Unlike most foodies, I more often than not zoom through my trips at the grocery store like a crazed contestant on Supermarket Sweep. Last month in Montana, however, while spending a few relaxing days at home with my family, I allowed myself to get lost in the imagery of the butter aisle. [Imagine my husband’s embarrassed horror as I snapped all these photos. Perhaps it was a suitable and just revenge for taking me to the hell that is Walmart.]
Bizarre iPhone photography sessions aside, butter bears a complicated identity in the grocery store. In her poetic ode to butter (chapter 3 in Much Depends on Dinner, 1986) Margaret Visser (a Canadian Michael Pollan predecessor) explains the “butter mystique,” proclaiming it simple, rich, golden, and pure, as well as “irreproachable, unique, and irreplaceable” among both ancient and modern foodstuffs. While beyond reproach for some, heart health recommendations often shun butter for its saturated fat content, instead championing margarine, a food product with its own mixed identity, including everything from a healthy alternative to a butter impostor, a Frankenstein-esque food terror created in a lab to a cheaper spread. These layered food identities play out in the grocery store aisle, full of “real” butter, margarines, and butter-like concoctions, each exhibiting meaningful food packaging.
To begin, even when selling an item produced on a massive scale in a setting as fitting for automobiles as edible fare, the packaging of several butters and spreads presents bucolic images of farms, fields, and pastures, occupied by happy, peaceful cows, alongside perfectly maintained, bright red barns.
While also presenting an idealized view of nature, Challenge brand butter provides an image divorced from the farm, instead featuring soaring and rugged mountains, rolling green hills, and a perfectly blue lake with a majestic elk standing strongly in the foreground.
In another variation, Horizon’s organic butter depicts a happy, healthy cow in a less realistic, more cartoon-like state, jumping before an image of the earth, drawing a connection to eco-friendly, organic processes.
In a slightly different take, the packaging of Blue Bonnet margarine elicits not the cows that produce the cream nor the fields that harbor the cows, but the beautiful blonde milkmaid who in times gone by may have milked the cow and churned it into the creamy delight that is freshly made butter.
Joining the azure-clad milkmaid is the Land O’Lakes Indian maiden, who along with gross disrespect for American Indian culture depicts the eternal purity of nature.
When not evoking the beauty and purity of nature, packaging proves more instructional, depicting familiar ways to eat the creamy condiment. For example, whether in a spread or a spray, Smart Balance margarine includes images of butter-like substances accompanying toast, muffins, and corn on the cob.
Other brands eschew both nature and suitably buttery food parings, instead connecting the often maligned margarine with “healthy” ingredients and foods. For example, Parkay extends the recipe claim “made with real milk” by picturing a jug of milk, attempting to evoke the “realness” of butter.
In a similar way, Fleischmann’s packaging features a salmon filet, another “real” ingredient, notably one made famous for its heart healthy omega 3 content.
While some margarine packaging includes depictions that conjure the natural imagery indicative of butter, others stick to butter yellow hues and brand names alone, such as “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” and its delightfully named store brand, “Wow! I totally thought it was ‘butter.'” [That second one is waaaay better if you read it in a Valley girl voice. Out loud. Or in your head. Who’s to judge, really?]
Imperial brand margarine also strays from images of both nature and food, instead tapping into a regal claim of quality.
Perhaps more than other products gracing the grocery store aisle, butter and margarine packaging embodies the ongoing tension between claims of “natural,” “real,” and “good for you” and consumers’ desires for tasty, affordable, healthy, and at times, nostalgic, meaningful products.
Who knows what I’ll see the next time I take a moment to fully absorb the sights at the grocery store…