Battle of the Bread Spreads

November 18, 2010

A brochure created in the 1930s to encourage consumption of Wisconsin butter. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

In the 1950s and 60s, Wisconsin had a smuggling problem so widespread that state officials all but looked the other way. The contraband in question–not drugs or weapons, as you might guess–was margarine. Yellow margarine, to be precise.

Dairy farmers took the late 19th century introduction of margarine to the Midwestern marketplace personally: many viewed the product as unwholesome and (when colored to resemble butter) downright fraudulent, an industrial threat to the agrarian lifestyle. That perceived threat initiated a battle of the bread spreads that would last decades, with dairy interests typically prevailing. For years margarine, primarily the colored variety, was taxed and regulated by both federal and state governments. And no state fought longer or harder to edge out its oleaginous opponent than Wisconsin, which by 1915 had staked its claim as the nation’s Dairy State. Between 1895 and 1967, using colored margarine here was a crime, punishable by fines and/or imprisonment.

Historian Gerry Strey chronicles the epic butter/margarine conflict in an article called Oleo Wars: Wisconsin’s Fight Over the Demon Spread, which I found in a back issue of The Wisconsin Magazine of History. As Strey tells it, emotions ran high among dairy sympathizers of the day. One of the more famous examples of their collective frustration occurred in 1931, when farmers marched on the State Capitol in Madison. “Down With Oleo! Farm Crusaders Cry” read the lead story in the Wisconsin State Journal on December 16th of that year.

The traveling Smithsonian exhibition Key Ingredients: America by Food,  currently taking place in Reedsburg, features a display about another  protest that took place in the 1950s. On Wisconsin Public Radio recently to promote the exhibition, curator Donna Neuwirth explains how Green Butter Day came about: “Apparently the editor of the paper in Sauk City launched a protest and said, ‘Rather than eat your damned yellow oleo, we’re going to dye this vat of a ton of butter green’  … they did, and they sold out by mid-day. And the entire issue of that week’s paper was printed in green ink. ” (Wisconsin history enthusiasts will be interested to know that this same newspaperman, Leroy Gore, also wrote the consequential editorial Joe Must Go. In 1954, Gore’s opinion piece launched a movement to recall Senator Joseph McCarthy.)

Green Butter Day in Sauk City. Photo submitted by Donna Neuwirth.

Donna Neuwirth says the Green Butter Day account was “just one of the many stories we’ve unearthed” for the Key Ingredients exhibition. She says that particular display, which includes the Sauk-Prairie Star article and other oleo artifacts, has elicited lively conversation among people who experienced the oleo versus butter controversy firsthand. My own mother used to talk about purchasing a sort of DIY butter substitute–uncolored margarine sold with yellow dye and a plastic bag. The product, never outlawed, allowed consumers to mix their own yellowish margarine. And my aunt tells me that my grandparents staged their own butter/oleo taste test back in the day (but interestingly she can’t remember which product our farming kin backed, or which won).

Even with the added taxes, margarine remained the cheaper alternative. So consumer loyalty for butter began to erode during the Great Depression and faded even further during the food rationing times of World War II.  Federal support for the dairy spread waned, too, as lobbies for soybean and cottonseed oil producers gained strength. As a result, dairy-producing states gradually gave in to market pressure and eased up on oleo regulations–all except Wisconsin, that is, where the margarine ban remained on the books the longest. These combined factors set the stage for the aforementioned oleo smuggling, when margarine sold legally in Illinois commonly came across the border by the trunkload.

As we all know, Wisconsin legislators did finally relax their anti-margarine stance. Though a few regulations remain in effect, most restrictions on margarine were repealed in 1967.

The Wisconsin Historical Society sells gift items, like this t-shirt, for butter loyalists. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Interested in learning more? If so, I highly recommend:

–Gerry Strey’s 2001 article, which is exhaustive but never boring. Demonstrating an impressive knowledge of legislation, market forces  and consumer behavior, Strey weaves an engaging tale that spotlights some of the colorful characters behind the controversy.

Key Ingredients: America by Food, on view in Reedsburg through Dec. 3  (in conjunction with the Reedsburg Fermentation Fest). Visitors will find photographs, artifacts and panel displays, presentations and local food-related art, all dealing with the ways history, culture and environment have shaped national and regional dining habits.

–Larry Meiller’s interview with Donna Neuwirth on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Wisconsin Statute 97.18 details current “oleomargarine” regulations. If you’ve made it this far into my post, I’m betting you’ll find these interesting–maybe even a bit surprising.

