Like a benevolent spirit, Butter was summoned into existence by an ancient clan of hominids that came to be known as the Butter People. Paleo-anthropologists have named the species Homo Lacticiniis, or Dairy Man.
Before they began milking, these proto-dairyers made breakfast the old-fashioned way - by chasing it down and killing it. But it was tiresome and messy work. While butchering a goat one Upper Paleolithic evening, the clan heard a bleat from behind a boulder. A girl, let’s call her Betty, picked up her bow and went for a look. She knocked an arrow, but then she stopped. It had been a long day, and the clan already had enough meat. Besides, the two kid goats balanced on the side of the craggy rock were so small that she decided to let them be.
Later that evening, asleep in the mouth of their shallow cave, they heard the piercing cry of a cave lion. A moment later there was a soft clatter and a bleat as two thin goat kids nervously entered the light of the fire.
One of the people, let’s call him Chuck, picked up a rock and readied to throw it. Betty put her hand on his arm, though, and when she shook her head, he huffed, but he dropped his rock.
Betty was intrigued by the goats, and for the next weeks, she protected them from Chuck, and she spoke to them and comforted them. She named them Nanny and Billy, and they followed her when she went berry picking. Soon there was a small herd that the clan nurtured through times of abundance. Then, when the times were lean, they culled most of the herd. First, though, they milked the goats and had Nanny carry it in bladders they slung over her rump.
It was a bleak time for the clan. Everyone’s thoughts turned inward, and there was little talk as they walked, the bags of goat milk sloshing with every step. But when they’d lit a fire and settled in for the night, Betty opened a milk bladder to find that a magic thing had happened. The milk had been replaced by something firm and rich, and with the sprinkling of a little salt, it became extraordinary.
Because it had formed by bouncing against Nanny’s butt all day, Betty called the new substance Butter, and the people rejoiced. They scooped it up on their fingers, they licked it off their flint blades, they even spread it on some dried meat that they wrestled at with their remaining teeth.
Suddenly, a smooth strange voice called up from a bladder. “You know,” it said, “I’d taste even better if you just spread me on some toast.”
The people were stunned, for they were witnessing a great miracle. They’d stumbled upon the first culinary delicacy and, at the same time, woken a god.
Sometime in the Upper Paleolithic, when there were still a lot of spirits asleep in the wilderness, a dairymaid named Betty accidentally summoned Butter into the world.
When Butter was jostled awake in its bladder, not only had a god materialized as a fundamental condiment, but a spark of civilized culture was struck as well. Okay, so it was a bacterial culture, but it helped create the first butter, yogurt, and cheese, and this holy trinity inspired humans to begin farming.
Butter whispered to Betty. “Collect the seeds from that grass and grind it into dust. Then mix it with water and cook it on a hot stone.”
“Then what?” Asked Betty.
“Then thou shalt spread me on it!” Butter’s commanding voice boomed back.
After the grass seed paste got sort of toasted on the stone, she spread Butter on it, and with the first bite she could damn near hear the angels sing.
“Hey, Chuck!” She said to the grizzled hunter-gatherer next to her. “Try this.”
Melted across the toast, the divine essence of Butter flowed into the people, and their eyes lit up with knowledge. They saw the world as if they were gods themselves. They observed nature, and they imitated it. They gathered and crushed seeds, but some of the seed they saved and planted.
“We need more of that frickin’ toast!” Exclaimed Chuck, poking holes in the dirt and dropping a tiny seed in each.
They’d already raised goats; now they were raising their own toast grass. “I wonder what else we can raise?” Betty wondered as she looked around.
Over the next several years, the clan experimented with many types of husbandry. Betty even tried husband husbandry with Chuck, but all their attempts were met with failure.
“What do you think about bears?” Betty asked Butter one day. “Bear butter. That has a nice sound to it. Doesn’t it?”
“Or bovines maybe,” Butter said. “But forget all that. It’s time you made me a new home.”
“What are you talking about?” She said, holding up its bladder and giving it a shake. “You have a great home.”
“It’s a goat’s bladder, Betty. I’m a god! I should have a palanquin, a shrine, a temple!”
Betty just blinked.
“See that mud over there?” Butter said. “Go scoop up a handful of that.”
After teaching the people how to make bread, Butter set to teaching them pottery making.
“I don’t even understand what we’re doing playing in the mud like this.” Betty’s recent ex-husband, Chuck, grumbled. He was muddy to the elbows. He had clay in his beard. He even had it up under his loincloth, for goodness sake.
“The Butter wants a better home, and what the Butter wants, the Butter gets,” Betty said, pressing the mud into slabs and then pressing leaves into that for a nice decorative effect.
“That’s the spirit. Make it pretty. I want a pretty dish, so I look magnificent!” Butter said.
Chuck just grumbled and splattered more mud in his eye, but Betty formed and shaped her slab with care as the afternoon sun began to dry it.
Sure, the Butter was a bit bossy, but it was a dairy deity, after all. The clan’s cuisine had become an art form since the arrival of Butter. They even had to invent the word ‘cuisine’ to describe it. Meat and berries are fine, but buttered toast was transcendent.
Soon the other clans were eager to trade anything for it. They’d show up in the morning, form orderly queues, and root around in their pouches for hammerstones, ivory awls, bone scrapers, or anything that would help them come up with the correct change for a slice of that delicious buttered toast for their breakfast.
“Ha!” Betty said with satisfaction as she sat back and regarded her masterpiece.
“Slam it!” Chuck swore as he smashed a fist into his own misshapen blob.
“This is fun, hey Chuck?” She elbowed the surly brute playfully in the side. “Sure beats duelling mammoths on the tundra.”
Chuck just grumbled and picked some mud out from under his loincloth.
