How the French ruined Cooking : Margarine

At the 1866 Paris World Exhibition, Emperor Louis Napoleon III of France offered to sponsor research to develop a cheap replacement for butter. He had his reasons. Some will say that it was his attempt to help the lower classes get their recommended allotment of fat into their diet, and his concern for the poor (most notably documented in his book Extinction du paupérisme’). But don’t discount the high costs of butter that accrued when trying to feed his army. Like many emperors, he was keen on proving France’s military might, but armies don’t run on willpower. Any money saved in butter was a money that could be spend on guns.

The French food chemist Hippolyte Mège-MouriésMege-Mouiries responded to the challenge and invented oleomargarine. He did so by combining the extracted liquid of beef suet with milk. The result? A spreadable (and notably gray) fat.

As quickly as the spread took off world-wide, it still managed to upset both governments and established food industries. Laws were created to prevent margarine makers from adding yellow food coloring. The Dairy Industry helped shape a tax upon the spread that kept its price artificially high. Rumors of despicable production practices and reports of its harm to people’s health made the rounds. In short, it was treated in the same way that many other industrial food products are treated today. I’ll leave it up to you on whether that’s a good thing or not.

When the Depression occurred, butter prices rose and stayed high throughout World War II. It was only then that the margarine tax, and other related regulations were recinded (’twas about that time that margarine started becoming yellow).

At some point, beef fat was replaced by vegetable oil, most likely oil from soybeans. The process of converting soy oil to margarine was/is so profitable that it’s difficult to find a margarine not made with soy.Which means the term “soy margarine” is, at best, a redundancy, and at worst, playing off of consumer’s ignorance.

It’s the social response to margarine’s introduction which I find so interesting. If I were to pick one food that brought us into the industrial age of food, I would pick margarine, both for its production as well as the response to it.

*The title of this post should not be taken too seriously. I simply find it ironic that it was the proud French, with their rich culinary tradition (of which there is ample evidence) who brought forth this product that has been so reviled by some.

tags technorati : Food History Margarine

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