In Wisconsin, someone's butt(er) is on the line

Oct. 18, 2011 at 12:13 PM ET

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Were Wisconsin’s anti-margarine laws patriotic -- or just a greasy product of big government?

Last month, Republican State Rep. Dale Kooyenga introduced a bill to repeal a 1967 restriction that prevents Wisconsin restaurants from offering customers margarine unless they specifically ask for it.

While the debate rages on in Madison, most restaurants in the state and many in its $20 billion-per-year dairy industry aren’t in a churn about it, no matter how it turns out.

Currently, breaking the law can send perps to prison for up to three months. But it isn’t really enforced, and restaurateurs tell the Wausau Daily Herald that they would serve butter regardless of whether they were legally mandated to do so, simply because most customers prefer it.

We asked acclaimed chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin in New York (where people are free to use all the margarine they’d like) what he thought: Would he ever make the switch?

“There is nothing wrong with butter when you eat it in reasonable quantities,” he said. “It’s a natural product that is delicious. I think that margarine, taste-wise, doesn’t compete with butter, and I don’t like the fact that some of the ingredients are highly processed.”

In margarine’s defense, the spreadable variety often has no cholesterol and is lower in saturated fats than butter. And, proof positive that people always want what they can’t have, Wisconsin residents were actually smuggling the spread from surrounding states during a margarine prohibition period from 1895 to 1967.

For Rep. Kooyenga, the bill is an attempt to repeal a “silly” law and also save the state money. The law mandates that butter is served in public school and to the 21,000 inmates imprisoned in Wisconsin, and since butter is at least twice as expensive as margarine, that adds up to some serious dough – and thus, serious pushback from the dairy industry to changing the law.

Tell us, do you prefer butter or margarine? 

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