Appalachia Appalachian Food

Bonnie Clabber

Today’s post was written by Jay Henderson. I never met Jay in person-but we formed an online friendship-because we both shared a passion for the history of Appalachia. He ran a great blog called Backcountry Notes-here’s a little snippet from it-in Jay’s on words:

I am an ex-urbanite who escaped the city life and has lived for the past 29 years in a rural, mountainous area of southwestern Virginia that in colonial and early-American times was part of the “Backcountry.” This is the true melting pot of the U.S.A., its culture and traditions dominated by “born fighting” Scotch-Irish immigrants and enhanced by German, Highland Scot, Dutch, Welsh, and yeoman English settlers. Having absorbed and inculcated the history, values and views of the Backcountry, I would like to share information and insights from the place where America began. – – Jay Henderson

Jay wrote today’s post for me in May of 2010. I asked him if he would write a follow up post on the Mountain Laurel vs. Ivy discussion we were having here on the Blind Pig. He said he would, but in a few weeks he sent me this post about Bonnie Clabber. He said he’d still write the other post-but he was fascinated by bonnie clabber and how he believed the words were among the oldest ones used in Appalachia. Right after that, things took a turn for the worse, as Jay found out his fight with cancer wasn’t over. Sadly, Jay passed away October 9, 2010. He never got a chance to write the post I ask for-and of course I didn’t mind-but I do think it’s neat that he wrote the post I would need in the coming year-I hadn’t even thought of make do foods when he sent it to me-but it seems like Jay knew I soon would.


Bonnie Clabber by Jay Henderson


In Appalachian English, “bonny-clabber” describes a milk-product typically described as curdled sour milk. Bonny-clabber was once commonly consumed in Appalachia, although it now appears to have passed out of fashion. But while the milk product and its name came to America with the Scotch-Irish settlers from Ulster, “bonny-clabber” does not come from Scottish English. The assumption that it derives from the Scottish word “bonie” (“beautiful”) plus “clabber” (sour milk) is erroneous. The best evidence is that the term came from the Celtic language, centuries ago – making “bonny-clabber” one of the most ancient phrases preserved in Appalachian English.

First – what exactly is “bonny-clabber” or its shortened form, “clabber?” The earliest description I have found is by English playwrite-poet Ben Jonson (1572-1637), who wrote that “Bonny-clabber . . . is sour buttermilk.” The Works of Ben Jonson, Volume 5 (W. Gifford, Esq., ed., 1875 ), at p. 310. Jonson claimed to be descended from folk of the English-Scottish Borderlands, and thus may have been personally familiar with “bonny-clabber.”

Historian David Hackett Fischer gives this description:

One important staple of this [backcountry] diet was clabber, a dish of sour milk, curds and whey which was eaten by youngsters and adults throughout the backcountry, as it had been in North Britain for many centuries. In Southern England it was called “spoiled milk” and fed to animals; in the borderlands it was “bonny clabber” and served to people. Travelers found this dish so repellent that some preferred to go hungry.

Albion’s Seed – Four British Folkways in America (1989), at p. 728. “Curds and whey” is the old description of what we now call “cottage cheese.” The meaning of “sour milk” is unclear. Sour milk may have been unpasteurized milk that had naturally acquired a sour taste through bacterial fermentation at room temperature, or it may have been synonymous with old-fashioned buttermilk, “the sour tasting thin liquid leftover from making butter.” See Wikipedia, Soured Milk.

In the Ulster Journal of Archeology, Volume 2 (1854), at page 204, “bonny-clabber” is described as “sour milk, when it has grown very thick and flaky.” The contemporary on-line edition of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary holds that it is “sour milk that has thickened or curdled,” dating this usage to 1634. The Merriam-Webster definition coincides, but only in part, with this description from The Literary Gazette, Vol. 11 (1827) at p. 152:

Swift translates the lac concretum of Virgil by ‘bonny-clabber,’ that is, says he, ‘thick sour milk.’ In allusion to this curdled state, it is called by Heath, who has the word in many places, ‘the Irish tough bonny-clabber.’ Our old writers usually understand it of stale whey or butter-milk.

