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A new kind of Butter - Oh, Oh, Oleo!

by Amy Kenneley

A new kind of "butter" came to the grocery stores during World War II, when ration books made many staples and goods a luxury. This new "butter" looked like butter, sort of cut like butter, even almost tasted like butter-and yet it wasn't butter. But it was cheap.

Dairy farmers didn't like this cheap almost-butter, though. It was giving their cows nothing to do, so a law was passed that if something wasn't butter, it couldn't be sold looking like it was butter. It had to be sold looking like shortening--which of course it was.

Pretty soon odd-looking plastic bags appeared at grocery stores--clear plastic packages of white goo, with a little red/yellow food coloring button in the dead center, like a specious bellybutton.

The purchaser would take home this bundle of fat, push and break the button in the center and hope the food coloring would release itself into

the fat so that eventually the white would become yellow and would look like butter.


The process, however, was not as simple as it sounded. Pressing the button and releasing the color was just the beginning. Now the white stuff had to be kneaded while in the bag, slowly encouraging the color to blend itself into the white shortening. This was a project. Guess who got to do the project?

Mother thought I had nothing better to do with my life (which at age 8, I didn't) than to knead the fake butter into existence. She bought several pounds of it and I had to ensure that we had an adequate supply of this yellow goo to use on toast and baked potatoes. It sat on the table and I began to knead and push and slam and toss and crinkle and piano-play down the edges, trying my mightiest to get the red streaks to melt into yellow puddles.

Sometimes my arms and fingers gave out and I hurriedly squeezed the bag into the butter bowl and slipped it into the fridge. We had some pretty funny looking stuff to spread on our toast then, red-streaked sunsets of margarine, and dizzying kaleidoscopic swirls.

Once I punched it with such exasperation that a rip opened up, and a slow-motion lava eruption of yellow moved out of the bag and over the tabletop. Wasting half of a pound because it urped onto the floor didn't get me out of the job, though.

I learned to live with this boring chore, and tried to pretend I was doing something much more interesting. I was a brick maker, turning white clay into pretty sun baked yellow ones. I was a painter, preparing to mix her colors before creating a masterpiece.

No, I was a kid with a boring job.

A Pardon from the Government

One day mom came home from work with something called a petition. It was a petition to get the state to rescind the ruling that oleo had to be mixed by the consumer, that it could be mixed at the factory and sold in the dairy section where regular butter was sold.

Mother walked up and down the streets in our neighborhood getting people to sign the petition. I went right along, eager to watch this democracy-in-action. Democracy in action with the side-bar of salvation for me.

When the petition was filled, mother turned it in to some committee chairperson. Government listened and laws changed and then the butter and the oleo could be sold side by side at the stores and you could choose whichever you wanted but you didn't have to knead white goo into butter at home anymore. Along the way, the homely name "oleo" was upgraded to the more elegant "margarine."

Lessons Learned

I learned two things living through this oleo adventure. The first was that it is important to have choices, and that as long as you know what is fake and what is real, you can make up your own mind as to which you prefer.

The second was that one person can make a difference, and if enough people agree, eventually those people in charge (the ones we elect) have to listen.

THE POWER OF THE PEOPLE-it was better than any civics lesson I had in school.

They still DO teach civics, don't they?

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