actually see in many cases, in many instances, a push for stricter regulations.
Jason Feifer: For example, a big federal food safety act from 2009. Major food companies endorsed it. You know why? Because they could afford the fixed cost of upgrading their food safety processes, and their smaller competitors wouldn't be able to. So it's like, "Yeah, yeah, sure. Regulate us. We want to be regulated." And this creates a symbiotic relationship with politicians and industries acting in concert to stop small innovators from disrupting.
Jason Feifer:So the important question now is, how does this blockage get broken? You have two powerful entities teaming up to stop innovation, which seems like a hard thing to overcome. But Robert's answer is an optimistic one. And it basically goes like this: Everything is cyclical.
Robert Galati: If you have constituents that are being hurt by a barrier to business, that creates opportunities in the political context for new entrepreneurs, basically political entrepreneurs, to oppose that regulation by arguing in favor of the people that are being excluded.
Jason Feifer: So how did margarine get out from all of this? Because today, spoiler alert, we don't have high taxes on margarine, and, bing bing bing, it's available in yellow form in all 50 states.
Jason Feifer: As best I can tell, three big things changed between then and now, which we should look at. First, there was a crisis. Second, there was a health scare. And third, and I think most interesting, there was a change in culture.
Jason Feifer: All right. First, the crisis. This one's straightforward.
Elaine Khosrova: When we decided to enter World War II, suddenly, all that went away, and margarine was welcomed into the marketplace because there was so little butter around.
Jason Feifer: Taxes that had been in place for decades were suddenly lifted. It's like, "Oh, hey, margarine. Boy, it's been a while. Listen, I'm throwing this party over here. I got a lot of people who can't get any butter. And gosh, it'd just be so great if you could come by. Thanks!"
Jason Feifer: So that's that. War equals butter shortage equals no more taxes on margarine.
Jason Feifer: And the second change was a health scare. Margarine had eventually stopped being beef fat, of course, and it started being made from vegetable oil.
Elaine Khosrova: In the '50's, '60's, when people started to freak out about heart disease and saturated fat and animal fat, and suddenly, then margarine was elevated to this really high status because it was, oh my gosh, it's made with vegetable oil. It much be must better for us than butter.
Jason Feifer: This of course becomes a complicated story. Eventually, the science would flip back and find that butter has a lot of healthy benefits, and margarine was unhealthy. But for decades, consumer consumption totally swapped, and Americans consumed more margarine than butter. It wasn't until the past decade that butter consumption passed margarine again. Now, fun fact, the average American eats nearly six pounds of butter a year.
Jason Feifer: But the third change is by far the most interesting. A shift in culture following World War II.
Jason Feifer: So first to understand this, let's get situated in the moment. If you turned on the TV in the '50's, you'd have seen dueling commercials for margarine and butter. And the two of them were like people who used to date and still can't help but talk about one and the other, but they refuse to actually acknowledge it. You know what I'm talking about. Don't deny it.
Jason Feifer: So, all right. Check out this butter commercial.
Voice Clip (butter commercial): Just like milk belongs on your family table, so does butter. Yes, just like milk, real butter belongs on your family table. Because butter makes everything better.
Jason Feifer: It's like they're subliminally screaming, "Margarine isn't made with milk!" Margarine isn't made with milk!" But they don't say margarine, do they? Of course, they won't use the enemy's name. And here's how margarine advertised itself.
Voice Clip (Imperial ad): I used to use two different kinds of spread. One for the table, the other for the kitchen. But now, I use Imperial exclusively. Because Imperial gives me the best of both.
Jason Feifer: So, okay. We've got a battle of the spreads. And although the tax laws had been appealed, of course, after World War II, there were still many states that were forbidding margarine from being sold yellow.
Jason Feifer: Now, remember earlier, I said that the margarine industry had a clever way to fight back against that. Here it is. The margarine industry would sell white margarine along with a little packet of yellow food dye that people were supposed to mix in.
Jason Feifer: Because that technically followed the law. The government can stop margarine manufacturers from selling yellow product, but they can't stop consumers from dying it yellow themselves. And here's the thing: People actually came to enjoy this little ritual.