Here is a description of how to make “clabber,” from Arthur’s Illustrated Home Magazine, Volume 41 (1873) at p. 744:

Another Southern dish is clabber and curd. We have clabber for supper, with cream and sugar. I have regular curd drippers — large tin-cups, with a number of holes in the lower part. In the evening I fill as many drippers with clabber as I want cakes of curd for breakfast, and the next morning I have firm curd, or cottage cheese. Eat it with cream and sugar. Another way is to pour boiling water on the clabber. The curd and whey soon separate, but then the whey must be thrown away. When you drip the curd, the whey answers the purpose of cream of tartar in biscuit or corn-bread.

It appears that there may have been no strict definition of “bonny-clabber,” but a general idea which varied from one region to another.

So where did the term originate? Investigation of this issue is made difficult by the evident desire of different cultures to attribute the dish to someone else, presumably owing to its bad reputation. According to the Ulster Journal of Archeology, cited above: “‘bonny-clabber’ seems also a pure English expression . . . .” John Russell Bartlett attributes it to Ireland. See Dictionary of Americanisms: a Glossary of Words and Phrases Usually Regarded as Peculiar to the United States (3rd Ed. 1860) at p. 43. The best analysis, in my opinion, comes from Charles Mackay:

Bonny is a corruption of the Keltic bainne, milk, and clabber appears to be the Keltic clabar, dirty, nasty, applied contemptuously to a drink.

Glossary of Obscure Words and Phrases in the Writings of Shakspeare and His Contemporaries (1887), at p. 33. I tracked down a Celtic dictionary verified the definitions given by Mackay. A similar derivation could be taken from the Irish Celtic words, baine, milk, and clabar, mud.

Safe to conclude, I believe, that “bonny-clabber” comes from an ancient Celtic usage which endured, until the age of pasteurized milk, in the cultures of the Borderlanders of North Britain and the Scots of Ulster, who brought the dish and the term to Appalachia. Probably the only way to replicate real “bonny-clabber” would be to obtain some unpasteurized milk and a butter churn, that being the only way to produce real buttermilk, and mix the buttermilk with some home-made cottage cheese. That would be more trouble than most folks want to take. So although it was once common in Appalachia, from western Pennsylvania to the Great Smokies, “bonny-clabber” has almost surely passed into history.


Hope you enjoyed Jay’s research as much as I did. I’ve never had bonnie clabber-and I’m not sure I’d like it either. In days gone by most folks had access to milk and it seems to me Bonnie Clabber was a make do dish. As for the longevity of the words-at least the clabbered part is alive and well here. Pap and Granny say the milk is ‘blinked’ if it’s soured-but if it’s really bad it’s clabbered. I know my brothers and I all use the term as well-and more than likely our children will continue the usage of the word clabbered into the next generation.

I found this recipe from a Civil War Site:

Fresh milk, skimmed
Powdered sugar

Set a china or glass dish of skimmed milk away in a warm place, covered. When it turns, i.e. becomes a smooth, firm but not tough cake, like blanc-mange–serve in the same dish. Cut out carefully with a large spoon, and put in saucers, with cream, powdered sugar and nutmeg to taste. It is better, if set on the ice for an hour before it is brought to table. Do not let it stand until the whey separates from the curd.
Few people know how delicious this healthful and cheap dessert can be made, if eaten before it becomes tart and tough, with a liberal allowance of cream and sugar. There are not many jellies and creams superior to it.

From Common Sense in the Household by Marion Harland, New York, 1871

Ever ate Bonnie Clabber? If you have-hope you’ll leave me a comment and tell me what I’m missing.



