buttermilk essay
photograph by Matt Hulsman

Where I’m from in the Blue Ridge Mountains, we didn’t count on a magic genie in a bottle. We put our faith in buttermilk. Same thing. Old-fashioned buttermilk is the whey left in the bottom of a churn, a by-product of making butter. It is light, yet substantial, with flecks of butter floating through it like gold flakes in a snow globe. Its origins are modest, if not happenstance. Starting way back, most families kept a cow or had access to fresh milk — what some people called sweet milk. What they lacked was refrigeration to keep that milk fresh for very long. Turns out that milk left out overnight makes tastier butter. It also starts the growth of the harmless, active cultures in the milk, similar to the good-for-us stuff found in natural yogurt, sauerkraut, and other fermented foods. Those delicious tangy cultures are what enable buttermilk to work culinary wonders in recipes. Cooks soon came to regard buttermilk not as a compromising make-do, but as something they couldn’t do without.

Connoisseurs love to drink buttermilk, not only for its bracing taste but also for its purported curative powers. A glass of bedtime buttermilk has soothed the tummies of the dyspeptic and the frayed nerves of many a late-night reveler. It’s what folks used in lieu of Alka-Seltzer, Activia, and Advil. As one dairy farmer puts it, “Buttermilk might not fix all the world’s problems, but it’ll help.”

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Given its wonder-working powers, liquid buttermilk should always be our first choice in both our drinking glasses and our mixing bowls. It’s a shame that so many well-intentioned but misguided recipes encourage us to replace buttermilk with reconstituted powder, or milk curdled with lemon juice or vinegar. Heavens to Betsy, that’s bad advice. Other than being acidic, curdled milk bears no resemblance to buttermilk, and it cannot deliver the goods. It’s akin to rice cakes in lieu of hot biscuits, or, yes, water for chocolate. Please, make a solemn vow that you will never again fool yourself into thinking that acidulated milk can pinch-hit for liquid buttermilk in any recipe.

Without buttermilk, fully excellent (or even passable) fried chicken, chocolate cake, and biscuits would be impossible dreams. Even worse, there would be no buttermilk to go with, and in, our cornbread. Many Southern traditions celebrate buttermilk, but few garner more devotion and sentiment than this curious practice that hails from the mountain South: Take a tall glass (never a bowl) and fill it with crumbled leftover cornbread and cold buttermilk. Mash it around a bit until the cornbread is moist, but not mushy. Eat with a spoon, preferably a long-handled one.

Everyone agrees on the glass and the spoon, but individual practitioners are particular about whether the cornbread or buttermilk goes into the glass first, leading to the two most popular names for this creation, which are “Bread and Milk” or “Crumble-In.” Some people add black pepper, chopped onions, salt, or sugar.

It’s hard to find a native of the mountains who doesn’t crave this concoction as a meal, snack, or dessert. It’s equally hard to find folks from elsewhere who understand the appeal. They don’t know what they’re missing. But I do, and that just leaves more for me and mine.

Local Culture

A few family-owned, small-scale dairies in North Carolina are producing cultured whole buttermilk worth seeking out at your local grocery store: Wholesome Country Creamery in Hamptonville, Homeland Creamery in Julian, Ran-Lew Dairy Milk Company in Snow Camp, Maple View Farm in Hillsborough, and Simply Natural Creamery in Ayden.

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Sheri Castle hails from Watauga County, but came down off the mountain to go to Carolina and now lives in Fearrington Village. She is a writer, recipe developer, cooking teacher, and popular public speaker. She is fueled by mountains, excellent bourbon, farmers’ markets, and searching for the right word. Sheri believes that stories happen only to those who can tell them. Check her out at shericastle.com.