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Tuesday, March 4, 2008


Recently while shopping for groceries I noticed that I had written margarine on the list. In the refrigerator case were many choices, but rarely the word "margarine." The brand I chose had in very small letters, "1/3 less fat than margarine." This made me wonder what we were actually eating.

Growing up on the farm we always had butter. Each year in spring there was a two or three week period when a weed we called bitterweed bloomed. The cows craved its flowers but they made the milk so bitter we could only drink it if we added lots of cocoa. The cream was so bitter we could not eat it or sell the butter made from it. When Mother added cream to the dogs' food, they turned up their noses and walked away. Only the hogs seemed not to mind. During bitterweed season, Mother would buy margarine. It came in 1 pound blocks and the package included a small tablet for coloring. Mixing in the color was a lot of work and we usually did not bother. The dairy industry got Congress to pass a bill requiring all margarine to be sold without yellow coloring, which is why the yellow came separately. I don't know when the law was repealed but I think it was during WW II.

During the Depression we usually had butter on our homemade bread. A lot of the kids had in their school lunches homemade bread smeared with lard and sprinkled with sugar or leftover breakfast biscuits with bacon drippings on one side and syrup on the other (actually not bad).

My daughter said that Google had a lot to say about both butter and margarine. I checked--it did.

Margarine was developed by Hippolyte Mege-Mouries in 1869 at the request of Napoleon II, who wanted a butter substitute for his soldiers. In 1871 he sold the "knowhow" to the Dutch firm Jurgens, now part of Unilever. In the beginning margarine was largely animal fat. Now it is largely vegetable oil.

"Butter," the Greek word for cow cheese, has been available since nomads started milking camels and water buffalo--cows came much later. A goat was carefully skinned, the openings except for the left foreleg sewn shut, and milk placed in this skin container. The motion of the camel walking churned the milk, making the first butter. It is still made this way in some areas.

As cows were developed in northern Europe, butter and cheese production developed along with them. It later came to the U.S.

In the ancient peat bogs of northern Europe and England, containers of butter have been found (as well as human remains). The peat bogs provided an antiseptic, acidic environment that preserved the butter.

It takes 25 pounds of milk to make a pound of butter, depending on the butterfat of the milk. In Philadelphia markets butter was first sold by the pound.

(I had planned to add more, but I think this story is long enough.)

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Ben the Cook

Ben the Cook
Action shot from the 1970s



I recently made Tuna Helper, following the instructions on the box and adding margine, milk, etc. Priscilla and I had generous portions for lunch. When she asked about my recipe, I pointed to the kitchen table where the box was sitting...and only then noticed the unopened can of tuna sitting next to the empty box.

Well, we enjoyed our macaroni & cheese lunch and already have the tuna on hand to make another box of Helper.


I watched the TV news show "The Eyes of Texas" for years. When in the mid 1980s they announced the publication of a Texas cookbook I wrote down my grandmother's honey cookie recipe. I asked Priscilla to type it, and she mailed it along with several of her personal favorites.

When the book was published Priscilla's recipes were not included but mine was, with a special mention in the cookbook's introduction. I was invited to the signing in Houston, where I got all three of the main Eyes of Texas contributors to sign the front and while standing in line got a number of contributing cooks to sign their recipe pages.

Some might consider the description "somewhat chewy" an understatement. For those who are dentally impaired, I recommend soaking a cookie in milk or hot coffee before trying to chew it. The good news is, these cookies will keep indefinitely.

Eyes of Texas Cookbook introduction:
My great-grandparents August and Caroline Weiss operated the first cotton gin operated by steam, near Salem in Washington County, Texas. They were among the first German settlers in that area. Money was scarce; however, they always had bees and native pecans...consequently, this recipe was a favorite.

1 1/2 pints honey, warmed
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
Dash of salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 cup chopped pecans or other nuts
1 tsp. baking powder
Enough flour for a very stiff dough

Mix all ingredients well. Roll dough out on a floured board and cut with a cookie cutter, or drop the dough in a greased pan and flatten with a floured glass. Bake at 325 degrees until golden brown, with edges slightly darker. These cookies will be somewhat chewy.

Ben's Bio

I was born in Rose Hill, Texas in 1925 and at age 18 drafted into the Army. After my discharge I settled in Tomball, which although a small town had more opportunities than Rose Hill. I ran my own appliance installation and repair business for many years and in 1977 accepted a position as Plant Engineer and Director of Maintenance at Tomball Regional Hospital, where I worked until retirement in the late 1980s. In the 1970s I served two years on Tomball’s City Council, was elected mayor and served for six years during which major streets were paved and guttered, utility lines were extended, and a new jail and city hall were built. After retirement from the hospital I spent time on a genealogy project that included two trips to Germany to visit relatives and look up archival records. I have also gotten into writing, chronicling my WW II experiences and authoring Growing Up in Rose Hill, published by private press and sold as a fund-raiser for the Tomball Community Museum Center, where I have served as a volunteer, trustee and Chairman. I am still involved with the Tomball hospital as a weekly volunteer and serve as General Manager of Tomball Emergency Assistance Ministries (TEAM), a church-sponsored operation that provides food and other assistance to area families. I continue to be involved in writing about my childhood and personal interests, and I still enjoy woodworking and other handyman projects. My wife and I still live in Tomball and are not far from most of our 8 surviving children and 14 grandchildren.