Granddaddy’s favorite afternoon snack was leftover cornbread crumbled in a glass of buttermilk. He ate it with a spoon. Mother churned this slightly sour tasting, fermented milk drink once a week. After all, she milked a cow twice a day and had to find different ways to use the milk besides feeding the cats.
I write about several of characters drinking buttermilk in my debut novel, If You Walk Long Enough. They eat and drink many foods uniquely southern, giving a downhome flavor to this tale set in South Carolina.
The name buttermilk is a tad misleading since it does not contain butter. Most of the cream was usually skimmed off and hand churned into butter. The remaining milk was served as sweet milk or made into buttermilk. Blue john was milk with all the cream removed, often found as skimmed milk in today’s dairy case. Buttermilk, already fermented, has a thicker consistency than other forms of milk and can be kept for longer periods of time especially in areas without modern refrigeration or preservatives. It is a favorite addition to meats, especially as a marinade, in breads, baked products, and in soups. The tart taste adds a special zing to foods. A special note—commercial buttermilk is not as tasty as traditional buttermilk. Don’t let that put you off from trying the commercial product as a tasty addition to any panty or as a cooling summer drink. (I have a great recipe for buttermilk summer soup. Refreshing!)
Buttermilk is not the only traditional food mentioned in the novel, If You Walk Long Enough. Greens, usually collard or turnip tops, black-eyed peas, cornbread, and pies—chess, sweet potato, pecan—are common fare. Grits, country ham, chicken fried steak, baked sweet potatoes, and fried catfish with hushpuppies are other foods favored by soul food buffs and southern cooks alike. Okra, brought from Africa by slaves, is found on southern tables in creole dishes, dredged in cornmeal and fried, or added to stews. Like greens and black-eyes, okra was easy to grow and found in garden plots because the plant could be counted on to produce in less than ideal conditions.
Buttermilk can be found in many cultures and countries. People in Nepal, Middle East, India, Balkans, Southeast Asia, and Pakistan favor the tart flavor of buttermilk, yoghurts, and sour cream. It is a valuable source of protein, calcium, vitamin B12 and pantothenic acid (B5). Buttermilk is said to improve blood pressure and bone health.
To find out more about cooking with buttermilk, look through recipes focused on Lowcountry cuisine, soul foods, and regional cooking. Don’t forget the health benefits of drinking and cooking with fermented milk.