The incredible shrinking pound, when less isn’t as much

When I was growing up, a pound was a pound. A pound of butter weighed a pound, and so did a pound of coffee. If my mother said, “Run to the store and get me a pound of coffee,” I knew all I had to do was grab a can of Maxwell House and I was good to go.

When margarine started appearing in American kitchens, it tried to imitate butter. In the early days it largely failed at this — except for the way it was packaged. If butter came in cartons of four quarter-pound sticks, then by gum so would margarine. And when margarine migrated to tubs, it continued to be sold a pound at a time. Over time I took comfort in that. A pound of coffee might have shrunk to anywhere between 13 and 10.5 ounces, but margarine was hanging tough.

Which is why I freaked awhile back when I picked up the newly styled tub of my regular margarine brand and saw imprinted on it, “New Shape, Still 15 Oz.” WHAT? Still? When did this happen? When did a pound of my margarine shrink? It could only mean one thing: The containers had shrunk and I’d never noticed. How long had I been a victim of this deceit?

But when I looked at other brands, I saw that 15 ounces was now the universal pound of margarine. It was as if a major historic event had occurred and I’d missed it. I was devastated. I’d noticed only because they changed the shape of its container, a change they’d decided to promote right on the packaging, in case consumers couldn’t tell the difference between round and square.

So I’m officially chagrined. My reporter’s instincts had let me down, and I can’t make excuses. It’s no good to claim I took it on good faith that margarine makers were sticking to the principle that a pound was a pound. In the margarine world, a pound is now 15 ounces — end of discussion. And the low-sodium version I buy? It’s “still” 13 ounces for the same price, because it costs money to leave out something!

We all know why food producers engage in this subterfuge — to conceal rising food prices, or to make price increases seem modest. But they’re not fooling anyone, are they! Well, maybe they are for a while.

But it’s not just pounds. Quarts have shrunk too. Not long ago I noticed that many quarts of mayonnaise were now 30 ounces instead of 32, but I won’t get into that. Bet you can’t wait until I do.

Let me conclude by disclosing that this is the first time in my entire career that I’ve used the phrase “by gum” in a column. Despite this little bonus, dear readers, the paper is still 50 cents — even if the broadsheet isn’t as broad as it used to be.