World War I, as we acknowledge, had completely altered modern human history throughout the course of our existence in this planet for nearly a million years. It was the first industrialized war, involving the use of advanced military, mass-produced war machines, mobilizing tens of millions of peoples across the whole globe (either from Europe or from their far-flung colonies) into a period of 4-year catastrophic battles and other forms of war-of-attrition. Not only did it bring casualties, numbered at tens of millions, on the sides afflicted, but it also altered our social structure in many aspects, not the least the stuff we quench into our stomachs, which influence remains everlasting to day.
The war completely changed our society in terms of food consumption, precisely, through the mass production of margarine, one massively derided by intellects and contemporaries of the time for being superficial, inhumane, and sense-deadening.
This essay, titled Operation Margarine, from Harper’s Magazine, discusses such phenomenon resulting from the wartime condition, and in the decades that follow, its contribution towards the ongoing ‘originality-versus-imitation’ mass debate nowadays.
The First World War changed everything. Even the upper and middle classes had to eat margarine. War rations were introduced to manage food shortages, and in England dairy was particularly hard hit, with German submarines torpedoing butter imports from Australia and New Zealand. As blocks of butter sank to the bottom of the ocean, the fortunes of margarine rose steadily. Rudyard Kipling captures this in Changelings, a poem about a butter-selling grocer’s clerk who enlists with the navy and returns after the war to his grocery.
Or ever the battered liners sank
With their passengers to the dark,
I was head of a Walworth Bank,
And you were a grocer’s clerk.
I was a dealer in stocks and shares,
And you in butters and teas,
And we both abandoned our own affairs
And took to the dreadful seas.
. . .
Now there is nothing — not even our rank —
To witness what we have been;
And I am returned to my Walworth bank,
And you to your margarine!