Program review by Ellen Schnepel
Who would think butter, a kitchen staple so often taken for granted, would be a culinary topic of study? Even Elaine Khosrova, a former pastry chef and the founding editor of Culture (in 2008), the first magazine devoted to specialty cheeses, was skeptical when she was assigned an editorial project to taste, describe, and rate about two dozen different brands from creameries around the world. The project sparked her interest, prompting her to correct the absence of any serious treatment of butter in the culinary literature.
For her book, Butter: A Rich History (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2016), she traveled across three continents to diverse cultures and geography to stalk the modern story of butter, from its humble agrarian origins to industrial factory production, and now, as it comes full circle, to its present-day artisanal glory. The book details the role of butter in agriculture, religion and ritual, art and science, politics, health and nutrition, while offering much in the way of lore and practical information, such as classic and essential butter recipes. Acknowledging that the history of butter is usually told through the lens of gastronomy, she charts a course to show that the biography of this ancient food goes well beyond the kitchen.
Khosrova’s talk had the sexy title “Carved, Cultured, and Cursed,” and she focused on Chapter Three of her book, “The Sacred and the Spiritual: Butter Meets Metaphysics.” Often used as a symbolic tool for spiritual practices around the world, butter and its derivative ghee had great metaphysical value in many early cultures, while simultaneously keeping its utilitarian place in everyday life — as a delectable food on its own or for cooking, as medicine, for lamp fuel, as a lubricant, to preserve meats, and even for waterproofing. While we learned about the variety of butters — cultured (fermented), sweet or salty, differing in color, texture, flavor nuances, and fat content, churned from the milk of ruminants (sheep, goats, cows, yaks, water buffalo, reindeer, camels), the heart of her talk focused on the sacred, especially the butter sculptures of Tibet (and we were able to inspect butter sculptures at the program venue, Tibet House on west 15th Street).
Butter sculpting is an ancient art and modern-day practice of Tibetan Buddhist monks, dating back to pre-Buddhist shamanic history. Monks handcrafted “clay” made of butter and flour for use in tantric rituals and as offerings to their deities. There is symbolism in every aspect of sacred butter sculpting, from the shapes and colors of the tormas to the many figures portrayed.
Buddhists weren’t the only early spiritual believers to employ butter in their rituals. Ancient texts and Biblical stories reveal the cultural and religious importance of butter for the Sumerians, the Vedic Aryans in the Indus River valley, and in the Holy Lands. In Ireland, wooden buckets or firkins, packed with butter and wrapped in moss, were buried in swampy, cool bogs as a way of preserving the perishable dairy product during the hotter months or for storing and conserving butter for later use in leaner times. This practice led to the term “butter bogs.” The Irish were known to be fearful of threats to their ”milk luck” or “butter luck” and employed numerous practices to safeguard dairy from witchcraft and preternatural “faeries” as part of their cultural belief system.
Thus throughout human history, butter has uniquely bridged the secular and the sacred, the scientific and the supernatural in vastly different cultures and geographies. In her book and illustrated talk, Khosrova covers these dual narratives over time and place.
The story of butter also includes vilification and redemption, and Khosrova shows that the pendulum may be swinging in butter’s favor. Between the margarine wars, the diet wars, and fears of health dangers from excessive fat, it appears as if butter has come “back.”