Not on MY Biscuit!

Do you use butter in your home, or do you prefer margarine? The stakes involved in this question may seem rather low, but that’s not how dairy farmers saw things when margarine came on the scene in the 1870s. They were accustomed, after all, to selling most of the nation’s butter that wasn’t being produced at home. In Florida and elsewhere, the question of whether and how to regulate margarine ultimately fell to lawmakers to decide, resulting in a real 19th century “bitter butter battle.”

Edvis Newton stands with a Kraft margarine display at a Jitney Jungle store in Tallahassee (1947). Who knew such a popular product had such a contentious history?

Edvis Newton stands with a Parkay margarine display at a Jitney Jungle store in Tallahassee (1947). Who knew such a popular product had such a contentious history?

A French chemist named Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès invented margarine in the 1860s in response to a contest sponsored by Emperor Napoleon III to develop a suitable substitute for butter. The emperor hoped the winning substance could be used by the lower classes and the French military. Mège-Mouriès called his solution “oleomargarine.” The “oleo” part came from the Latin oleum (oil), since one of the major components of the product was beef tallow. The “margarine” part of the name came from the margaric acid used in creating the compound. The term “margaric” is adapted from the Greek word márgaron, meaning “pearl” or “pearl-oyster,” since the fatty acid naturally forms small white pearl-shaped droplets.

Mège-Mouriès patented his new product and marketed it under the trade name “margarine.” The idea caught on well enough to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and by 1871 inventors were already seeking patents for margarine production processes in the United States. Meatpackers were some of margarine’s most enthusiastic proponents, since the new product gave them something profitable to do with the animal fats leftover from processing meat. Dairy farmers, on the other hand, saw margarine as a threat to their hold on the butter market. They were joined in their opposition by others who were concerned that improperly concocted margarine could be dangerous to human health.

The question of what to do about butter and its imitators began landing in state legislatures across the nation, and in 1881 it was Florida’s turn to debate the matter. The following law passed the Senate and Assembly and was approved by signature of Governor William D. Bloxham on February 17, 1881:

AN ACT to prevent the selling as Butter of Oleomargarine or any Spurious Preparations purporting to be Butter.

The People of the State of Florida, represented in Senate and Assembly, do enact as follows: SECTION 1. That any person or persons who shall knowingly and willingly sell or cause to be sold as butter any spurious preparation purporting to be butter, whether known as oleomargarine or by any other name, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction shall be fined in a sum not to exceed one hundred dollars, or be imprisoned in the county jail for a period of time not to exceed thirty days, or by both fine and imprisonment, at the discretion of the Court.

SEC 2. Any keeper of any hotel or boarding house who shall knowingly and wilfully, without giving notice to guests at the table, supply oleomargarine or other spurious preparation purporting to be butter, for the use of guests, shall be subject to the same penalty.

That’s a stiff punishment for passing fake butter!

No margarine here! Young Margie Davis is seen here churning butter the old-fashioned way (date unknown).

No margarine here! Young Margie Davis is seen here churning butter the old-fashioned way (date unknown).

Taken in context, Florida’s treatment of margarine was not so unusual. Congress adopted a law in 1886 regulating the definition of butter and imposing a tax on oleomargarine at two cents per pound. State governments developed a whole range of solutions to the butter battle, including restricting producers from coloring margarine to resemble butter. Without coloring, margarine typically has a whitish tint, resembling lard more than butter. Delaware, Illinois, and Michigan all passed laws establishing this sort of color restriction. New Hampshire opted for the opposite tactic. Its legislature required margarine producers to color their products pink, so consumers would realize they weren’t eating real butter.

Despite all the fuss, consumers gradually warmed up to the idea of using margarine, especially in situations when meat, milk, and butter were in short supply. City dwellers who lacked easy, inexpensive access to farm-fresh butter tended to favor the margarine substitute, and it served as a vital commodity during both world wars. By the 1950s, most of the earlier restrictions on margarine had been dropped.

Margarine has also served at times as creative inspiration. Census and Social Security Death Index records indicate that Florida has been home to many people with some variant of the term “oleomargarine” in their names over the years. The words “Oleo” and “Margarine” were quite common by themselves as names in the early decades of the 20th century, while our research has turned up one case in Duval County of someone with “Oleo Margarine” as their full given name.

These days, butter and margarine get along living side by side in refrigerators all across Florida. Even this recipe card for Florida Orange Meringue Pie offers the cook a choice of which to use (circa 1950s).

These days, butter and margarine get along living side by side in refrigerators all across Florida. Even this recipe card for Florida Orange Meringue Pie offers the cook a choice of which to use (circa 1950s).

If this hasn’t convinced you of food’s vital role in history, check out our new primary source set for teachers titled The History of Foodways in Florida. Its purpose is to empower teachers to use food traditions as a lens for studying history with their students, but anyone is welcome to enjoy the historic documents and media it provides.

Mmmmm… Swamp Cabbage!

You may be aware that the noble sabal palmetto is Florida’s state tree, but did you know you can eat it? And we’re not just talking about a survival tactic. From Wakulla and Apalachicola in the north to LaBelle and Immokalee in the south, Floridians all over the state have made a tradition out of preparing the hearts of these trees as a tasty dish called swamp cabbage.

Sabal (or cabbage) palms located in Levy County, Florida. Note that swamp cabbage is typically harvested from the trees when they are much younger, before they develop their rough gray trunks (photo 2010).

