The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Oleo or Butter

By Emily L. Moore © 1987

Issue: October, 1987

Editor's Note: While this is not a recipe, it will provide an insight for another generation of cooks, of just how much things have changed.

Rob and his sister lived on a farm with their parents. His father kept two cows to supply the family with fresh milk and cream. His mother saved a lot of cream to make butter.

"Butter tastes so much better than oleo," the children said. "Oleo tastes gritty. Butter is smooth."

The oleomargarine wasn't as good as today's spread. Oleo came in a cellophane pouch with a tiny gelatin bead of orange color.

"Mama, can I squeeze the package?" shouted Rob. "I like to squish the color through it."

His younger sister, Beulah, interrupted, "No, you did it last time. I want a turn."

"Wait, children," spoke their mother. "If you are going to quarrel over it, I won't let either of you do the squeezing. I'll do it myself. Besides, I'm sure God doesn't like quarreling." Saying that, she picked up the cellophane package and began to squeeze the soft stuff.

"Mama," softly said Rob, "Beulah can have her turn. I'll wait till next time."

"That's good, Rob. No more quarreling."

Beulah, age seven, enjoyed herself as she pushed and kneaded the little gelatin pill and squeezed orange color all through the package of oleo. When someone squeezed too hard, one end of the flimsy cellophane broke, letting all that greasy stuff slide out of the pouch. Usually, this happened before the color had mixed completely. "Mama, the bag just broke. I need a bowl quick. It's going on the table and I can't stop it," called Beulah.

"O.K., here's a big bowl and a spoon," replied mother as she hurried to save the oleo.

In a family of four people, they used perhaps three pounds of oleo per week, so it seemed that there was always the job of turning the oleo yellow. The orange bead, when mixed with the almost white oleomargarine, turned the whole pound yellow, not orange. Oleomargarine without the artificial color, was about the color of lard, except for the salty taste. It was much cheaper to use than butter. Still, butter had such a beautiful taste.

Butter, in those early years of Rob and Beulah's life, also had to be made at home. Bought butter was not an item on their farm shopping list.

"Mama, are you going to make butter today?" inquired Rob. He enjoyed helping because he got a chance to drink some sweet buttermilk right from the churn. "It tastes great," Rob would tell his friends. "I like it because it's fresh and creamy."

On Saturday morning, Rob's mother got her wooden churn out of the closet and washed it in hot water. This let the wooden walls swell so it didn't leak. It was shaped like a two–foot vase with a paddle in the center. The churn was about ten inches around, with a rod across the top which let the paddle move up and down when someone worked with it. As this central paddle beat up and down in the thick, rich cream, it gradually caused the cream to solidify and form lovely yellow butter. There was a whey that surrounded the butter and this was called buttermilk. It was a far cry from that which is called buttermilk today.

Rob and Beulah's mother seldom shaped their butter into oblong portions like today's butter. She usually scooped it into some big round bowls and stored these in her ice chest, after covering them with thick wax paper.

"Um–h–h. Butter like this is so good," Beulah told her mother as she spread some on a slice of homemade bread. "I wish we could have this all the time instead of that other stuff."

Still, the family made good use of 'that other stuff' and appreciated those special times when golden butter was a big part of their meals.

Oleo today has become a household word. There is some controversy over which is better for you – oleo or butter. Even doctors don't agree.