Butter: a Memoir

My grandmother had a dairy farm.  I grew up drinking milk from her cows, spreading her butter on bread (and more often, baked potatoes), and eating hamburger and steak from that year’s butchering.  I remember being in elementary school and discussing at lunch time what our favorite dinners were.  Mine was steak and baked potatoes.  The rest of the kids at the table were in awe that we could afford steak.  The truth?  Steak was already in the freezer.  Chicken and pork were at the grocery store, with price tags attached.  The rest of the kids were wearing name-brand clothing and eating their bagels spread with individual packets of Philadelphia cream cheese.  They were the rich kids; they just didn’t have grandmothers that raised cows.

I digress.

I was lounging around on the interwebs, looking for inspiration for my next DIY/From Scratch foray when I came across a comment at How to Cook Like Your Grandmother.  The one about the butter.  Which made me think, “butter, from scratch!  Of course!  I grew up on that shit.  I should totally figure out how to make it and then blog about it.”  So I obsessively searched through Drew’s blog until I came to the butter post.  This is a different system than my Grandmother used, because I distinctly remember a gallon jar with a special lid that churned butter.  And a paddle that looked kind of like a ping pong paddle, but curved, that had some mysterious power to turn butter into loaves.  Those loaves would then be wrapped in plastic wrap and then aluminum foil.  There would be a masking tape seal that had the date on it.  You could pull one of those babies out of the freezer at any point and have butter ready to use.

Also in elementary school, I made macaroni and cheese at a friend’s house.  I thought it was somewhat silly that they had taken their loaf of butter and cut it into perfect rectangular shapes and wrapped it with waxed paper.  What’s wrong with the loaf shape, people?  It wasn’t until years later that I realized that not everyone’s grandmother made butter.  Not everyone had loaves of butter wrapped in plastic and foil in their freezers.  Some people had to buy their butter at the grocery store.  At the time, I probably thought they were privileged to do so.  How wrong we can be when we’re young!

The butter post set off a chain of emotional landmines for me, and I ended up sobbing at Hubby, barely coherent, trying to express how much I miss my Grandma Edlah.  I miss her farm.  I miss Christmas and Thanksgiving and 4th of July and canning time and wood chopping time.  I miss reading Archie comics from who knows when in the bedroom where we stayed.  I miss seeing those vintage kitchen implements in use every day.  It has been years since she died.  I have finally gotten to the point that I don’t have the thought, “I should call Grandma up and ask her…”.  I now have switched to, “I wish I could call Grandma up and ask her…”, followed by grief that I didn’t treasure her enough when I had her available to me.

Hubby doesn’t quite get it yet.  Even though he’s seven years older than me, he still has three of his grandparents alive and kicking.  He doesn’t understand why I so love hearing Grandma Irene’s stories.  He thinks they’re great, sure.  But he doesn’t get the fact that you only have so many years to hear the stories before they’re gone.  And then you can’t quite remember the details, but you can’t call to verify them.  Of course,  you can call other folks.  You can call your parents and your aunts and uncles.  You can call the cousins.  You can probably get a pretty accurate rendition of the story from someone in the family.  But not from the source.  And it’s not quite the same.

I remember older people telling me (when I was younger) that you want to take advantage of the time you have with people.  I remember them implying that everyone dies, and that I might regret the time I spent doing other things.  I remember thinking, “but there’s plenty of time.”  How I wish I’d listened then.  Now I wish I could take every youngin’ that’s thinking they’ve got plenty of time and shake the knowledge into their head that there will come a time that they regret that they didn’t soak up more from their grandparents when they had the chance.  It wouldn’t work though.  I’d just be that crazy lady that’s always talking about grandparents.  No one wants to be that lady, and no one wants to spend time with her.

After I was done sobbing, I sent an email to my mother.  I sobbed some more in the process, because even writing about the fact that Grandma’s gone makes me miss her more.  But I sent the email.  I asked my mother to pass Grandma’s butter-making techniques along to me.  I know that I can learn how to make butter on the interwebs.  But as I was reading the butter post, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking that Drew was doing it wrong.  He was using a spatula to press buttermilk out of the butter.  He used yogurt to culture the cream.  He used a hand-held mixer to churn the butter.

Yes, I know: none of these items are actually what you could consider wrong when discussing butter-making techniques.  But they’re not Grandma Edlah’s.  Drew understands the value of “how I was raised” in how we think about food, so I’m sure he’ll understand my feelings of wrongness surrounding his butter recipe.  Especially if I’ve been clear enough in the idea that I know there’s nothing inherently wrong with his way.

He has given me a gift.  I did not realize that I missed my grandmother so much.  I did not realize that much of the impetus to reach back to the old-school housewife is actually a way for me to recapture what I can of that relationship.  I did not realize that I wanted to learn my grandmother’s method for making butter.  I did not realize that there is something fulfilling in a foil-wrapped loaf of butter that I will never get from my Costco-pack of butter sticks.  Now I  know, because I read about Drew making butter.  Stay tuned.  There will be butter.  The butter is not a lie.

