To Dye For


My parents were frugal Midwesterners. While we lived in Minneapolis, we ate margarine—in spite of the fact that Minnesota was a dairy state, and militantly so. Margarine would eventually be extolled for its heart-healthy properties, and later be reviled as the unhealthiest substance on earth. But back then, my parents served it because it was cheaper than butter. The catch? It was illegal to buy the stuff. In 1940, in a show of support for the dairy industry, Minnesota passed a law against selling margarine anywhere in the state, and the legislation wasn't repealed until 1963. So my family had to sneak across the border—the broad and muddy Mississippi—to buy it in Wisconsin. We weren't really smugglers, but we felt like criminals, even though my parents justified it easily: "It's illegal to buy margarine in Minnesota, but it's okay to buy it and bring it back. We won't get in trouble." The journey was still slightly alarming to a kid sitting in the back seat. The margarine came in one-pound clear plastic sleeves. Though it was available in Wisconsin, it was severely regulated there, too. In order to make it less appealing, the margarine was sold only in colorless form. And even in its untinted incarnation, it was taxed at 15 cents per pound, which was quite a sum, given that the average hourly wage at the time was just 75 cents. Although the margarine was the color of snow, each package had a little red button in the middle that contained bright red food coloring. By breaking the button and kneading the package, you could mix the color in, and after about ten minutes of squishing, the oleo would develop a uniform color that looked something like butter. So there we sat in the Buick's back seat laps as we re-crossed the Mississippi, myself and my two younger twin brothers, each holding a plastic package of margarine and furiously squeezing our loot. We felt like alchemists. "Don't squeeze too hard," my mom would fret, swiveling and leaning over the back seat, "You don't want to make a mess of your dad's car."

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