Long ago, when I was a child, when my grandmother was a good deal younger than I am now, I loved watching her make butter.

The uncles, young then and tanned and strong from daily hard work, milked the cows at dawn and dusk, sitting on their milking stools in their overalls, teasing us as we watched, their calloused hands expertly pumping the soft udders, propelling the milk into the stainless steel buckets until it foamed and frothed to the rim. The feral cats appeared, hoping, and the calves, penned nearby, waited bleating for their share.

The uncles carried the steaming, frothy buckets across the yard and up the porch steps into the kitchen. Coming through the door, the milk entered my grandmother’s domain. They handed it over, as if an offering, and turned away to other tasks.

My grandmother handled the milk with reverence. She strained it through a fine cloth, then poured it into large pans and set it to rest, covered with another cloth, for a day. Set it to rest so the cream could rise – would rise. And it did. Mysteriously and magically, on the surface of the milk gathered a thick layer of yellow custardy cream, clumpy with rich butterfat – cream that must be spooned, not poured.

She knows when it is ready. Carefully she skims the cream from the milk. The milk will be chilled, to be drunk up by thirsty uncles. The cream goes into a large bowl, to be made into butter. Sitting, it has taken up a natural tangy culture that is present in this place.

She prepares the churn. The churn is a heavy earthenware crock, about 18 inches tall, with wooden handles, and a thick lid with a chip out of one side. A wooden dowel comes out through a hole in the center of the lid. To the bottom of the dowel is affixed a cross made of two pieces of wood, to form the dasher. She washes the churn gently with warm water and soft soap.

She waits for the quiet part of the day. After the midday meal and the dishes, when the cook stove has been allowed to cool down and the uncles have gone back to the work of the outdoors, when nothing is likely to disturb her, she sets the clean churn on a spread of newspaper in the middle of the floor. She sets her ladder back chair beside it. I may watch, but I must be very quiet, and stay out of the way, an acolyte observing the priestess.

She sits, in her worn apron, purses her lips a little, and begins to pump the dasher up and down, up and down. The sound is a rhythmic kerplunk kerplunk kerplunk as the cross on the dasher strikes the cream, stirring and disordering the globules with each strike, sloshing them against each other and the sides of the churn. My grandmother’s bun begins to work loose, a strand of hair falling along her cheek, and she shines with a fine layer of sweat across her face. She pumps with concentration. She listens. She pauses. If it’s a very warm day, she adds a little ice water to the churn. Pumps some more.

Then, the pumping slows. She listens. A few more pumps, then she gives me a bare smile. “The butter’s come,” she says. She lifts the lid, raises the dasher. I am allowed to come off my chair and look. The dasher is covered with clumps and flecks of golden glistening butter. Now she gets the large bowl. She reaches into the churn and lifts out handfuls of dripping, slippery butter, gathering the clumps into bigger clumps with her fingers. What’s left in the churn is buttermilk, flecked with yellow bits of butter. It will be chilled and drunk up by thirsty uncles.

Now the butter must be washed. I stand on a stool at the sink and watch. She pushes cold water through the butter again and again with a wooden paddle until all the milk solids are removed, and the water runs clear, and the butter is pure butterfat. Then she will salt it lightly, form it into one pound loaves with her hands and wrap it in special paper, and it will be chilled. Some will be frozen, some she might sell. But this pound will be devoured on hot biscuits by hungry uncles and grandchildren, who don’t know they will never taste anything like it again in
their lives.

Now, I am older than my grandmother was then. Her churn sits in my house by the fireplace. The pole of the dasher is nearly worn through from years of scraping against the lid as it went up and down. In my house, it’s a decorative, primitive piece. If I take the lid off, I can still smell the tang of the cream.

I look at it, and know what it has done, how hard it was worked, how hard they all worked. I look at it, and know that no one, after me, will carry that visceral memory of the ritual of butter making. No matter how many times I describe what I watched, they will not know it. I look at the churn and see its future – perhaps as a curiosity in a collectibles shop or antique emporium, valued as an object without a history, without a story, simply a quaint artifact from another time.

Joy Cooke
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