It was a youthful passion, strong and true. And in a story as old as the hills, my father tried to break us up: me and my first love. Butter.
My grandmother had introduced us. She was a tiny Dutch woman with a morose outlook and a way with dough. Possibly realizing that visits to her house were nearly intolerable, she made sure to ply us with rich cookies and flaky pastries when we came. She knew the power of buttery baked goods. Mention margarine, and her eyebrows would fly up in disgust.
Her daughter — my mother — was a chip off the old block where butter was concerned. And so, it turned out, was I. The taste of the stuff proved irresistible. I loved its every texture: shatteringly hard, unctuously creamy, blisteringly liquid. There was almost no food that butter could not improve. I put it — lots of it — on whatever seemed acceptable. At some point, I moved beyond the acceptable. It might have been the night my father was tsk-tsking over a relative’s notoriously self-indulgent eating habits. “I have seen your Uncle Allen,” he announced gravely, clearly expecting to horrify us, “put butter on his steak.” I was dazzled. Decades later, I learned about compound butters, often served with meat. To my 8-year-old self, it just seemed like my uncle was some kind of culinary mad genius.
My dad was a thrifty sort, and the day he determined that we could save money by switching to margarine, he ordered the change. That didn’t sit well with my mom, who declared that regardless of what he wanted everyone else to eat, she, for one, was going to eat butter.
From then on, the margarine dish occupied the center of the dinner table and the butter dish was parked at my mother’s elbow, which also happened to be next to mine. She slathered butter on her mashed potatoes and dinner rolls. I did, too, escaping my father’s notice. Until, one day, he noticed.
“Jane, I want you to eat this margarine,” he said sternly. “There’s no difference between margarine and butter. It tastes just the same.”
No one was allowed to contradict my father, so I proceeded cautiously.
“I think I can tell the difference,” I ventured.
A deal was struck. If I could tell margarine from butter, I would be allowed to eat from the butter plate.
Two saltines were fetched. Butter was spread on one, margarine on the other. I was blindfolded. I chewed the first cracker, then the second. There was no doubt in my mind.
“That’s butter,” I declared. “The second one.”
I pulled off the blindfold to see my father looking amazed. “You’re right,” he said, a little sadly. It was possibly the first and last argument he ever let me win.
So many first loves fizzle and die. Mine did not, though it has wavered. Often, I’ll admit, I am seduced by cream. That rich taste, that sensuous mouth feel — ah, but I can’t feel guilty about it. Butter is made from cream, right? So it’s really not cheating at all.