If the history of butter were told as a novel, its story would be as epic and gripping as any tale written by Shakespeare. A beloved hero/heroine begins a journey of most celebrated status. Butter once offered to gods of many varying religions, gifted as a prized possession for newlywed couples as a symbol of fertility and longevity, used in rituals, and considered the most sacred dish in the ancient world, became chastised, rebuked and nearly destroyed by gossip, misinformation, and greed in the 20th century, only to find itself being rediscovered and saved from death by a new generation seeking purity and simplicity as well as the truth in a new millennium.
Butter began its journey from the ancient world some 10,000 years ago, cultured from the earliest domesticated animals. Sheep, yaks, and goats provided sustenance for many a shepherd and wayfaring tribes across Asia to the North African continents long before cows were a domesticated species. And though the exact story of how milk became butter is little known, it is believed that as tribes wandered the land in search of food, shelter and safety, hind skins from animals were tied and filled with milk before straddling a horse or donkey in the journey. As the animal bustled along, it is thought the constant jostling made the curdled milk that became butter.
The Holy Bible contains many references to butter, or, “chemah,” as it is known in Hebrew. Genesis 18:1-8 tells the story of Abraham being visited by three strangers, thought by many bible scholars to be God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and is told he will be the father of nations and Sarah in her old age will give birth, it is a meal of bread and curds offered to the three visitors.
In India and Tibet, Hindus often use ghee, clarified butter, in religious ceremonies such as weddings as a blessing for the couple. The Hindu god, Krishna, is often depicted as eating from a vessel flowing with butter. Hindus today still give butter as an offering to Krishna.
However, the Romans considered butter a dish of barbarous peoples and they would not partake of the dish. They did value butter as a cosmetic and healing balm noting that it held such properties and rubbed it into their skin and over their lips, in doing so I’m sure they licked it from lips and thus enjoyed the silky creaminess of butter despite their protests as a meal not fit for their own people.
So, if butter was so celebrated, how did it fall from grace? Enter the 20th century, mechanization and two world wars. Food rationing made everyone look for alternatives to the daily staples they had come to depend upon and were a part of daily life. Scientists found they could produce a vegetable oil substitute in the forms of margarine and shortening and it would be less expensive than butter. It didn’t take long for advertising and campaigns about the benefits of these newer, cheaper products to sweep across North America and as families struggled to make their dollar stretch further, margarine and shortening must have appeared as a godsend. Producers of vegetable oil were getting richer and dairy farmers were getting poorer. Soon, margarine was touted as the “healthy” choice in place of butter. And by the eighties, the health and fitness craze made butter a dirty word. Butter was on the verge of extinction.
Thank goodness butter is making a comeback! Science has taught us the margarines and shortenings we were told was so good for us, contains more of those pesky trans fats we are supposed to be avoiding. Butter is filled with huge amounts of vitamin A, in addition to vitamins D, E, and K. Along with the minerals chromium, copper, iodine, manganese, selenium, and zinc, butter is filled with the necessary nutrients our bodies need to maintain health. The picture below gives an idea of the added chemicals and only a scant 10% vitamin A added to margarine as opossed to butter with a vitamin A content of 97%. Though it is important to note here, that doesn’t mean everyone should begin consuming butter in mass quantity. Butter is still a product of animal fats and though it is healthier than margarine or shortening, it is always best to consume them in moderation. Certainly, if you are advised by your doctor to limit your intake of fatty foods, check with your doctor before adding butter to your diet.
As an amateur baker, I find myself using butter more regularly. My family history is filled with heart related issues and I know it is best to pay careful attention to my diet even though I love those sweet treats I bake up. I even prefer to make my own butter using heavy whipping cream, though fresh cream is best. I am still looking for a local source. I think when we look at butter more closely and see the evidence of people around the world thriving on butter, we need to examine our ‘western” ideas of what once held a reputation of highest esteem, could become so tarnished by expediency and greed, is now making a comeback. Our hero/heroine has survived! I wonder if Hollywood is interested? Probably not, after all, it’s the story of butter…not hemp.