By Tammy Kempfert, PortalWisconsin.org


The pigs know…it’s all about dirt

September 23, 2009

A friend of mine just started farming his parent’s land and he invited me out to help dig potatoes last weekend.  Before we got down on hands and knees in the dirt to unearth the tubers, he said the pigs needed a shower.

The three dudes, as he calls them, were weighing in around 200 pounds after about 8 months of eating. On Sunday, when I arrived, they were lumped together in the shade. Pigs don’t sweat, my farmer friend told me. When he got the hose out, they came trotting out in a hurry to splash around and get their snouts down in the newly created mud puddle.

As I spent the next hours harvesting purple, red, and gold potatoes, all found like prizes hidden within the rich soil, I thought about Will Allen.

Will Allen is a very successful farmer in urban Milwaukee. Will inspires people to garden, to grow food, and to improve their landscapes and lives. And he says, with impressive conviction, that to grow food in poor or tainted soil is irresponsible.

His main message is this: It’s all about the dirt.

Will Allen bought the last parcel of agricultural land in Milwaukee and, back in 1993, connected with teens from the surrounding neighborhood to provide work restoring the soil and the greenhouses to grow food. It was an area of the city where people needed jobs and that offered residents no other options for fresh veggies. That was the beginning of Growing Power.

To hear Will go through a brief history of the past sixteen years is jaw-droppingly inspiring. Now he travels the world sharing his techniques for creating huge quantities of high quality soil, putting it to high-density use, fertilizing it with worm castings, and changing the landscape for the better.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council brought Will Allen to Madison last week as a pre-event for the Wisconsin Book Festival (October 7-11 in Madison). The room at the Goodman Community Center was overflowing with fans, followers, and some new faces (now known as the recently converted). Forget about fire code, people were crammed in there! By the end of his talk, Will had everyone happily yelling “Soil!” when he asked, “What is the key to feeding everyone healthy food?”

And what do soil, dirt, and farming have to do with the a statewide cultural organization like the Wisconsin Humanities Council?

Dena Wortzel, the director of the WHC, may have said it best when she explained, “For our part, what we hope to do is help folks in Wisconsin use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone.”

The event was planned to bring people together to talk about what’s going on, what people are excited about, and how new ideas can be realized. This conversation, on-going and building, is part of a history, heritage, and legacy in Wisconsin.

“I don’t know if it is in the air, the water or the soil,” Dena continued, “but for more than a hundred years, Wisconsin has been home to visionaries of land and community, from John Muir to Aldo Leopold, to Will Allen – as well as less publicly known, but equally passionate people like all of you.”

I’m with Will on this one: it must be in the soil!

By Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council


Like a Lion

July 10, 2009

A friend just told me she wants to be like a lion. She’d been reading blogs about happiness, which is apparently also a theme recently on this blog. I’m in my mid 30s, so I figure I now have some of the wisdom of experience, but also enough time left to shape a future for myself based on that wisdom. I’m into happiness.

In recent conversations amongst friends, the common concern I’ve been hearing, expressed in various ways, has to do with finding, or making, time to pursue all the exciting opportunities out there, encourage self-growth, nurture friendships and family bonds, and do it all in a relaxed, enjoyable way? Basically, figuring out an equation for a happy life.

On some level, it comes down to breadth vs. depth. I have always been attracted to breadth. I love what I do professionally, creating and supporting public humanities programs throughout Wisconsin, because I get a broad scope of the state and am always learning new things. But, I watching Andy Roddick last weekend, I do wonder where I’d be right now if I’d spent forty hours a week hitting a tennis ball to perfection…

My grandmother was a big influence on me growing up. She often told me that she had never been bored a minute of her life. She attributed this gift to her endless curiosity and the richness of life. Her balanced formula for happiness included daily naps, regular card games with friends, and complete confidence in her god and her self.

Like a lion in the sun. Photo by the author.

Like a lion in the sun. Photo by the author.

When my friend said she wanted to be like a lion, she was aiming toward a level of relaxed confidence. Lions are so inherently confident of their place in the world, and of their capacity to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done, they are comfortable relaxing in the shade plenty of the time. Unlike smaller, less self-confident creatures who are chasing their tales, lions are not afraid of missing the action. They seem to know what they are here to do and they do it well.