Jason Feifer: Here for example is this wonderful little bit from an essay by the writer Audre Lorde. I asked by friend Ali Drucker, the sex editor at Cosmopolitan.com, to read it for reasons you'll eventually understand.
Voice Clip (Ali Drucker): During World War II, we bought sealed plastic packets of white, uncolored margarine, with a tiny, intense pellet of yellow coloring perched like a topaz just inside the clear skin of the bag. We would leave the margarine out for a while to soften, and then we would pinch the little pellet to break it inside the bag, releasing the rich yellowness into the soft pale mass of margarine. Then, taking it carefully between our fingers, we would knead it gently back and forth, over and over, until the color had spread throughout the whole pound bag of margarine, thoroughly coloring it.
Voice Clip (Ali Drucker): I find the erotic such a kernel within myself. When released from its intense and constrained pellet, it flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience.
Jason Feifer: That thing really takes a turn, huh? Eat your heart out, butter. And it gets even worse for that natural spread. When our butter historian Elaine Khosrova was out touring for her book, she had a recurring and really fascinating experience.
Elaine Khosrova: Elders in some of the audiences that I spoke to who remember mixing that little capsule, and they thought at the time they were making butter. That they were mixing the capsule into the margarine, and they were like, "Yeah. My mother would tell me to make the butter, and that's what I would do."
Jason Feifer: Oh, that's so fascinating.
Elaine Khosrova: Yeah.
Jason Feifer: So they didn't think of it... Because the margarine industry was basically like yeah, screw you, government. We're going to give people yellow food coloring. But that level of resistance didn't translate down to the consumer. They just thought they were making butter.
Elaine Khosrova: Well, no. I think the parents knew it wasn't real butter. They bought it. But the kids grew up. This is a generation possibly growing up with the idea that butter was the right thing that you mixed yellow color into.
Elaine Khosrova: There was one man who was adamant, I remember, in the audience. He was like, "No, I used to make butter by doing this such and such," and I was like, no, I'm sorry, but that wasn't really butter.
Jason Feifer: It's a total delicious backfire. That law was designed to stop margarine from looking like butter, but it taught a generation of kids that margarine could be transformed into butter. And this brings us back to where we began this episode, in Wisconsin.
Jason Feifer: Remember John, the guy whose mom snuck margarine into cookies she served her butter-loving husband and son? By the 1960s, Wisconsin was the very last state in America to still ban margarine from being colored yellow, which is what was sending Wisconsinites to sneak into other states to buy it.
Jason Feifer: But butter's hold in the state was starting to crack. First, in 1965, a state senator tried to repeal the law, though a bunch of his colleagues opposed it. So this guy proposed a blindfold taste test, asking if his butter-loving colleagues could actually tell the difference between butter and margarine. Amazingly, 28 lawmakers agreed to participate in this. And on the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal the next day, on June 24, 1965, the results were revealed with this headline:
Voice Clip (Wisconsin State Journal): Senator Roseleip, leading olio foe, fails blindfold test on butter.
Jason Feifer: Remember back then, people still regularly used the word olio instead of margarine. The story said that of 28 lawmakers, 24 correctly identified butter. But Roseleip was a particular kind of blowhard, and so when we ate a bite of grade A Wisconsin butter and then said, "That's olio," and that's a direct quote, by the way, the moment immediately became infamous.
Jason Feifer: Decades later, after his death, the story would get slightly sad. His family revealed that they'd been secretly giving him margarine and telling him it was butter for years because they thought it was better for his health. Oh, Senator Roseleip.
Jason Feifer: Anyway, the law was repealed two years later in 1967 and replaced with this silly new law.
Dale Kooyenga: Every single restaurant has to have butter available. You cannot, it's against the law in Wisconsin to go to a restaurant and they just have margarine on the table. They just have margarine in the table. You could go to jail for 90 days.
Jason Feifer: That's Dale Kooyenga, a current state representative in Wisconsin. And that law he's talking about is still on the books, by the way. Today. It's not actually enforced, and there's no evidence that anyone's ever gone to jail over it, but it's there on the books. And that is much to Dale's frustration, because in 2011, he tried to repeal the law, and it kicked up a hell of a political storm.
