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.

Farina Dumplings

As a kid, I wouldn’t go near dumplings.  While I do regret missing out on some good soups in those years, it was worth it to avoid the lifeless, gray floating lumps at the annual Slovenian Women’s Union Christmas party.  Imagine being nine years old, all dressed up for Christmas, and knowing that a bowl of mushy rock formations stood between you and the part where the presents got handed out.  You’d be urged to eat your soup, but not too strongly – after all, most of the adults at the table actually wanted to steal the dead gray things from your bowl.  Once you’d drain the broth, the grown ups would pounce, and finally — finally! — the liver dumplings would disappear and present-opening could commence.

Now that I am older, with more control over the contents of my dumplings, I can recognize that some are just plain GOOD.  In most cases dumplings are not difficult to make and are a nice change of pace from plain old noodles.  Eating soup is basically a winter requirement in Ohio, and I love finding new recipes.  I recently took a look through some old cookbooks for inspiration and decided to try my hand at farina dumplings, because:

  1. They are made of one of my favorite cereals, Cream of Wheat.
  2. They are not gray.
  3. They do not contain anyone’s liver.
  4. I can remember my mom making them when I was younger — and me probably making her promise me that they didn’t include anyone’s liver, and me probably not believing her all the way when she said they didn’t — so I feel like I have catching up to do as far as Eating Dumplings That Aren’t Gross

pots and pans

This recipe for Farina dumplings comes from Marie Floryan of West Allis, WI and Olga Kumershek Thomas of Madison, WI by way of More Pots and Pans, a 1998 publication of the Slovenian Women’s Union of America (since evolved to include men and more inclusively renamed the Slovenian Union of America).  I received this book as a Christmas gift from my Grandma M in 2001 and it is so fun to read.  Every single recipe credits the person (or people) who submitted it, and I occasionally vaguely recognize the name of someone I surely must have met over roasted chicken, pink wine and gray dumplings at a Christmas party once upon a time.

Marie and Olga got it right on this one.  I have absolutely no improvements or criticisms of these delicious dumplings!

Farina Dumplings with Eggs – For Soup

(Zdrobovi cmoki z jajcem)

  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/2 cup farina or Cream of Wheat
  • 2 eggs, separated
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • dash of pepper

Heat milk and butter.  When milk is scalded, stir in farina and cook until thick, stirring.  Remove from heat.  Cool.  Beat the egg whites until stiff; beat the egg yolks.  Add the beaten egg yolks to the farina, blend well.  Stir in egg whites.  Bring the clear beef or chicken soup to a gentle boil.  First dip teaspoon into boiling soup, then drop rounded spoonfuls of the farina mixture into the soup.  Cover, reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes.  Makes about 15 dumplings.

Most recipes for these dumplings referenced cooking them in a “clear broth.”  I really wanted to eat these in a bowl of chicken soup, so I had to take a different approach that was maybe a bit convoluted.  I made one of my new favorite recipes for chicken soup, sans noodles… then I strained out all of the chicken and vegetables, set them aside in the bowl, and heated the broth to cook the dumplings in.

farina Collage

That was a good decision, because the dumplings puffed up significantly while simmering.

It was a tight squeeze to add back the chicken and vegetables, but well worth the crowded conditions!  The beautiful, delicious, pillow-soft dumplings resolutely stayed on top of the soup and the end result was exactly what I was hoping for.