Thursday, April 9, 2009

Mix Butter, Onions, Cheese and Eggs. Add Electricity...

For some reason, this post from Freakonomics got me thinking about the Chicago Butter and Egg board, the Butter, Cheese, and Egg Exchange of New York and Title 7, Ch. 1, § 13–1 U.S. Code*:

Lightbulb Moment in Food History

Last week’s post talked about early-20th-century “egg gamblers” who bought eggs cheap in spring in order to sell dear in winter. Their kind of speculation proved not just controversial but also pretty risky, and ultimately doomed. Why?

Egg gamblers won only if they sold off their cold-storage stocks before fresh ones arrived in spring. They faced two major unknowns: housewives who sometimes protested egg “hoarding” with organized boycotts, and hens who might start laying earlier than expected. Because hens are acutely sensitive to shifts in daylight and temperature, all it took was a February thaw to set them off, sending egg prices plummeting.

Poultry farmers, meanwhile, just wanted to know how to get their own flocks to lay more eggs when fresh ones were scarcest and priciest. They knew that some chicken breeds laid a few more winter eggs than others, and that warm housing and a rich diet generally helped. But the most dramatic results came with the flick of a switch — literally.

Although few farmers in 1910 to 1920 had electricity, those who did discovered that hens couldn’t tell the difference between the sun and a light bulb....MORE
*Violations, prohibition against dealings in onion futures; punishment.

As with all things financial the scandals came first, the regulation followed, often to no good purpose.
I'll come back to butter and cheese next month. Here's a 1956 Time Magazine story "Odorous Onions" on the volatility of that market.
In the meantime here's a 1927 recording of "Big Butter and Egg Man..." by King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, featuring Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong:

Here are the transcribed lyrics of a November 1926 Louis Armstrong May Alix duet:

May Alix:

I want my butter and egg man,
From 'way out in the west.
'Cause I'm getting tired of working all day;
I want somebody who wants me to play;
Pretty clothes have never been mine,
But if my dream comes true,
The sun is going to shine;
'Cause I want my butter and egg man;
Don't some great big butter and egg man want me?

Louis Armstrong:

Here, here,
Now, mama, I'm your big butter and egg man!
But I'm different, honey,...