Casey September 22, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Learn the butter recipe… and then TEACH ME! Making butter sounds right up my alley. :)

I’m sorry about your grandmother. I lost mine just before William was born and I miss her dearly too. :(

The Housewife September 24, 2010 at 10:08 pm

Hi, Casey!

Making butter does totally seem up your alley – I often wonder how you manage to do so much from scratch with four little helpers!

Thank you for your sympathy, I really appreciate it.

Heather September 22, 2010 at 4:29 pm

If it makes you feel any better (it won’t) I never ever called Grandma up cause I never got old enough that it seemed reasonable before she passed. I really feel that I missed out with our grandparents (excpet maybe Grandpa – cause I spent so much time with him near the end) .

Anyway, I really wrote to say this: I got some raw milk from a farm around here one time. It was so delicious. I really didn’t like Grandma’s milk all that much as a kid (it didn’t taste like store bought). The raw milk brought back so many memories. It tasted just right. I tried pouring the cream on cereal, but it didn’t taste as good as I remember (maybe because I eat more fat in my diet now so it’s not as exciting). I looked up butter making online and it said that if you have whole cream, just shake it in a jar with a tight lid and you’ll eventually have butter. I did it. It tasted great too. It took a long time and my arms were tired when I was done, but that’s all it took. You should give it a try. :o )


The Housewife September 24, 2010 at 10:08 pm

Hi, Heather!

I did know that you can make butter by shaking a jar. There was a time that mom used to do that with her students, but I’m not sure if she still does. Mom told me she could show me how grandma shaped the loaves and everthing, so I’m excited to make the “real” version – you know, _my_ version of real.

I love how we both thought that store bought stuff was better when we were kids, but the “gross” versions are actually what we like now. That’s right, “yucky bread,” I’m talkin’ to you!



Annabelle September 25, 2010 at 6:59 am

I remember making butter in grade school. Yup, shaking, shaking, shaking….and it was delicious. We might have added a couple grains of salt also. Delicious.
Loved your grandma remembrance….my mom and dad, city folk, retired to a farm………..so I was “old” when I learned her new-found farm ways. I still remember the first stab at getting an egg from under a live chicken :-(
She also made cottage cheese …..don’t remember how because at that time in my life I didn’t like cottage cheese.

The Housewife September 25, 2010 at 7:42 am

Hi, Annabelle!

I’ve never actually gotten eggs from a chicken. The chickens lived next door to Grandma, and I’m sure all my cousins know how, but I’ve never tried it. Now that you brought it up, I’ll have to learn. I know a few folks with chickens, so it’s probably not too late (Nathe & Alicia? Linnea? Adrian? Who’s going to teach me?).

I am not sure how soon I’ll be making cottage cheese, since I’m not that fond of the texture. I’m sure to run out of other dairy products to experiment with at some point though – stay tuned!


Drew @ How To Cook Like Your Grandmother September 23, 2010 at 7:17 pm

I just read this to my wife, and she’s sitting here all misty-eyed, trying not to start bawling. I’ve never seen anything that so perfectly, and so completely, captures why I’m doing the blog.

It’s not just about the food. It’s about sharing time — and food — with family and loved ones.

Good luck finding the right tools. The last time I wrote about making butter I looked for the jar with the hand crank in the lid and all I could find were antiques and decorative reproductions. I just looked again and found this one-gallon glass jar churn, this 1.6 quart model, and this much more period-looking one-gallon version.

Kristin mentioned the butter paddle that she has, that’s at least 100 years old. (You’re not the only one who remembers making butter with Grandmom.) So I went looking and found this. Expensive, but so cool.

Do you know if anyone kept Grandma Edlah’s kitchen tools? When my wife’s great-aunt Nora died, none of the family wanted the kitchen stuff, except the microwave. We got all the good stuff.

The Housewife September 23, 2010 at 9:25 pm

Hi, Drew!

So glad you stopped by and so relieved you understood my comments about wrongness! Thank you so much for the links. I do still need to check out what may still be available within the family, because the farmstead is still around. It’s just not the same without Grandma.

Funny thing, when I was discussing this with my mother: I had found a motorized gallon jug churn online, which is what I remember Grandma using. I emailed the link to my mother, and she replied that Grandma’s churn was more like those that you linked to. Then she realized that I didn’t remember Grandma churning butter before the 80s, and she had switched to electric by then. So even though I’m going to be learning how to make butter from my mother, who learned from my grandmother, I will have to choose between using equipment that is wrong from my point of view or wrong from hers.

Thank you so much for stopping by, and for your kind comments. I’m still really new at this, and I feel like a celebrity stopped by!


Christy September 24, 2010 at 5:34 pm

I never really knew my grandparents – how lucky you are! What a lovely post! (I came here via Drew)

The Housewife September 24, 2010 at 10:08 pm

Hi, Christy!