“That’s a fine-looking Butterhouse, Betty,” Butter said. “But Chuck, remember what I said about wedging the clay. Try not to mix air bubbles in.”
But Chuck just grunted irritably, snatched up his spear and stormed off.
“Chuck’s not such a handbuilder, I guess,” Betty said. “Maybe he should try throwing pots.”
“Don’t skip ahead in the narrative,” Butter told her. “How’s my new Butterhouse coming along.”
“Not quite,” said Butter. “Now we light it on fire.”
Butter had a settling, civilizing influence over the people. One minute they were nomads shaking milk in a goat’s bladder, and in the next, they were prosperous business hominids, developing mathematics and advanced farming practices to keep up with demand for their delicious invention of Buttered toast.
And like Butter, their reputation soon spread all the way up the valley. Envoys from faraway tribes came bartering tools and weapons for a pound or two of that consecrated condiment. Devotees made weeks-long pilgrimages just to prostrate themselves before Lord Butter, where it rested on its throne. Butter was a god, clearly. Its cult was soon a religion, and before long, it was an economy.
The dairymaid, Betty, wore golden robes and carried a long, dull sword with a rounded tip, for she was now the High Priestess of Butter. She was the Cardinal Toaster. As midwife to Butter and the maker of its first dish, some called her the Immaculate Conceiver. But she was under no illusions. She knew she was just Butter’s personal assistant. “Who am I kidding?” she grumbled to herself. “I’m Butter’s bitch!”
Some days she wished she’d gone mammoth hunting with her ex-husband Chuck and just forgotten about this whole civilization thing.
“Scratch my back, would you, Betty,” Butter said imperiously where it lounged on its throne. Betty gave a tired sigh and poked at it a bit with her dull sword. “And I need a new dish too.”
“What’s wrong with this one?” Betty snapped. “I made it with mud and fire just the way you said.”
“I need a cover. The sun makes me all melty. Besides, the people of Big Mountain just gave their Cheese god a new platter. You’re not going to let some Cheese have a better throne than me, are you?” Butter said sulkily.
“Are you really jealous? Of a Cheese?!”
“Betty!” Butter whined.
“Alright. What sort of Butterhouse do you want this time?” she asked.
“Something with a pond,” it said. “The Small Lake clan has a Kefir that…”
“Seriously? You’re jealous of a Kefir too?!”
“Betty!” Butter whined again.
Betty sighed. “Fine!” she said defeatedly. “And what is this Butter chateau with its own water feature supposed to look like?”
As Butter lorded over the people and its fame spread far and wide, it started getting a bit smarmy and smug. Unctuous, one might even call it. Sitting out in the sun like that didn’t help either. Betty had had enough of it, though. The Butter was more demanding by the day, and its oily attitude was impossible to manage. Betty was sick of being Butter’s keeper, so one night, she dressed in her old hunting firs, strapped on her bow and slipped away into the wild.
Let the Butter have its empire, its rituals, and its worshippers. Betty wanted a return to the simple life, so she set out across the tundra in search of her ex-husband Chuck.
She found him and his group of hunters on a hillside snacking on a marmot. “What happened to the mammoths?” Betty wanted to know.
But apparently, the mammoth hunt hadn’t been going so well, what with the dire wolves and the sabertooth tigers. “It sure beats sitting around and listening to that talking milk all of the time,” Chuck said.
“I’m sorry, Chuck. We should never have let the Butter come between us,” Betty told him. “Romantic relationships can be slippery enough already.”
“Don’t worry about it, doll,” Chuck said, chucking her under the chin. “Butter was your best invention. It just needed to be contained properly.” And here he drew back a deer hide to reveal a colourful box with a little one-finger handle on the top. “We keep our Butter in this, and it helps keep it under control.”
“Oh, Chuck!” Betty despaired, “You’re not conjuring Butter again, are you?!”
Chagrinned, Chuck fidgeted with the butter box in his lap. “At first, we swore the stuff off, but then one of the boys got the idea to try milk a ground sloth, and one thing just led to another. Before you knew it, we were milking woolly rhinos and giant beavers. Then we discovered these things.” And he gestured toward a horned beast that came grazing up the slope.
“What is it?” Betty asked.
“This, my dear, is a wild ox,” Chuck said with some pride.
“This is the Pleistocene, Chuck. Everything is wild,” she said.
But Chuck showed her how they collected the milk, how they separated the cream, shook it in bladders, added some salt, and then sat it on a fancy rectangular plate.
“If you travel to the south,” the new Butter said, “you’ll find this exploding corn that kind of pops when it gets hot. Drizzle me over it, and thou shalt be rewarded with a flavour sensation!”
That did sound kind of tasty, to be honest, but Betty and Chuck had had it with being bossed around by a dairy product. So, with one deft movement, Chuck brought the box-shaped lid down over it, and it muffled Butter’s domineering voice.
“That’s brilliant, Chuck!” Betty said. “We can have our Buttered toast and eat it too. Only, now we don’t have to worry about Butter’s slippery influence seeping into all the corners of our lives.”
And so the people rejoiced, and the wild ox mooed, and the Butter mumbled under its dome as Betty snuggled in next to Chuck. “I have this idea for a sort of Butter chateau with its own water feature,” she said. “If we can get some more of that fire mud, I think I can make one.”
“Let’s leave that till tomorrow,” Chuck said, putting his arm around Betty. “For now, you’re the only butter dish for me.”
And from that day forward, the people lived in peace with the Butter. They built it rectangular homes that could accommodate a whole pound. They built it square domes that homed a half or quarter pound. And yes, they even made round Butter chateaus with water features that kept the Butter fresh and cool as they journeyed to the south in search of the infamous exploding corn.