Voice Clip: This is Wisconsin!
Jason Feifer: That was Sly in the Morning in Wisconsin. They went on forever... You got the gist, that one second.
Jason Feifer: Anyway, to be clear, Dale is a butter guy. He is not eating margarine. But before getting into politics, Dale was in the military and served in Iraq and watched the effort there to rebuild the rule of law. One of his main takeaways was that the rule of law has to be respected. Like, the laws have to make sense to people. And for them to make sense, they need to be simple and logical.
Dale Kooyenga: And so we all get a good laugh. Myself. We all get a good laugh about a law like that. But what it does is when you have a series of silly laws, what that does over time is it really erodes the rule of law, where people look at the law as a joke and as something that can be enforced but can't be enforced.
Dale Kooyenga: And so I think legislative bodies across the country have, and definitely the federal government as well, have the responsibility to go through their laws and say, does this law still make sense?
Jason Feifer: But Dale ultimately failed. He couldn't get enough of his colleagues to vote for the repeal. Cold logic and an academic argument about the rule of law was just no match for the political risks of doing something pro-margarine in Wisconsin. And this, Dale says, is the risk of bad laws. Once they're on the books, they're hard to scrub away.
Jason Feifer: So what are we to make of all this? And I don't mean just Wisconsin. I mean all of it. The whole margarine thing, top to bottom. Honestly, as I reported this episode, I was torn. My instinct is to root for margarine because it's the newcomer. It's the innovation. And that's what I want to see more of. I want to see innovation and change and new ideas. But then again, margarine today is proven to be less healthy than butter. So what exactly am I rooting for here? And also, frankly, I'm a butter eater. I can't remember the last time I had margarine. So what's the point of it all?
Jason Feifer: As I pondered this, I happened to be the emcee of a business conference in Wisconsin. So I was standing on stage in front of a few hundred Wisconsinites, and I asked them by a show of hands how many preferred butter over margarine. Every single hand went up in the room, of course.
Jason Feifer: But then, something really interesting happened. After the event, I got chatting with two teenagers who were there. And so I told them, I have a very important question.
Jason Feifer: Do you hate margarine?
Voice Clip: Honestly, I prefer butter, but I'm not aggressively against margarine. Like if someone substituted, I don't know if I would notice.
Jason Feifer: What do you think?
Voice Clip: I don't like margarine at all. So yes, I hate margarine.
Jason Feifer: Do you hate margarine because you just don't like eating margarine? Or do you feel like, protective of butter because you're in Wisconsin?
Voice Clip: I think I'm protective of butter.
Voice Clip: See, I've never known Wisconsin to be a super pro-butter state. But also, here's the thing. Margarine? Gross word. Butter? Super-satisfying, cozy word.
Jason Feifer: This crystallized it for me right there. The story of margarine is an optimistic one. Consider the advantages that butter had. It had been part of human history for countless thousands of years. As an industry in the 1800s, it was powerful enough to sway the federal and most state governments to protect it. And yes, though that protectionism held for a long time, it couldn't hold forever. When you halt innovation, you create a movement of people who demand that innovation. And when you pass laws to stop a competitor, the competitor evolves and adjusts.
Jason Feifer: And eventually, finally, finally, finally, we reach a point where the old thing and the new thing can just be evaluated on their own merits. When the next generation of consumers can be totally free of restrictions and ignorant of the nonsense that came before them and just put two things up against each other and decide which one they like more.
Jason Feifer: Butter didn't want a fair fight, but it eventually lost and got one. And then, butter won the fight. So it's fair to say that butter lost and won, and we're all better for it.
Jason Feifer: And that's our episode. But it is not the end of fun with butter. Stay with me in just a second. I'm going to play for you this great story that Alex Guarnaschelli told me about butter, which is going to change your pastry eating habits forever. I am serious about that.
Jason Feifer: But first, if you love this podcast and you haven't subscribed, please, please, please do yourself and us a favor and subscribe right now on your podcast platform of choice. Just search Pessimists Archive. We always also love to hear from you. We are on Twitter @PessmistsArc. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And we're online at pessimists.co, where you can find links to many of the things you heard on this episode.
