Oleo is a generic term for any margarine or spread marketed as a butter substitute. In its natural state oleo is a white or near-white emulsion but yellow food coloring can be added to make it more palatable (the term margarine comes from the ancient Greek — a loose translation of “pearl”).
In the United States, oleomargarine was widely marketed as an affordable, “progressive” alternative to butter. Oleo remains inextricably tied in my mind to its class connotations. Advertisements from the mid-sixties (when my mother was shopping for our family of 12) made it clear that oleomargarine was “every bit as good” as butter, but only a fraction of the price. I have only one distinct memory of shopping with my mother at a supermarket when I was about six years old. I remember seeing the pure, rich butter on the shelves, next to the lighter oleomargarine we always bought. I asked if we could try butter instead, and my normally docile mother gave me a sharp look. We were an Oleo family. Butter was luxury and we were a space age family on a budget. Oleo is where it all started to go wrong for me.
David McClain is a Houston-based artist whose work has been exhibited in Texas, New Mexico and Illinois and published in art and literary journals in the United States and Germany. He holds his BA from Rice University, and MFA from the School of Art Institute of Chicago and a JD from the University of Houston. McClain is currently the artist in residence at the Houston Community College Southeast.