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The Sweet Slap-Slap Of Churning Butter

By John Gould / May 1, 1992



MY father had a bachelor uncle who made his home with us while I was growing up, and we children never tumbled that he lived with us because he had no other place to live. His obligations were never enumerated, but he entertained, instructed, and admonished us children until we grew up to realize he earned his keep many times over. He used to say his main duty was not to stand around under foot. Once in a great while, and far from often, he would say to my mother, "All right, Hildy - you clear out of the

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kitchen, and I'll make the butter!" Uncle was an expert on butter and knew how to make my mother like him.

As with most folks who kept a family cow, Mother would churn once a week, on Saturday. But when Uncle came to live with us, he told her cream was too delicate for that, and she should churn twice a week. Old age, he said, was all right for some things, but.

I'm sure some of you folks out yonder have noticed that the carton of fresh and rectified milk you get in the supermarket on the third day of May is marked, "Use before June 25." Our milk was used on the Tuesday after it was extracted on the Monday, or it went to the pigs. Except for the butter program. Milk for butter was "set" in pans and after the cream rose it was skimmed off and kept for the churn. But Uncle said it mustn't be kept too long.

Uncle had learned to make butter, he told us, from Lizzie Reynolds. The Reynolds' farm was next above his home place, and he used to go there to help with chores, and once in a while would take a meal. Lizzie made butter once a week for the stores, and accordingly Uncle would be subjected to Lizzie's butter. He said it was better than gudgeon grease on a cartwheel, but when it came to a hot biscuit he'd as soon have gudgeon grease. Lizzie, that is, made very poor butter, and Uncle figured out why. He sai d sometimes her butter would jump up and walk around the top of the table. For one thing, she let her cream stand altogether too long before she churned. And then she didn't "work" it enough so she removed all the residual buttermilk. Working the buttermilk out was called "spanking," and done with a wooden paddle. Lizzie just didn't have the muscle. Or the tender, loving care.

Another thing Lizzie lacked, and which Uncle bought for my mother, was a dairy thermometer. If the cream is too cool when it goes into the churn you can twist the crank a long time for nothing. And, he said, the right temperature leads to better taste. Lizzie, you see, never had a thermometer and used her finger, which was not reliable.

So Uncle would take over and churn, and because he had the cream at the right degree the butter "came" readily. Uncle was hardly a heathen, but neither was he devout, so he would sing his favorite hymn while he turned the crank:

I am coming, Sister Mary,

I am coming bye and bye.

I am coming, Sister Mary,

For the time is drawing nigh.

Uncle never had a sister. In the process, a churn goes something like splosh-splosh-splosh, but the minute the fat globules "gather" the sound takes on a slap-slap as well. To anybody who ever kept a cow, that slap-slap is the finest music of all. The persistent grinding of a churn crank is tedious. But now the butter must be spanked.

When Uncle had drained off as much buttermilk as the collected butter would release, he would sit down and have a tall glass of it to rest and refresh himself, as he said, and he would linger over this in preparation for the truly arduous work ahead. He'd put the new butter on the butterboard, set the board just so under a trickle from the cold water faucet, and generate a ferocious muscular activity that he inflicted mercilessly. He would slap and pound and belabor and then turn the butter and begin aga in.

Mother couldn't keep up such a furious attack and so took longer for the job. And Lizzie Reynolds never tried to. Uncle would slap with the paddle and say, "Take that! Lizzie Reynolds! Take that, and that! Take THAT, you old battleax!" Uncle had no use for Lizzie Reynolds. Not too much salt, and there you have the second sweetest treat of a magnificent childhood. Second, because the sweetest is unsalted new butter on hot sal-ratus biscuits with honey.