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Invention of Butter: Perfect Example of How an Accident Created a History



Butter is a rich, pale yellow stuff that emerges from the churning of cream that can turn bland meals into masterpieces. At least 10,000 years old masterpiece also has a rich history. It has a lot of its uses in various dishes across the world depending on its temperature, at soft room temperature butter is used for making cream whereas, at room temperature, it can be layered to make pastries. Butter is used in a lot of continental dishes such as lemon butter fish from Malaysia. Even in France, they do most of their cooking with butter rather than oil. It is also used in Indian subcontinents to make rich dishes like butter chicken.


Butter is made by churning milk (or milk cream) until the fat separates from the liquid – buttermilk. The semi-solid butterfat is the butter.


What is quite unbelievable is that the origins of butter lie about 10,000 years ago, during the Neolithic period. This was the time when hunters and gatherers had begun to settle down into civilised agrarian society and only then began to domesticate animals like goats, yak, sheep and cows. These animals were used for the milk that they provided.

During the Neolithic period pottery was not invented, and so to transport liquids to places that were far away, people would simply use bags made of animal skin, commonly termed as leather. Anthropological evidence shows that the use of these bags to transport milk to distant places led to the milk being splashed around inside, accidentally leading to the formation of butter.


When this happened, as experiments, the early people tied up tripods of tree branches together and hang bags of milk from them. They then went on to shake the branches and therefore, the milk, until the solids had separated from the liquids.


This first-ever recipe of butter was carved on a limestone tablet that dates back to about 4500 BCE. Remnants of butter have been found in bits and pieces of pots found in Turkey, dating about 7000 BCE. Even a lot of religious mythology has been linked to butter. The first being in Christianity where the Bible says that in around 1800 BCE, angels were entertained with a feast of meat, milk and butter. Another reference to butter comes from Hinduism where Lord Krishna is served butter as offerings for thousands of years until today.


It is believed that the Romans and Greeks also used butter, but as it turned out, not for eating purposes. They looked down on people who ate butter; they were called “butter-eaters” and were considered barbarians. This was especially strange because cheese, another dairy product, was actually one of the staple foods of the Roman army. Putting this aside, the Greeks and the Romans used butter to tend to burns and wounds, as a cosmetic rubbed through their hair to make it shiny and used it as a cough remedy by swallowing a lump of butter whole.


It is said that during the middle ages, butter spread to most of Europe. It so turns out that butter became so popular that the king of Norway took the bold step of demanding for one bucket of butter as tax per year. Butter adds a lot of richness to food, meat or vegetables, and this is why it gained growing popularity in the European states. It came to such a level of unhealthiness that some Christian communities decided that they must hold a butter fast for one month in a year. They called this month Lent. However, butter was so essential to people that they eventually paid off taxes (tithe) to the clergymen in exchange for permission to consume butter during this month of Lent.


It is said that the pilgrims who left England for religious freedom and set foot on American lands had brought barrels and barrels full of butter along with them. This is how butter reached North America. In fact, the first-ever student rebellion was led in Harvard University in the year 1766, when a particularly stinky butter was served amidst protests of how horrible the food was at the University anyway. This student rebellion was actually called the “Butter Rebellion”, where students demanded for better butter that did not stink.


The per capita consumption of butter in the US had reached alarmingly high levels by the beginning of the 20th Century. However, this took a steep plunge when the Great Depression, as well as World War II, came about. Price levels during this time were at an uncontrollable high and butter and other commodities became too expensive. Butter was replaced with margarine, a cheap substitute which was thought to be healthier than butter. Adding to this, new campaigns were being launched to promote low-fat diets, which meant doing away with butter for all cooking.


Butter made a comeback when price levels stopped tipping the scales and got back to normal. Also, the discovery that margarine is, in fact, worse for our bodies than butter is facilitated the process of the newly growing demand for butter.

Today’s highest butter consuming country is France; an average Frenchman consumes about 8.2 kilograms of butter per year. It is not uncommon for Paris bakeries to be running short of butter, and this becomes problematic for them. There is often a shortage of butter in France because as mentioned before, they cook everything in beurre (butter).


While today most butter production is done in factories, it is also believed that in some remote areas, butter is still made the way it was during the Neolithic period. This speaks to the popularity of butter, which is such a dairy product that can be made even in the remotest of areas using minimal equipment. Hence, butter is one of the most popular foods, which is made and eaten all over the world.


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