First Person

Real butter has become my small rebellion against diet culture

If you grew up in the heroin-chic Nineties, it’s likely you have diet culture habits that you’re still unpicking, says Lucy Thackray. For me, it’s real butter versus imposter spreads

Monday 20 March 2023 06:24 GMT
‘I grew up reaching for the almost-butter, the lighter version – the imposter’
‘I grew up reaching for the almost-butter, the lighter version – the imposter’ (Getty)

When was the last time you felt truly happy?

In Rachel Bloom’s excellent musical-comedy series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, our hero Rebecca finds herself repeatedly confronted by an ad campaign that poses this question. The advert is promoting a butter-like spread, shown curling onto a knife as the copywriters attempt to link it with happiness. Somehow, we, the viewer, know that this is not real butter. It’s a spread, made of vegetable oil and assorted preservatives. It’s the type of “butter” that sat in my fridge as a child.

I was in my thirties before I realised I had spent my entire life eating imposter butter. I grew up against the relentless, all-encompassing backdrop of Eighties and Nineties diet culture, when Diet Coke, Ryvita, Special K and Ski and Shape yoghurts dominated TV ad breaks. Mums debated acceptable snacks involving rice cakes and cottage cheese as they took us to gym, ballet and swimming. The diet secrets of the stars were plastered across weekly gossip magazines. Before I could drive or vote, I watched Monica and Rachel on Friends debating post-break-up ice cream: “Once you start getting screwed over all the time, you gotta switch to non-fat.” Guilt was baked into the diets of the women around us.

Marketing campaigns promising a lighter life hovered over our shopping lists, eyeing each snack and ingredient chosen, imploring us to make the right choice. The light choice. Indulgence and pleasure did not come into the equation. Weight Watchers, a calorie-counting cult easily understood by small children from its very name, was everywhere. At every turn was anxiety and deprivation, wrapped up in the veneer of “good choices”.

The imposter I remember lurking in my family fridge was I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, a spread that came in a blue and yellow tub. But friends and family had Flora, Clover, St Ivel Gold and Utterly Butterly. As long as it wasn’t pure cow’s milk churned as it had been for centuries, any tub was seemingly A-OK. Soothing, nature-led imagery of sunflowers and meadows packaged contents variously involving palm oil, artificial colourings and preservatives.

And so it was that I grew up reaching for the almost-butter, the lighter version – the imposter. I spread it on countless slices of toast and spent my university years cooking omelettes in it, later scooping out thin crescents for jacket potatoes after coming home from work in my twenties. It’s truly a testament to the power of the familiar in food marketing: get your product in one family’s fridge and generations of their kids will mindlessly pick it up. But the cycle ended with me three years ago, when I fell back in love with real butter: the unabashedly fatty, inimitably creamy original.

These days, I keep a big pat of full-fat butter to hand for all things breakfast and saucy, and don’t think twice about dipping into it

My butter consciousness had been creeping up over the years. As a travel journalist, I’d sampled smoked butters and whipped butters in fancy restaurants, been served creamy French butters with an elegant sprinkling of sea salt. Restaurants made proper butter a key part of their creations. Suddenly, instead of guilt, I associated it with luxury. An indulgence to be enjoyed every couple of months.

Then the pandemic hit, and our relationship went from occasional to weekly. It could have been the death march of the daily news cycle, or a lack of other pursuits in lockdown, but something about 2020 stripped me of my final few f***s when it came to “sensible” foods. It may have been living with a good friend who used lockdown days to turn out immaculate sourdough bread in our kitchen – the type of bread that would be insulted, frankly, by a fine scraping of Flora. Whatever it was, somewhere along the line I bought a big, foil-wrapped brick of the good stuff, clammy with condensation, heavy with illicit promise.

After years of denial, it was love at first spread. Butter became a habit, silkening my scrambled eggs and sitting irresistibly opaque atop a just-cooled slice of toast. It coated my new potatoes with a salty golden layer against torn-up mint leaves; it circled meltingly over the holes of warm crumpets before pooling in their spongy craters.

With the mindfulness (read: boredom) of peak-Covid, I became hyper-aware of how much pleasure a lick of butter brought to my mornings. The simplicity of a cup of steaming hot black coffee and a slice of sourdough slicked with real, unmistakable butter is unbeatable. It’s European. It’s chic. It’s probably not very good for me.

And, with time to really think about it, I was suddenly furious that butter and I had been kept apart for so long by fate, diet culture and the top brass at certain prominent marketing corporations. I didn’t get a chance to love it before I began choosing the “lighter version” – the lighter version was it. No one in my neighbourhood bought anything else. (If you’re wondering why your parents had a ceramic butter dish with the real stuff, kept outside of the fridge, I must break it to you that you are posh.)

The truth is, calorie counting and cholesterol panic are only two factors of a healthy lifestyle. The issue with butter versus imitation spreads is saturated fat (the type that raises our cholesterol levels) versus unsaturated fat – but several imitation spreads of the Eighties and Nineties contained trans fats, and some studies since have suggested the difference is negligible. I live an active lifestyle. I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs, I don’t even take milk or sugar in my coffee – might I not be permitted a delicate scraping of saturated fat on my toast if it brings me joy?

Maybe I was ahead of the curve, because OG butter seems to have stormed back into fashion. Last autumn, butter boards became a TikTok trend, with Gen-Z foodfluencers smearing flavoured types on boards, topped with herbs, olives or edible flowers. Yotam Ottolenghi committed it to food magazine covers. In 2016, research from Tufts University in Boston declared butter “[not] hugely harmful or beneficial” – not a health food, but a neutral food. A harmless delight.

The type of ‘butter’ that sat in my fridge as a child
The type of ‘butter’ that sat in my fridge as a child (Newscast/Shutterstock)

These days, I don’t even bother putting on a show of having a lighter spread available for my toast. Instead, I keep a big pat of full-fat butter to hand for all things breakfast and saucy, and don’t think twice about dipping into it. I’m not spritzing a fine mist of vegetable oil into my pans to cook with – the most Black Mirror-ish of all butter alternatives. (Olive oil is, of course, the least awful.) Life is short, and if my small indulgence, my creamy micro-pleasure, makes it that bit shorter, so be it. If I got hit by a bus tomorrow, I’d regret nothing. Without it, my whole life of fat deprivation might well flash before my eyes, a supercut of pan sprays, watery yoghurts and dry sandwiches.

If people have things to say about that choice, I’ll do exactly what I did when I spotted headlines about workplace birthday cakes being “as bad for our health as passive smoking”. I’ll stick my fingers in my ears, close the tab, opt out of the discourse and continue to celebrate birthdays with a generous slice of cake. I refuse to go back. I refuse to accept that there cannot be breakfast without a side of guilt.

When was the last time I felt truly happy? Buttering my toast and cutting it into fingers – each of them a small, significant middle finger to the diet culture of my childhood.

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