Churned Up Over Butter

Don't panic.

Remain calm. Walk, don't run, to your nearest dairy section. And brace yourself.

There's an insidious force at work that threatens to undermine familial relations, open yawning dietary schisms, and crush the hopes of small children.

It's America's butterfat shortage.

I was vaguely aware that this national crisis was looming. Consumption of cheese, ice cream, and bakery goods is rising, milk production isn't. And El Nio has to figure in somehow. But I hadn't focused on the scope and import of this imbalance until my mother-in-law stormed into the kitchen last week, wild-eyed and nearly incoherent about ice cream selling for $5 a half gallon and headed for $8.

At first, we thought she'd watched one too many Oprah episodes. But her story held up. In our household, where ice cream is one of the three major food groups (alongside peanut butter and macaroni-and-cheese), this was dire news.

Not only for frozen milk mainliners like ourselves, but for millions of cookie lovers, bagel eaters, and butter users everywhere. "We're scrambling for supplies," confirms Maxine Temple, who works in a Wisconsin cheese factory, but won't give the company name for security reasons.

This butter-fat shortage could begin to revive a dormant household issue, one that's the gastronomic equivalent of the Mason-Dixon line: butter versus margarine.

The average American family eats about twice as much margarine (9.1 pounds) as butter (4.3) each year. It wasn't always so. In 1945, butter had the 2 to 1 edge. It wasn't until Elvis's "Heartbreak Hotel" hit the charts that US margarine consumption surpassed butter.

Today, health and spreadability issues aside, many families view butter as something to dip lobster in - a luxury item.

But there are others who won't bake without it. "I can tell instantly," says Elizabeth Arnold of Los Gatos, Calif., if margarine is used.

In her house, butter is a rite of passage: the children are not allowed to use butter on toast until the age of 12.

Peggy Ryan of Dairyland, USA (Milwaukee, Wis.) uses margarine, but her husband won't. She recalls that when she was a child her neighbors smuggled oleo in from Illinois. "It was white. You mixed a packet of yellow food coloring in to make it look like butter."

Even with wholesale butter prices today at $1.98, more than a $1 per pound higher than a year ago, Mrs. Ryan isn't cutting back. "No. My husband's a purist. We make our own bread and for that you have to have butter."

But the Ryans are a statistical aberration. The US Department of Agriculture calculates that every 1 percent rise in butter prices prompts a 0.2 percent decline in consumption.

Solutions? Unfortunately, hoarding won't work - not with ice cream. Consider what happens after a few months in the freezer: It becomes a substance that resembles Godzilla's drool and acquires the adhesive properties of shoe glue.

Officially, the International Dairy Foods Association is lobbying the US government to lift restrictions on butter imports.

But in our house, we're down to two options: a second mortgage or snow cones. I'm thinking the mortgage broker will become my best friend.

* We're home. Let us know how we're doing. Write to the Homefront Editor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115 or e-mail

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