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Butter: A Rich History


Butter: A Rich History

Elaine Khosrova, award-winning editor and food journalist, has created a smooth, colorful concoction that will ensure you’ll never think about butter the same old ordinary way again.

Was butter "discovered" by accident, stored in an animal skin pouch left hanging in the sun, gently "churned" by the steady gait of a pack animal? One thing’s for sure: The first butter would not have come from a tame, bred-for-its-butter dairy cow, but from a scruffy camel, sheep, yak or buffalo.

Butter starts with the "ripened" cream that rises to the top of the milk. Through repeated shaking, it becomes whipped cream and, finally, butter and butter milk. To the commercial dairy product we generally consume, chemicals (some of which do not have to be listed on the label) are added. The smooth texture and consistent flavor are no accident; butter tasters help guard against flaws such as "leakiness," "grittiness" and "cardboardiness."

"Elaine Khosrova...has created a smooth, colorful concoction that will ensure you’ll never think about butter the same old ordinary way again."

In Europe and America, chores associated with making cream, butter and cheese were at first relegated to women, leading to the cultural icon of the ever-smiling, symbolically buxom dairy maid. With the coming of the industrial revolution, though, woman's role in dairying was replaced by manly machinery. Our butter’s history is full of conflicts --- the machine-makers against the dairy maids, the margarine makers against the butter processors, the health gurus against butter fat.

In India the preferred product is ghee, or clarified butter, and the prevalent butter source is the water buffalo. Khosrova sampled butter made with water buffalo milk by Indian women in the Punjab using a rope-operated churn, and found it to be "creamy, tangy, of the best butters I'd ever tasted." In Tibet, where monks make the butter for their sacred rituals, the art of butter sculpture developed. This art is also known in the West. Khosrova spent a week observing as a sculptor created a life-sized cow effigy for display at the Iowa State Fair by layering butter onto a wire frame.

Khosrova has sampled butter all over the globe, and in the second half of BUTTER she offers the classic recipes --- frostings, sauces and pastries --- for which the unique properties of butter are the sine qua non. There are instructions for making your own butter; surprisingly, all you really need is cream and some repetitive motion. Khosrova includes techniques for making more complicated butters as well as ghee, which actually starts with butter itself. She recommends butter brands and has compiled a list of international words for butter.

Though medical advisors have put forth differing claims about the healthy or unhealthy aspects of butter, Khosrova believes that we can "enjoy butter in good conscience," bearing in mind that it is a fat and therefore probably not to be consumed to excess. And getting back to basics, she reminds us that by far the most common use for butter is the simplest: spreading it on a piece of bread.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on November 18, 2016

Butter: A Rich History
by Elaine Khosrova

  • Publication Date: October 17, 2017
  • Genres: Cooking, Food, History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • ISBN-10: 1616207396
  • ISBN-13: 9781616207397