In Pursuit of Butter
A look behind Columbia County resident Elaine Khosrova's butter-based book
There’s a lot to know about butter—enough to fill a book. Yet despite the dairy product’s complicated and sometimes surprising history, until recently, such literary resources were scarce.
That’s partly what prompted Columbia County resident Elaine Khosrova to write Butter: A Rich History. Part science, part history, part travelogue, with recipes for butter and buttery treats, the book offers delicious insight into a favorite global dietary indulgence (Americans consume at the rate of 72 sticks a year).
Since the book’s publication in late 2016, Khosrova is often asked why she chose butter as the topic for her first book.
Khosrova worked with butter as a test kitchen editor at Country Living magazine and while employed at Healthy Living, Classic American Home, and Santé Magazine. She was also founding editor at culture, a consumer magazine about specialty cheese. Despite using butter in countless recipes at work and home, her fascination first began when she attended a tasting nine years ago while working at a restaurant trade magazine.
“I had worked with butter, baked with butter, but never seen them side by side like that, different butters and different brands, said Khosrova.” I was astonished at the differences in texture, color and flavor.”
Being a former pastry arts student at the Culinary Institute of America, she wondered why there were so many nuances, considering that butter really has only one basic ingredient—cream. Curiosity led her to explore the science behind butter, which in turn led to fascinating discoveries about butter’s history. “I fell in love with butter’s biography and I wondered why no one had written a book about it.”
So, she did. In the process, Khosrova studied the way butter is produced today, both artisanally and in factories, and compared it with practices used through time. Her fascination with the history and science behind butter making has taken her on trips around the U.S. and the world. She learned about 21st century butter making, visiting a Wisconsin creamery that churns out 46,000 pounds of butter a day, as well as small scale butter makers in France, Ireland, India, Bhutan and Canada—some of which still use ancient methods.
“I wanted to understand how butter making was done a thousand years ago,” said Khosrova. “Butter makers, such as the ones I visited in Bhutan, still use primitive churns as they have done throughout their history. I wanted to meet them and understand what butter meant to their lives.”
Khosrova's travels included a trip to Bhutan, where she witnessed a local milking a yak.
One of her most interesting discoveries was the role that butter played in sacred rituals, dating as far back as the ancient Sumerians. From sacred Tibetan butter carvings to Hindu mythology, butter has at times been considered a spiritual tool.
“Being from the west, this is not on our radar, not part of our culture,” Khosrova said. Traveling to remote places and learning about the rituals of different cultures helped her expand her awareness of more than just butter.
“I feel like this process was a lesson in not taking things for granted. I learned to dig a little deeper. One of my favorite poets Mary Oliver instructs us to pay attention, be astonished, and go tell people about it. I feel that’s what happened as I created this book. I paid attention to butter, was really astonished and had to go tell people about it. It has become a deeper instruction for my life.”
The decision to celebrate butter also came at a propitious time. In the last decade, butter’s reputation has started to recover from the misinterpreted research that suggested it contributes to diabetes, heart disease and obesity. The notion that butter was bad began to solidify in the 1960s and '70s, and played a part in the popularity of low-fat diets.
Scientists eventually realized that the food-fat-makes-body-fat theory was based on bad science. The ban on butter and other fats didn’t make the next generation any healthier. Butter is no longer considered a culprit.
“In 2015 the FDA backtracked on what they previously said. When they told us not to eat food high in cholesterol, that was wrong,” said Khosrova. “Now we know there’s no connection between the cholesterol in food and the cholesterol in our bloodstream.”
Not only was butter exonerated, but a June 2016 study found possible health benefits to eating full-fat dairy products, such as improved insulin sensitivity and reduced inflammation. One third of the fat in butter is oleic acid—the same kind of fat found in olive oil. Butter, especially from grass-fed animals, also contains conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, that helps prevent heart disease and cancer.
Does that mean we can start eating butter by the stick? It may be good for you, but at over 200 calories per ounce, it’s still densely caloric. Moderation is key in any healthy lifestyle, suggests Khosrova. Eat things that are delicious, but in moderation. Savor the occasional buttery treat. Just don’t overdo it.
When it comes to sampling her culinary and current literary obsession, she prefers to keep things simple. Her favorite way to savor butter involves bread. “I love good bread and good butter,” she said. “I could eat it every day. As far as treats go, it would have to be pie. I make a good buttery pie crust.”
With no books currently planned on other topics, Khosrova continues to happily indulge in her butter obsession, soon to launch a blog that focuses on this flavorful foodstuff. It promises to be delicious.