Sabal (or cabbage) palms located in Levy County, Florida. Note that swamp cabbage is typically harvested from the trees when they are much younger, before they develop their rough gray trunks (photo 2010).

Everglades guide George L. Espenlaub prepares a pot of swamp cabbage (photo circa 1950s).

Everglades guide George L. Espenlaub prepares a pot of swamp cabbage (photo circa 1950s).

The tradition of eating hearts of Florida palm trees likely predates the arrival of Europeans in North America. Captain Hugh Young, Andrew Jackson’s topographical engineer, sketched out a few remarks on the subject in his notes regarding the territory between the Aucilla and Suwannee rivers in 1818. He wrote:

“In the cypress swamps between Assilla and Sahwanne there is abundance of cabbage palmetto. […] It rises with a single stem to the height of forty feet and supports at the top a large mass resembling an immense pineapple, from which project a number of three-sided stems three or four feet long with leaves like the low palmetto but much larger and without prickles. The vegetable substance from which the stems and leaves are supported has in its center a white brittle mucilaginous mass composed of the centre folds of the leaves forming it, which may be eaten raw and when boiled has a taste somewhat like parsnips. In times of scarcity the Indians live on it, and it is said to be wholesome and nutritious.”

We at Florida Memory are still somewhat concerned about Captain Young’s use of the word mucilaginous to describe something edible, but overall his description is fairly accurate, and those of us who have had swamp cabbage  agree it is tasty.

Painting of territorial governor Andrew Jackson (circa 1821).

Painting of territorial governor Andrew Jackson (circa 1821).

As incoming settlers learned about swamp cabbage and began experimenting with it, it became a favorite side dish, especially in sparsely populated areas where the sabal (or cabbage) palmetto was more prevalent. In modern times, swamp cabbage can still be found on the menus of restaurants serving traditional Southern cooking. It is typically prepared by slicing up the heart of a section of palmetto trunk, called a “boot,” and then stewing it with spices and salt pork or some other seasoning meat. The finished product is grayish-green in color, and pairs well with fried fish, pork, or other traditional Florida entrees. Swamp cabbage can also be enjoyed raw, and often appears in salads by the more refined name of “heart of palm.”

Many Florida communities consider swamp cabbage something worth celebrating. Each year at the Florida Forest Festival in Perry, locals celebrate their forestry heritage with a parade, fireworks, live music, and the world’s largest free fish fry. Often, the menu has included swamp cabbage. Down south in Hendry County, residents of LaBelle hold a festival each year devoted to nothing but swamp cabbage, even choosing a Swamp Cabbage Queen to reign over the festivities. In Cedar Key, heart of palm salad served with fresh fruit and a scoop of pistachio ice cream is a favorite traditional restaurant menu item.

Miss Sherri Lynn Woosley, 1971 Swamp Cabbage Queen for the LaBelle Swamp Cabbage Festival. Photo from the festival's program for that year, which is part of the Florida Collection at the State Library.

Miss Sherri Lynn Woosley, 1971 Swamp Cabbage Queen for the LaBelle Swamp Cabbage Festival. Photo from the festival’s program for that year, which is part of the Florida Collection at the State Library.

A heart of palm salad as prepared by the Seabreeze Restaurant in Cedar Key. The tartness of the heart of palm is complemented by the sweetness of fresh fruit and the pistachio ice cream in the middle. Photo courtesy of Jamie Griffin (2014).

A heart of palm salad as prepared by the Seabreeze Restaurant in Cedar Key. The tartness of the heart of palm is complemented by the sweetness of fresh fruit and the pistachio ice cream in the middle. Photo courtesy of Jamie Griffin (2014).

Tasty as swamp cabbage may be, the cooking and eating of it is the easy part. Cutting through layers of tough palmetto fibers to get to the edible “boot” without damaging the tender flesh inside is much more difficult. The following images from the Florida Photographic Collection illustrate the method used to harvest swamp cabbage.

Here, we see Ralph O'Brien of Tampa chopping away the

Here, we see Ralph O’Brien of Tampa chopping away the “straps,” which are actually the bases of the fronds or leaves of the tree. This must be done at an angle so that the axe does not become lodged in the inner “boot,” which can spoil the tender flesh inside (photo 1982).

Once the straps have been cleared away from the

Once the straps have been cleared away from the “boot,” the weight of the remaining attached fronds will cause it to break away from the tree. Here we see Ralph O’Brien chopping off the remaining fronds to make the boot easier to carry (photo 1982).

 

The outer layers of the

The outer layers of the “boot” are tough, bitter, and inedible. Here, we see Ralph O’Brien carefully splitting successive concentric layers of the boot to get down to the edible flesh at the center (photo 1982).

Once enough layers have been removed from the

Once enough layers have been removed from the “boot,” the remaining outer layers may be removed with a sharp knife. Here we see a Lafayette County woman working her way down to the edible flesh of the boot, which she then will slice into a bowl of cool water. The water temporarily prevents the swamp cabbage from turning brown (photo 1983).

Are you ready to try this Florida delicacy? Whether it’s eaten raw on a salad or boiled down with a generous helping of seasoning meat and black pepper, Florida’s state tree is both beautiful and a tasty treat with a long and storied past.

What are your favorite traditional Florida dishes? Tell us by leaving a comment, and don’t forget to share our post on Facebook!