Sunday, May 31, 2009

Butter II

Author and researcher extraordinaire Margaret Vissar was born in South Africa and went to schools in Zambia, Zimbabwe, France and Canada where she now lives. She has written books on social rituals, fate and an "ordinary church" as well as "Much Depends on Dinner." Some gleanings...

The Potato Famine came to Ireland and butter (used on potatoes, porridge, bread) became scarce (mainly because the cows were dying of starvation.) It became a mark of Christian charity to offer a guest a bit of butter for his or her bread. So widespread was this practice that one Neidh O'Mulconry's tombstone called him "the head of the inhospitality of Ireland" because he vowed often and publicly that he'd never give bread and butter together to guests.

The Irish, Norse, Finns, Icelanders and Scots all flavored butter with garlic, crammed it into a wooden firkin* and buried it in the bogs. It was usual to plant a tree above your firkin of butter so that you could find it again, years later.

In Morocco they knead butter with various spice and herbs; then cook it, salt it, strain it and store it in stoppered jugs. Each family takes pride in their ability to produce a fiine-smelling "smen" (butter) and occasionally a guest will be allowed the honor of sniffing it. Otherwise it is saved for gala occasions such as a wedding.

Butter, being plentiful (except in winter) was for the lower classes; the nobility might use a bit in a sauce, but otherwise ... 'Peasant food, dahling." And, for their snobbery, they suffered from vitamin A deficiency and got bladder and kidney stones for their pains. Today, the rich will eat a little fat -- but never enough to make them fat.

At our house? Company gets "real" butter; we use a substitute. But if you want to cheer up a bowl of tomato soup -- throw a cube of butter into it. You have peasant food (the soup - I've bought Campbell's Cream of Tomato soup for as little as 10 cents a can) and the elite's butter. Best of both worlds, you might say.

*Firkin is 1/4th of a full-sized barrel. Butter, measured by the amount in a firkin, equals 56 lbs. Firkins themselves are wooden buckets with a handle and lid.

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