Jason Feifer: And I have got more credits to roll. But first, as I promised, here's Alex.
Alex Guarnaschelli: My little anecdote about butter is, my little story is that I lived and worked in a Parisian restaurant for many years, Guy Savoy, which was in the 17th arrondissement. And I worked there for over six years, almost seven years. But after about two years, the chef de cuisine agreed to allow me to become the fish butcher. Which may not sound very chic to you, but it was the ultimate job for me, and one that I coveted the whole time I worked there.
Alex Guarnaschelli: But I was nervous, and I had to lie to get the job, like most good things. And so I told him, the chef, that I had butchered a lot of fish. I mean, many, many fish. I think I told him I lived on a fishing boat for years. I think I told him that I was born with a can of sardines in my mouth. Whatever I said. I fabricated this idea and painted myself as a great butcher when in fact I had absolutely no experience.
Alex Guarnaschelli: So the first few months of taking over this new job were really rough for me because I was learning how to cut fish. One fifty-pound turbot gets delivered. If you cut it wrong, it's not like you can say "oops" and go cut another. So I would arrive at the restaurant extremely early so I would have hours and hours of extra time to slowly, painstakingly cut every piece of fish.
Alex Guarnaschelli: Needless to say, one day I had a ton of salmon to cut for a really big party. So I woke up. I overslept, and I was in a sweaty panic with the sheet marks still on my face, and I ran down the street, and I jumped on the bus. And I got to the restaurant in my pajamas, and it was closed. And I just couldn't figure out why. So I sort of wandered down the block confused, trying to figure out why the restaurant was closed. And the only thing that was open was this little pastry shop, this little boulangerie. And they did both bread and pastries.
Alex Guarnaschelli: So I went in and I said, "oh my God, what happened? I'm here to work at the restaurant." And they said, "Well, it's 3:00 a.m." If you're listening to this story and you've ever done what I've just done, you know that what I in fact did was sort of confuse night for day in my panic and woke up at midnight thinking it was 6:00 a.m. and ran all the way across town.
Alex Guarnaschelli: So I ended up with over three hours of free time to kill, so I bought a croissant. And it was curved, as most were. My memory of a croissant was always that shape, that crescent, curved, half moon-like shape. I ate it. It was good. But I noticed that they had these other croissant that were straight. They weren't curved. So I bought one of those and ate that, too.
Alex Guarnaschelli: Both were delicious, but the straight one was uniquely good. Just better. I don't know how. Sometimes one thing is just better than the other. Turns out, so I asked him, "Why do you have different shaped croissant?" And he said, "Well, the curved ones are made with a butter substitute, and the straight ones are made with butter." And I said, "Is that always true?" And he said, "Yes, that's actually an indicator in Paris for the different croissant."
Alex Guarnaschelli: So I think it's interesting that the one, the straight one, who's on the straight and narrow and is delicious, is made with butter, and the crescent shape, curved, sort of sinister one is not. And there is my story about butter.
Jason Feifer: See, I told you. Changing your pastry eating habits forever. Thanks again to the people you heard today. That's John Munson, Elaine Khosrova, Megan Elias, Dan Jurafsky, Robert Galati, Ali Drucker. Thanks also to Lee Grady at the Wisconsin Historical Society, to Biz 360, the event in Wisconsin I spoke at, and of course, to the teenagers I talked to afterwards. Their names are:""
Voice Clip: Olivia Patterson, 17 years old, Delavan, Wisconsin.
Voice Clip: Giovanni Cruz, 18 years old, Delavan, Wisconsin.
Jason Feifer: Our theme music is by Caspar Babypants, and you can learn more at babypantsmusic.com. The other music you heard in this episode is by Lee Rosevere, Jahzzar, Tri-Tachyon, Art of Escapism, and the Joy Drops.
Jason Feifer: Pessimists Archive team is Louis Anslow, Chris Cornellus, and a big shout-out to our newest member, Elizabeth Briar.
Jason Feifer: Thanks again for listening. I'm Jason Feifer, and we'll see you in the near future.
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.