Beautiful Butter

By Terri Karsten

A hundred years ago, it would be hard to find a kitchen without a butter mold, either handmade or purchased from Sears and Roebuck catalog. For under a dollar, any respectable household could serve decorative butter, a simple way to make the whole meal fancy.

This butter mold reminds us of a time when butter was celebrated not scorned. Two hundred years ago, butter was a staple of the Midwest diet, with individuals eating up to eighteen pounds of butter a year. Indeed, people have been happily eating butter for thousands of years, until the war on butter began, with margarine, oil and abstinence the main competitors. As early as 1855, the NY Times published an article condemning butter in favor of oil. The debate rages on today, even as fashions in eating change. Butter, a ‘natural’ food with only one ingredient, is once again gaining popularity over margarine, which has many highly processed ingredients, some of which are not even recognizable as food. But health concerns aside, butter is certainly more elegant when molded.

Since ancient times in Babylon, Greece, and Rome, food has doubled as art at the tables of the wealthy. In the Renaissance, fancy centerpieces were molded out of various foods, including butter.   One feast in 1536 lists butter sculptures of an elephant and a camel. In the United States the art of sculpting butter soared in the late 19th century, advertising the burgeoning dairy industry. Not surprisingly, Wisconsin had a life-sized butter cow at the state fair in the early 20th century.

While colossal butter art reigned at state fairs, individual ornamental butter remained important. As early as the 18th century, printed butters became common in middle and upper class homes. Until the 1880’s most butter was manufactured on small farms, and most dairymaids (butter making, shaping and selling was considered women’s work) stamped their butter with flowers or other decorations. Like so many kitchen arts, molding butter has practical as well as aesthetic value. The shape printed on the butter identifies the maker and adds uniformity to the product.

Molded butter is both novel and ephemeral. Today, one decorative pat of butter contains about 36 calories and thousands of years of tradition. Not bad for a teaspoon of solid fat.

This article was originally featured in the La Crosse Tribune.