At the Wisconsin Humanities Council, we’ve been giving some thought to what it is we do well (oh, the joys of strategic planning!) and what each of us at the Council enjoys about our work. In my hours away from the office, I have also been thinking strategically in order to find more time to lie in the shade. Or the sun, depending on the day. They both make me happy.

By Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs at the Wisconsin Humanities Council.


Wisconsin: One out of 56

June 5, 2009

I’m not a Wisconsinite by birth, but I play one at work. I was born in Ohio but have lived for twelve years in Wisconsin, eight and a half of which I’ve spent working for the Wisconsin Humanities Council. At this point, I claim the state as home.

Every year I represent Wisconsin at a national conference with my peers from the state humanities offices around the country. This year, we were hosted by the Georgia Humanities Council in Atlanta and spent three days discussing the value and importance of the humanities in a thriving democracy. 

I am always proud to share what the Wisconsin Humanities Council has been doing. The states are all so different—in size, population, history and culture—and I’m amazed by the diversity of programs offered.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council, like the sister offices in all 50 states and six territories, is a unique organization. We receive seed money from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which keeps our doors open, our phones working, and funds the projects we support through grants to libraries, schools, museums, historical societies, and others groups around the state.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council works to support and create programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.

President Obama recently announced his intent to nominate Jim Leach as the new Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Leach has served as a respected member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Iowa for 30 years. For the state council offices, the appointment is important because the Chairman of the NEH makes decisions that affect how much money each state has to use for grants, literacy programs, teacher workshops, and other initiatives that fulfill the missions of the councils.

The final session of the conference was about programming for youth. A representative from Alabama talked about a week-long summer course in literature, history, and writing for African American high school seniors to improve their chances of attending college. Another person, from North Carolina, explained a social mixer for 20-30 year olds in Greensboro funded by the state council where philosophical ideas were dramatized in hip, creative ways. In California, we learned, filmmakers and humanities professors worked with kids under age 18 to create documentary films about their experiences growing up in California.

I am coming home to Wisconsin with these ideas percolating, thinking hard about what it means to serve “everyone in Wisconsin.” Kathleen Mitchell, who represents the state councils at the National Endowment for the Humanities, charged all of us at the meeting to use our talents and resources for the youth of our states. After all, as the mission of the NEH says, our democracy depends on it.

In 2010, Wisconsin will be the proud host of the annual meeting for Program Officers from the State Humanities Councils.

Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs for the Wisconsin Humanities Council


Inquisitive Eating

March 17, 2009

Foodways are living tradition—diverse, meaningful and enduring—for those who pause to understand and appreciate them. ~Terese Allen

I just had the luxury of spending three weeks in Thailand and Laos. The excuse for the indulgence was my honeymoon. The purpose of the trip, or at least a strong driving force, was to eat. My husband and I love the fresh and exotic flavor combinations of southeast Asia, and we did our best to sample everything!

One of the reasons I enjoy traveling is trying new food. I know others share this passion. I noticed in a recent issue of Wisconsin Trails magazine that many of the destinations around the state were highlighted for their regional food specialties. In Wisconsin, where our farms, forests, lakes, bogs, and rivers provide edible products year round, there is always something to try if you ask the locals for recommendations. I also keep a copy of Mary Bergin’s book, “Hungry for Wisconsin: A Tasty Guide for Travelers,” nearby so I can find those exceptional and tasty treats when I’m on the road!

Happily, I am going to be spending lots of time thinking about food, and the foodways unique to Wisconsin, in the coming year. For the Wisconsin Humanities Council, I will be directing the tour of Key Ingredients: America by Food. This is an exhibition, produced by the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street program, that traces the history of food production, consumption, and culinary traditions throughout the United States. Six small, rural communities in Wisconsin will host the exhibition, starting in October of 2010, and will take the opportunity to explore these ideas in their own region. Along with the host communities, I will learn a lot about the foods of Wisconsin, and undoubtedly get to taste some new and interesting dishes. One thing I know already: I don’t have to fly half way across the world every time I want fresh and exotic flavors!

photo of the author by Mark Scalf

photo of the author by Mark Scalf

Heads up for fellow Wisconsin food fans: “The Flavor of Wisconsin: An Informal History of Food and Eating in the Badger State” comes out (revised and updated!) in May of this year from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

P.S. The Wisconsin Humanities Council is accepting applications from rural communities with populations under 10,000 to host Key Ingredients. Applications are due April 15, 2009.