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  • Reply
    October 26, 2018 at 7:32 am

    My maternal grandmother made and drank clabber. Until I was an adult, I called milk, sweet milk, also had homemade butter, helped milk the cows, also you had wheat bread, corn bread and light bread, what most call cobbler we called it sonker, live in Surry County NC

  • Reply
    Sue Crane
    May 10, 2013 at 10:16 am

    great post — love the history behind words!

  • Reply
    April 25, 2012 at 10:58 am

    A lot of raw dairy drinkers and farmers feed their chickens clabber every day. i hear chickens love love it and that its perfect for them, getting them a lot of necessary bacteria they need. I stumbled on this site researchung clabber and how to make it! PS- the web page that i learned about the raw dairy/chicken clabber is googled “keeping a family cow”
    Happy Spring!

  • Reply
    Michael Rosberg
    April 10, 2011 at 9:59 am

    Bonnie clabber passed into history? Nonsense. It’s a twice a day staple of many families on Old Providence and Santa Catalina Islands of Colombia, S. America. The islands (along with San Andres Island) are 300 miles north of Cartagena, Colombia, 150 miles east of the Corn Islands off the east coast of Nicaragua. I stayed on Easter Week with the Archbolds of Sta. Catalina Island, and enjoyed bonnie clabber each day for morning and evening ‘tea’. (Middays, we’d eat ‘Old Wife’–alewife–fish whose taste is excellent and after taste, repellent, and whose dried skin is used as sandpaper.)

  • Reply
    February 28, 2011 at 11:22 am

    I knew Jay pretty well and fished with him. He was indeed a very special person whom I miss sorely.
    At Grandad’s, Mrs. J. would set the fresh milk in an enamel pan covered with cheesecloth on a shelf in the pantry to let the cream rise. When the cream was ready, she skimmed it off into the square glass churn. I got to turn the crank to turn the wooden paddles that churned the butter.
    Then I watched Mom guzzle the resulting buttermilk. I still make cornbread & biscuits with buttermilk, but commercial whole milk doesn’t clabber well, or at least the organisms that result in the clabber often produce a bitter taste instead of the desired sour cream taste.
    At Granddad’s, clabber was made in small quantities & served with homemade jam, which was a great foil for the sourness, or fed to a sick person, especially one suffering from intestinal problems. And Mom used the expression “ugly enough to turn milk to bonny-clabber”!

  • Reply
    Ron Corley
    February 14, 2011 at 8:31 am

    Yet another interesting and educational post, especially for this transplant from Colorado. I’m pretty sure this is something that wouldn’t suit my taste buds, but I still loved reading and learning about it … and clearly it is something new to me. Have a beautiful, blessed Monday … and Happy Valentine’s Day.

  • Reply
    February 14, 2011 at 7:22 am

    I’ve never heard of it.
    And I’m with you, I’m not sure I would eat it either.

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    February 11, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    I enjoyed this post, but as a mix of English, Irish and Scot, I am compelled to remind everyone that if you refer to someone from Scotland as “Scotch”, he or she may remind you that Scotch is a drink, not a people. People from Scotland are Scots or of Scottish descent. Many of the so-called Scots-Irish (the proper term, not Scotch-Irish), may even bristle at this term. Some of them have no love for the Irish, so prefer to be called Ulster Scots, so that their heritage is not associated with Ireland, although their ancestors may have found themselves living there (in Ulster).
    Since I descend from all three in my Dad’s family, I should somehow be feuding with myself, but I manage to get along!

  • Reply
    Bill Dotson
    February 11, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    Haven’t heard any thing about clabber for a long long time we used to eat it all time back in the 50’s Mom made it as often as she could, she always called it clabber cheese I had never had cottage cheese which I think is the new style of clabber cheese, I do not remember all the other stuff she made but remember some as you jog my memory every now and then.

  • Reply
    February 11, 2011 at 12:47 am

    Tipper my Mammaw had a cupboard with a flour bin and pull down front in the kitchen. When she wanted to clabber the milk she would put it in the cupboard and pull down the front and say now leave that alone “chillern”. Well of course we would sneak to taste it but only till it reached a certain point in the process of becoming clabbered… My brother always wanted to be first so when he made a face that would stop a clock I knew it was no longer a thing I wanted to taste!!!!!!!!.. SANDI.

