Margarine or butter: the secret ingredient of storytelling

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Tags: literature

When An Cailín Ciúin got nominated for the Academy Award, I felt like a hipster because I watched it before it was mainstream. I just went to watch it at UCC with An Chuallacht Ghaelach to practice listening to Irish, without any expectations for the film itself but quickly reaized that the film and the story it was based on were certainly very special — not merely beautiful but also very carefully crafted. But I wouldn't be myself if I didn't make a silly joke and claim that the most important unanswered question is whether Mrs. Kinsella uses margarine or butter for baking.

When I got my hands on the original story, Foster by Claire Keegan, I set out to take that joke to its logical extreme and write a parody of medieval scholastic works — a hermeneutic inquiry into the question of margarine and butter.

However, I quickly realized that the question is not in fact as silly as it seems.

For a refresher ­— in the episode with the neighbor’s wake, the little heroine becomes bored and restless. A gossipy neighbor takes her for a walk and interrogates her about the daily life of her foster parents.

Which room did they put you into? Did Kinsella give you money? How much? Does she drink at night? Does he? Are they playing cards up there much? Who was there? What were the men selling the lines for? Do ye say the rosary? Does she put margarine or butter in her pastry? Where does the old dog sleep? Is the freezer packed solid? Does she skimp on things or is she allowed to spend? Are the child's clothes still hanging in the wardrobe?

Most of those questions have something in common. First, they all seem equally inconsequential, but in fact have something to do with the Kinsella couple’s life after the tragic death of their child. The questions about the dog and the child’s clothes foreshadow the reveal, although at that point, the reader doesn’t realize that yet.

Most of those questions are also quite easy to answer for an attentive reader. They put the girl in what we’ll soon learn was once their son’s room. Mr. Kinsella gave her a pound note — a lot more than she ever had, enough for half a dozen choc-ices. Mrs. Kinsella doesn’t force her to kneel down and allows her to say prayers in bed instead. The freezer is indeed packed to the brim with what Mrs. Kinsella refers to as perishables — the girl’s reaction implies that her own family not only can’t afford to stock up groceries, there’s no fridge in the house in the first place. And the child’s clothes were indeed in the wardrobe.

But baking ingredients are never mentioned anywhere else in the book. Mrs. Kinsella and the girl fry rashers and tomatoes, make ice cubes, boil onions for onion sauce, gather gooseberries for jam they buy rashers, sausages, and black pudding from a butcher’s shop; but I couldn’t find any details of their baking. The question about margarine and butter seems to be the only truly unanswerable one in that sequence.

Even more curiously, when the Kinsellas ask the heroine what the gossipy neighbor and her were chatting about, the first thing she mentions is that exact question and not any other. The only truly inconsequential question. It’s a brilliant choice on Claire Keegan’s side because it shows so many things at once — how shallow is the gossipy neighbor, how young and poignantly naive the girl is, and how uneasy she is to start talking about the terrifying discovery.

The question about margarine or butter may be silly, but its narrative role may be bigger than it seems. And still, I wonder — does Mrs. Kinsella put margarine or butter in her pastry?