Thank you for the perspective. I was lucky enough to have three out of five (don’t you love the new family math?) grandparents until I was in my twenties. Sometimes I forget to focus on that luckiness when I’m consumed with jealousy over how many grandparents my husband still has.

Thank you for stopping by, and for making me pause for a moment and reflect on all the times I did have with my grandparents. Now you are in the same boat as Drew – making me stop, think, remember, and treasure. Good place to be.


Wade September 24, 2010 at 7:42 pm

Hi Melissa.

I’m trying to judge if the post is more about missed time with lost relatives than figuring out how to make butter from scratch.

I’ve found that our life expectancies are not increasing fast enough to accommodate how much later we’re starting families. But it’s worse than that: our bodies are still aging the same speed, but we’re asking them to do things later than the time they’re designed for. Fifty years ago, who would imagine starting a family in your 30s? Or 40s? This is my dilemma.

But there are also families that don’t have that history of cooking to share. None of my grandparents were great cooks and my own mother is firmly stuck in the “fat is bad” school.


The Housewife September 24, 2010 at 10:04 pm

Hi, Wade.

Thanks for stopping by. I think that _this_ post is about missed time with lost relatives, because there will be a future post just about making butter.

You make a good point about starting families later. I’m 33 now, and I’ve noticed how much harder everything is just in the last few years. I definitely had more energy, stamina, and ability to play with babies on the floor in my early twenties than I do now. Of course, I couldn’t pay my bills back then, so everything’s a trade-off.

I also feel very fortunate in the experiences my family provided me (on both sides). I know that many of my peers didn’t have the opportunities I had to see where food comes from and how one goes about turning it into actual meals. The last few years with the CSA has gotten me thinking a bit more about where our food comes from and what happens to it along the way to our dinner plates. I realize that many people my age, and even in my parents’ generation, just don’t have those same memories.

I feel like there’s probably an upcoming post on some related subject, because I apparently have quite a bit to say on the matter. There will be butter though, as soon as my mother and I have a chance to gather equipment and make it happen!


Linda September 25, 2010 at 2:10 pm

What a beautiful love letter to your grandmother and her influence on your life. I feel the same way about mine; the other day one of my cousins sent me a number of scanned recipe cards — just index cards with grandma’s precious handwriting on them, detailing a few old-fashioned pickle and cake recipes — and oh, what a treasure! I recommend also contacting any siblings, aunts & uncles, and cousins, if they’re out there, because you may be able to exchange tidbits between you for the enrichment of all.

The Housewife September 26, 2010 at 9:00 am

Hi, Linda!

You’re so right. I was hanging out with one of my cousins, and told her about this post, and she called her sister who still has the wooden bowl and paddle Grandma used to use. Those will be heading toward Tacoma soon, so the butter-making will be authentic! No one seems to be sure where the churn is, and Hubby is convinced that he should just make one. We’ll see…


Mary Lynn September 26, 2010 at 7:52 am

Every Fall (absolutely every Fall), when I see grape arbors, I remember my Dad pushing us up through the arbors to pick the grapes. And then we would sit in my Grandma’s kitchen and get the grapes off the stems and Mom and Grandma would make jelly. We would spend the weekend. Picking. Picking. Picking. And the end results was ambrosia. I do remember sitting at school with my homemade bread and jelly sandwich and wishing that I could be like the other kids and have “Wonder Bread.” Alas, I didn’t realize until I was much older that my bread was the WONDER BREAD and their’s was just a poor imitation.

Your butter is my jelly. And I am sitting here with tears in my eyes. Missing Grandma and Dad and Mom.

p.s. My Grandma’s dog would only eat homemade bread with homemade jelly and real butter. None of that store bought stuff for the princess!

The Housewife September 30, 2010 at 8:52 pm

Hi, Mary Lynn!

Your jelly also reminds me of canning time in Grandma’s kitchen – especially eating the grapes as Mom and Grandma worked. Our family wasn’t so much about the jelly, but I remember being pretty young and prepping green beans for canning. We snapped off both ends, and then broke them into 1″ lengths (or so). Both my sister and I remember eating about as many as we added to the “ready to can” pile.

Grandma also baked bread – I remember her bread made the BEST toast ever. I knew that, even at the time. Of course, the “yucky bread” I referred to up above was some version of Wonder Bread. I do remember begging mom & dad for that bread, and squishing it into fistfuls of dense bread-like masses before eating it. Gross now, but I thought it was wonderful then!

Thank you for sharing your remembrance. I’m so glad you found my blog. I read your comment a few days ago, and I think you should know that every grape vine I’ve passed this week, I’ve thought of you and your parents and your Grandma. I have no idea what any of you look like, but you’re all in my imagination now. Of course, there aren’t a lot of grape _arbors_ on my walks in Tacoma, so I have to imagine that, too…