Except for the sprinklings of salt, I took my buttermilk straight up. I didn’t follow the lead of some of my kinfolks who crumbled cornbread into theirs.
Grandmothers on both sides of my family knew their way around a butter churn. They lived on opposite ends of Greene County. Afton was the birthplace of my maternal grandmother, and my paternal grandmother was born in Jackson Hollow, in the Orebank-Bright Hope community on the county’s south side. Although their lives turned out quite differently, they shared the common heritage of butter-making.
As many farm families did, they saved the cream that separated from the milk of their own cows, and after that cream started to sour just a bit, they would churn it, breaking down the fat globules and forcing the solids to settle, forming butter. The liquid that resulted was, of course, buttermilk. Real buttermilk. And leagues away from the “cultured” buttermilk sold in grocery stores today. I remember some of that “cultured” supermarket buttermilk even had fake flecks of butter in it at one time.
The buttermilk my family produced contained real flecks of butter, flavorful reminders of how the product was created.
After a few years of early teenage rebellion, I returned to buttermilk. At what was then Britt’s Grill, now Greeneville’s Bean Barn, I discovered the magic pairing of buttermilk and soup beans.
Whereas most of my high school classmates, allowed to leave the Greeneville High School campus to eat lunch, opted for soft drinks or sweet tea to accompany their cheeseburgers and “Beans All the Way,” I chose buttermilk. No sommelier has come up with a better beverage pairing. But the owners of today’s Bean Barn, Donna and Jerry Hartsell, tell me I’m the only one of their many customers who asks for buttermilk as a beverage now.
I’m hoping for a resurgence of buttermilk-drinking. Doctors say the bacteria in buttermilk is good for the digestive system, and I even know a person who uses it as a facial. She is Colleen Cruze Bhatti, and she is the fulcrum of the rebirth of real buttermilk in the South. Colleen and her family, guided by the wisdom and experience of her father Earl, a fourth-generation farmer, are producing buttermilk the real and right way, thanks to the milk of a herd of Jersey cows on the eastern edge of Knox County, near the French Broad River. Colleen and her family are the best ambassadors for buttermilk I know. As Earl Cruze says, buttermilk might not solve the world’s problems, “but it can help.”
As it is now, I have to drive to Knox County, to places like the Tuckahoe Trading Post in Kodak, Market Square in downtown Knoxville on a Saturday, or the Three Rivers Market on Central in order to purchase the Cruze family’s buttermilk and cream-topped milk.
I’m convinced that Johnson City ought to be a participant in the resurgence of real buttermilk, and it’s high time someone in town started selling Cruze dairy products. They would be perfect additions to the regional product lines of places like Food City and Earth Fare. I know one person who wouldn’t let his refrigerator be without them.
There is mixed opinion about wine in grocery stores. But for regional buttermilk, no referendum is required.
Fred Sauceman is the author of the new book Buttermilk and Bible Burgers: More Stories from the Kitchens of Appalachia, published by Mercer University Press.