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
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.