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 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.