|My Mrs Butterworth's® Tryptych, along with a painted version, and an|
"Aunt Jemima Breakfast Club" button (I'm embarrassed to share the price).
Mrs. Butterworth's® keeps appearing in my life. Last week I posted about baking a cake in her name so I thought I'd elaborate a bit more about my obsession. As a child in Akron, Ohio, I was intrigued with her brown glass, apron-clad, bun-wearing visage—and in the television ads I believe she even spoke. We were a Log Cabin® syrup family and it wasn’t until we moved back to New Hampshire that I truly began to appreciate the wonders of real maple syrup. There we watched it being boiled down each March (it takes about 40 gallons of maple sap to make a gallon of syrup) and had it drizzled onto spring snow (most sugar houses serve this with a popsicle stick—for twirling your maple “candy”—as well as dill pickles and old-fashioned donuts). Any cook worth their syrup knows that most stuff sold as “maple syrup” is actually just glorified corn syrup with caramel coloring and artificial maple flavoring—even the Cracker Barrel® restaurant chain has started cutting their real Vermont maple syrup with the fake stuff. [Since moving to Kentucky we import it each year, or buy a case when we visit, from Carol and Bill Eva at Longview Forest Products in Hancock, New Hampshire.] We certainly appreciate the locally-made sorghum, too, boiled down at Oberholzer’s in Casey County, Kentucky each autumn, but it’s just not the same thing on pancakes or waffles or French toast.
Like the fictive Betty Crocker®, Mrs. Butterworth's is a product—an ad agency conjuring of homey goodness. Here is the guise of a nice plump woman who is so caring and kind that she’ll whip up a batch of pancakes or waffles in no time—perhaps the less multi-cultural echo to Aunt Jemima® (who, I don’t believe, ever had her own matronly-shaped syrup bottle). I assume that every kid wanted a Mrs. Butterworth in their childhood kitchen—a beguiling presence during a time when many of our mothers were starting to work outside of our homes. Buttery, syrupy, sugary down-homey comfort—a nanny in a brown glass bottle. When you grow up to learn that all artificial ingredients and refined sugars are bad, you consider, too, that Mrs. Butterworth's® is just diabetes in a beguiling bottle. As children, we don’t even think about these things and as adults we should know better. Yet, as a store-aisle icon, Mrs. Butterworth's® is right up there with the best of them. [The Jolly Green Giant® and Mr. Clean® aside, because they both scared the hell out of me—yes, I am clearly a child of television and was highly influenced by advertising, even if most of it was in black and white until we got our first color television in the very late 1960s.]
Our neighbor, Mrs. Emily Wirth, in Akron days, was a great comfort cook. She liked to make fried chicken and waffles when we were invited for dinner, served with a side of buttered corn and delectable currant scones (I still have that recipe). For some reason, I began to associate her with Mrs. Butterworth's®. It may have been because she made doorstops out of the amber bottles—filled with sand and outfitted with crocheted aprons—or that she was a kind and welcoming woman who loved to cook and provide love to everyone around her. The wife of the assistant pastor at our Presbyterian church, she was prayerful, genuine, and full of laughter—and she was my mother’s best friend during some difficult times. She was my first exposure to someone who had been “born again” and I admired her belief and her faith especially because she lived what she believed. I know she would have taken in total strangers or homeless people—and maybe even did—and fed them chicken and waffles. There was always someone in her kitchen and you just wanted to be near her. [I recall her—and her faith—with great longing because she was never the disingenuous kind of believer that is all too common in today’s world.]
A few years ago, at a yard sale in Kentucky, I had to buy Mrs. Butterworth's®—three original bottles in three sizes. [I call this my “Mrs. Butterworth's® Triptych” and she/they live in their amber-glass idolatry on a shelf in my cottage kitchen—I don’t know about the Renaissance artists, but Andy Warhol might have appreciated them.] I picked up another during the same annual Highway 127 yard sale—only she has a painted red dress, a cream apron and cream-colored accents. The modern Mrs. Butterworth's® bottles are now made of plastic and she has had some kind of makeover. I’m not impressed. [My husband wasn’t impressed, either, that I paid $8 for three c.1970 fake syrup glass bottles. But he knows me well enough by now to just say, “Oh, isn’t that nice, dear,” while quietly gnashing his teeth.]