We were sitting at the kitchen table when my mother-in-law, Bev, confused us with a sixty year old memory.
“Your dad used to bootleg oleo in the 50s,” she said.
“Bootleg oleo,” I said. Neither the beginning nor the end of that made sense.
“You couldn’t buy oleo in Wisconsin,” she said, “So he used to go down to Illinois and bring it back and sell it.”
“Oleo – is that even a word?” my husband said.
“Like Lard?” I asked.
Eventually we understand oleo to be margarine.
“You couldn’t buy it in Wisconsin? Milwaukee, Racine, that whole area, you couldn’t find it anywhere?” I asked.
“It was illegal to sell it in Wisconsin. Being a dairy state, it wasn’t allowed in,” she said.
Having been raised in a neighborhood where the milk truck stopped at every house on our little gravel road, I was familiar with our dairy heritage. My sisters and I were assigned the task of shaking quart jars filled with cream, until (approximately three years later) the pale, fluffy butter appeared. The idea of farmers having that much pull was foreign to me.
“So The Dairy Farmers Association had a lobbyist that accomplished a No Oleo In Wisconsin rule?” I thought I was joking.
My mother-in-law shrugged. “I just know it wasn’t allowed. If he would have filled the car up with it, he would have gotten in trouble.”
The draw, of course, was the lower cost. “I remember my mother sending us to the store, calling, ‘Get the cheap butter! ‘ It was 29 cents a pound. What was the expensive, 34 cents a pound?”
Laws regulating the sale of margarine were in place long before you might have imagined. By 1886, there were more than 35 plants manufacturing oleomargarine, and Wisconsin dairy lobbyist were busy getting laws through which included high taxes on margarine, restrictions on how restaurants could (not) serve it (unless it was specifically requested), and control over the color.
Because the sale of colored margarine was forbidden, the manufacturers eventually included a color capsule in the packaging.
“I can still see that packet,” Bev said. “When the capsule broke, you had a big glob of orange in the corner that you had to work through the margarine.”
They used margarine for baking, butter was used at the table for bread or toast, she said. And lard was always used for cooking. They made their own lard, from pork fat.
“It stunk up the house! We had buckets and buckets of it. We’d boil it on the stove, then strain it through cheesecloth. The cracklins were on top, we ate those.”
“Cracklins?” I ask.
“Yes. Those little chunks on top. They were just…cracklins. “
Lard blobs. Yum. Although can anything that close of a cousin to bacon be bad?
Eventually shortening replaced lard, Bev said.
In the 1950s, states that had laws against the sale of margarine one by one repealed them. In 1967, Wisconsin was the last state to finally give colored margarine space on the grocery shelf. An era of bootlegging was over.
2 cups heavy whipping cream
¼ teaspoon salt (optional)
Churn cream in food processor, with a mixer, or a whisk. This last option is not for the faint of heart.
When butter is formed, it may be rinsed with cold, running water, then strained through cheesecloth or with a spatula, press the butter against the side of the container, then drain out the excess buttermilk. Add herbs and/or spices for flavoring, such as garlic, chives, crumbled bacon, jam, etc.