  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    February 10, 2011 at 10:37 pm

    This has been so
    this evening I dug out my 1887
    White House Cookbook to try and find a reference or recipe for bonny-clabber..I keep my two editions on my kitchen book shelf..this will make sense later..
    The only thing I found was a recipe for Slip..The book describes it thus: “Slip is bonny-clabber without its acidity, and so delicate is its flavor that many persons like it just as well as ice cream.” It goes on to give the recipe..and that it should be made only a few hours before it is to be used or it will be tough and watery. It must be served, it says, with powered sugar, nutmeg and cream…
    Since it referenced bonny-clabber, I looked for a previous recipe before the Slip recipe..the only recipe was for
    Curds and Cream? Could this be the (sophisticated) White House Cookbooks term for bonny-clabber?
    At this time I am searching for some of my older cookbooks in hopes to find bonny-clabber. They are stored in boxes in never-never-land so I will have to hunt them…LOL
    Thanks for getting me started on this project…LOL

  • Reply
    Vicki Lane
    February 10, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    Around here, sour milk is ‘blinky’ (pronounced ‘blanky’ and clabber is the milk that’s thickened in the churn and ready to be churned.

  • Reply
    Garland Davis
    February 10, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    My Granny Salmons always “clabbered” milk before churning. I wish that I could find buttermilk that good today.

  • Reply
    Rooney Floyd
    February 10, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    Being raised in the country, we ate everything on a hog and cow and everything on a chicken but the feet–one of my grandfathers even liked chicken feet. And of course, they loved buttermilk, sour milk, and clabber. I have been unable to this day to use any milk though, that’s not fresh. More power to you if you like it.

  • Reply
    Shirley Owens
    February 10, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    My Mama let her milk sour to a clabber so the buttermilk would be more sour. I would take a spoon and get a tiny bit to eat just before she poured into the dasher churn. Then, she would let me set my spoon up against the dasher handle so it would fill with the liquid as the process of churning continued to the best buttermilk and butter anyone could ever have. Clabber in my house referred to any milk too thick to drink. My prayers are with Mr. Henderson’s family.

  • Reply
    February 10, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    This is only the second time I’ve ever heard of this dish. My first husband’s grandmother once described an ear infection, during which the eardrum ruptured and a substance resembling “clabbered milk” seeped out of the ear. Not a very good endorsement for clabber!

  • Reply
    February 10, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    My mother made homemade butter, buttermilk and cottage cheese when I was growing up. I loved it all….not sure if any of it was what is being described here as bonnie clabber. She would put cream that was skimmed off of fresh cows milk in a churn and then she would pull a dasher up and down in the cream until it would form curds. Some of it was used as buttermilk and some was set to form butter.

  • Reply
    February 10, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    Remember Clabber Girl Baking powder? Name must come from clabber. Does it still exist? I remember it because my cousin used to call me Clabber Girl for some unknown reason.
    We never had anything but buttermilk 7 I think they let the whole milk “clabber” before churning. This is different from what I read about now–seems most just use cream to make butter. Mama & Granny never made cottage cheese, etc. but my husband’s Granny did.

  • Reply
    Lonnie L. Dockery
    February 10, 2011 at 11:46 am

    When we were young Mother used to fix what she called “clabbered milk”. She loved it-or seemed to. Nobody else ever acquired a taste for it so she eventually stopped doing it. I hadn’t thought of it in years. Now cornbread and buttermilk is a different story entirely! That’s just high-class eating!

  • Reply
    Sheila Bergeron
    February 10, 2011 at 11:32 am

    Today’s post was very interesting. I guess the closest we’ve come to bonnie clabber is cottage cheese or buttermilk.

  • Reply
    February 10, 2011 at 11:13 am

    That was a very interesting post Tipper. I don’t think clabber would be my cup of tea either.

