We’ve all had realizations that make us feel like we’ve been living a lie ― like the discovery that it’s “Berenstain Bears” and not “Berenstein Bears.” This week, a tweet about butter spawned another one of those “whoa” moments for people across the country.
On Jan. 22, Panic Inc. co-founder Cabel Sasser tweeted an ad for “a smarter butter dish” that promises to hold both “West & East Coast butter” and shows two differently shaped sticks to represent each. His accompanying text sums up the reaction many of us had: “i’m sorry, what.”
The ad appears to be for a product called Butter Hub, which promises to “solve everyday problems” that plague butter eaters, thanks to its size accommodations, magnetic lid, extended feet, scoop ramps and scrape edge.
Sasser followed up his initial tweet with “still learning new things every day,” a sentiment echoed in the replies.
Some staffers at HuffPost were similarly flabbergasted by the notion that there could be a difference between the sticks of butter on the East and West coasts. New York and Los Angeles editors rushed to their refrigerators to inspect and compare their respective butters and found that ... it’s true!
Indeed, butter on the East Coast tends to be sold in long and narrow sticks, while on the West Coast, the sticks are shorter and wider (and sometimes called “stubbies”).
In February 2021, TikTok user @bloodbathandbeyond shared a video explaining the reason behind the difference. The radio show “Marketplace” also did a segment on this piece of dairy history in 2014.
The gist (or shall we say the long and skinny) is that early 20th century butter was sold in 1-pound blocks, in most cases. In 1907, a New Orleans-based chef asked his butter supplier, Swift & C., to give him the product in quarter-pound sticks instead.
The concept clearly caught on. Over time, these skinny East Coast sticks of butter came to be known as Elgin sticks after Elgin Butter Co. in Elgin, Illinois, which was once known as the butter capital of the world. The Elgin Butter Co. manufactured the widely used butter press (the Elgin Butter Cutter) that standardized the shape and size.
Although the eastern side of the U.S. dominated the dairy industry for a long time, its western counterpart decided to ramp up production in the 1960s. But it didn’t use those Elgin-style machines.
So, as John Bruhn ― former director of the Dairy Research and Information Center at the University of California, Davis ― told “Marketplace,” “the size of the cube you see in the West is a result of newer equipment purchased at the time to package the butter.” Basically, their new machines made the stubbier sticks known as “West Coast butter.”
To this day, the difference persists, leading to some culture shock among transplants.
Some butter storage products come in multiple sizes to accommodate the regional divide, and one on Amazon even offers a helpful map graphic to help customers determine which version they need.
But even if you’re a bicoastal baker, you need not worry. You’re still getting the standard 8 tablespoons of butter per stick, no matter which style you buy. Just make sure you’re measuring out the right amounts when you bake your next delicious treat!