What is “oleo”?

My grandma spelled it “oleo.”  Some of these old cookbooks I’m looking through call it “olio.”  And until about 15 minutes ago, I never would have guessed that it appeared in a dictionary, but Merriam-Webster  does include it, and tells us that it rhymes with “acid snow”…

oleo dictionary

But what is it?

As you can see above, oleo is actually an old word, dating back as early as the late nineteenth century.  I did a little research on the term “oleomargarine” and came up with the following:


In its early days, oleo was likely a more affordable alternative to butter, and as people became more health-conscious (well, sort of), oleo became a cholesterol-free substitute for butter and lard.  The dairy industry was so threatened by oleo that legislation was passed that banned it from being colored yellow!  Apparently in its early days, oleo was white and came with a dye packet so home cooks could make it yellow [source].  It was likely the first in a huge industry of butter-flavored spreads… that we are now learning may be worse for us than the cholesterol in butter, because of the nasty trans-fats that they contain.

In my Grandma’s recipes, “oleo” seems to be interchangeable with “margarine.” I remember her usually having oleo in spreadable form in a cute little flowered plastic tub in the fridge, but also sometimes in 8-ounce sticks, like butter. I also remember a particularly dark period in the early 1990s where “oleo” meant “butter-flavor Crisco.”

Grandma’s use of “oleo” to describe any number of cooking fats was similar to how many of us use “Kleenex” to refer to tissues in general.  Oleo was an ingredient, a condiment, a kitchen lubricant, and a cooking grease.  She spread it on baking dishes, used it in cookie recipes, fried pancakes in it, and dropped dollops of it onto meals that probably didn’t even need it.

My childhood was basically covered in a greasy oleo haze, so I guess I’m relieved to know that it didn’t kill off a bunch of turkeys… But I think we should all just stick to butter.

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