  • Reply
    February 10, 2011 at 10:51 am

    When I was little there was a baking powder called Clabber Girl. I wonder if it was named after clabber?

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    February 10, 2011 at 9:04 am

    Tipper–Lots of research here, although I have to wonder, as someone still in the recovery mode from “professing,” whether he looked at the first and most obvious source for words (and examples of their earliest usage), the “Oxford English Dictionary.” I don’t have it in my library, but I did check to see if the phrase was covered in our mountain equivalent, the “Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English.” It was and is defined as “Milk that has soured and begun to thicken and curdle. Same as clabber, the more common term.” If you look under clabber in this wonderful reference work, you will find lots of examples of uses for the word clabber–as both a noun and a verb. For all of you who read this blog, the above-mentioned book covering Appalachian language and the way we talk in the mountains is invaluable (in fact, when I first saw Tipper’s vocabulary tests, I wrongly assumed it was her source). Of course it is out of print and costs a minor fortune, but there is good news. A new edition is scheduled sometime in the next year or two. Tipper has written about it before, and maybe she can give a reference to her blog on the Dictionary.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    February 10, 2011 at 8:46 am

    B-thanks for the comment : ) Yes I think you’re right about the skim milk.
    Blind Pig The Acorn
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  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    February 10, 2011 at 8:33 am

    Great post…loved it Tipper
    I have never eaten clabber unless you count the time blinked milk got poured in my coffee..ewwww.
    I have heard my Grandmother talk of clabber when churning…
    Something to the effect, “Thats set out long enough I don’t want to make clabber.” My Dad never would eat cottage cheese, he said it reminded him of eating clabber when he was a kid? Sooo, now I wonder if he was speaking of Bonnie Clabber…He couldn’t talk of it without getting sick to his stomach..Mom never told him if she used cottage cheese in a recipe either. LOL
    The recipe using skim milk, I believe would not be speaking of the skim milk of today…only skimmed of the top cream..don’t you think?
    Thanks Tipper

  • Reply
    February 10, 2011 at 8:26 am

    Thanks for sharing this post!I so appreciate Mr. Henderson’s meticulous research into word origins and the history of this particular ‘delicacy’.I have always heard of clabber. To this day, one of my Mother’s favorite treats is cornbread crumbled up into buttermilk and eaten with a spoon. Could this be a handed down version of the ‘bonny clabber’?
    When my son was little, she asked if he wanted to try a sip of buttermilk. On that first (and only) taste, he made the most awful face and said, “Pigmilk!”
    I agree.

  • Reply
    Eva M. Wike, Ph. D.
    February 10, 2011 at 8:25 am

    Hey Tipper: If you ain’t tried Bonny-Clabber you ain’t missed much! I was the ‘churner’ at my house and the fresh butter was mighty fine! The wooden molds we used to press the butter into a beautiful form was special. But when it came to soured buttermilk I drew the line! But my mama
    never threw it away – she just put it into her flour to make mighty fine bikettes! Those are a form of bread you eat with sausage gravy!!!
    Eva Nell

  • Reply
    Angela Peevy
    February 10, 2011 at 8:11 am

    you may be interested in Ms. Sullivan’s version of cheese made in the tradition of bonny clabber.

  • Reply
    February 10, 2011 at 8:05 am

    I’ve only tried clabber once as a child and was not my cup of tea. But my mother loved it. She would set the milk out in the sun and let it clabber then drink it. Lord how is she still alive.

  • Reply
    Gary Powell
    February 10, 2011 at 7:26 am

    My Granddaddy in rural Kentucky ate clabber. That is all I ever heard it called. He even had a special spoon just for it. I never could force myself to try it, although I loved Granny’s homemade cottage cheese.

  • Reply
    Nancy @ A Rural Journal
    February 10, 2011 at 6:58 am

    How interesting — I’m sorry that I did not get an opportunity to read Jay’s blog while he was still with us. He must have been a fascinating man.

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