Appalachian Food

Butter and Cheese

Churned Butter and Cottage Cheese

“We used dairy products in a variety of ways. Whole milk, skim milk, buttermilk, and clabbered milk were part of our daily diet. Even “Blue John” (skim milk that has turned sour) was used in breads and gravies when the whole milk had to be saved for churning. On Stoney Fork, if we wanted to describe people in the very depths of poverty, we would say they ate cornbread and Blue John gravy for breakfast. Actually, it was not too bad if the cook first added a little baking soda to the milk. This sweetened the milk somewhat, though it made the gravy foam over if not watched carefully.

There was one period in our lives when we had to eat cornbread and Blue John gravy for breakfast. Our cow died along with her unborn calf in late August, and there was no money to buy another cow. Aunt Betty and Grandma Saylor gave us a bucket of milk each day. From this milk, Mother skimmed every drop of cream and saved up for churnings; the remainder she used sparingly. I remember how hungry I got for milk that fall; but she feed the skim milk to the two youngest children and used the remainder for gravy. Shortly after our cow died, Father was cheated out of payment for a stand of timber he had cut and hauled to a loading dock on contract for a sawmiller. I never knew exactly all the details, but he worked from September until the end of November and when the logs were all delivered the man broke the contract and Father did not get a penny for three month’s work. We had raised a field of corn that year, and we shelled a bushel at a time which was ground into meal every two weeks. This supplied us with cornbread and meal gravy but there was no money to buy flour. Mother canned apples and berries, and we had both white and sweet potatoes, and dried beans to eat that winter. It was not too bad except for the hunger for milk and sweet things to eat and having to eat cornbread for breakfast. Most of my schoolmates brought biscuits split and filled with fried chicken, bacon, or apples for their lunches. I was so ashamed that I had to bring cornbread along with whatever Mother could find to feed us. I would take my lunch and go as far away from the others as I could to eat. Eventually things got a little better because in February Father made a couple of runs of moonshine and we had a little cash money again.”

“More Than Moonshine” – Sidney Saylor Farr



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  • Reply
    Don Davidson
    June 20, 2018 at 9:31 pm

    I come from a long line of Missouri hillbillies. My mom’s dad was a moonshiner back in the late 1920’s/early 1930’s. When my mom was about 4 years old, grandpa’s still was raided by the Feds. They came to their house back in the hills, and held grandma and the kids in the house while they wanted for grandpa to come home from the still. My aunt, who was a year older than my mom, said they wouldn’t even let mama go to the outhouse, because they thought she would go warn my dad. She also said that they searched the house from top to bottom, even in the flour barrel. But there was a gallon jug of shine sitting on the wood stove, but they ignored it. Grandpa came home and was arrested. But his older brother lied and said the still was his, he went to federal prison for 2 years. He did that because he was single and grandpa was married with a house full of little ones.

  • Reply
    Paula Vibert
    May 31, 2018 at 4:14 pm

    I didn’t grow up during the depression, but my mom did and she made us cornmeal mush (from habit) when we were young. I love it and make it myself today. I love southern meals and have learned to cook many from my mother. But I wonder if anyone made goat cheese from raw milk. I’ve tried my hand at it, but it is impossible to find unpasteurized goat milk. I’ve been doing a lot of canning and pickling lately…I love the idea of preserving food.

    • Reply
      June 1, 2018 at 2:32 pm

      Paula-thanks for the comment! Preserving one’s on food is so rewarding 🙂

  • Reply
    Papaw Ammons
    May 14, 2018 at 6:57 pm

    In my experience, skim milk as all we drank. Unlike Ken Roper’s family we kept only Jersey cows. They were smaller and didn’t give as much milk but boy at the cream in it. I’ve seen it that was a third cream. When you let milk get cold the cream separates so you have to skim it off or stir it back in. That good old Jersey milk had too much cream to stir back in. If you didn’t take it off a good bit you would have islands of pure cream floating and coalescing on the surface of your milk.
    But that is raw milk. Creameries separate all their milk and then add back enough cream to call it whole, 2% or skim (nonfat). The rest they use to make butter or sell as cream. Whole and lowfat have to be homogenized to keep the cream from separating again. Homogenization means that the milk is forced through tiny holes that make the fat globules small enough that they do not want to cling to each other anymore. Then all of the different percentages of milk and milk products are cooked (pasteurized) which kills all the bacteria in it, bad bacteria if it has any but also the good bacteria which is in all milk. Therefore, milk from a dairy case in the grocery store is just a ghost of what it once was.
    We always tried to have one fresh cow and one dry one, so we would have milk all the time. That didn’t always work out according to schedule, so we might have to borrow milk from a neighbor from time to time and they from us. Our nearest neighbors wouldn’t have anything other than a Guernsey because they gave so much. I dreaded having our cow go dry and having to drink their milk. Even if you stirred what little cream it had back in it was still as weak as water. And these neighbors didn’t see the need of keeping wild onions out of the pasture. There ain’t nothing no nastier tasting than milk from cow that has been chomping on wild onions.
    In my experience, buttermilk is what’s left after you make butter. You sour your milk (or culture it in modern terminology) then churn it. The result is butter, which floats to the top and buttermilk which is what’s left. The butter that is made that way is excellent in flavor as it the buttermilk. The problem we have nowdays is this method of making butter and buttermilk is it begins as raw milk and is illegal in many states including our own. We can make it for our own use but can’t sell it or even give it away. We can’t even buy raw milk.
    The problem goes back to when creameries would collect milk from a wide area and bring it into the cities where it was mixed in big vats before bottling and delivery door to door. One sick cow could contaminate the supply for a whole town. Before modern medicine many people got sick and many died from diseases carried in milk, mostly city folk who never saw the cow that produced their milk. Country people wouldn’t use milk from a sick cow so were far less likely to get the same kind of illness.
    With modern medicine and testing these diseases transmitted through milk and milk products could be detected and eliminated but the big milk processors don’t want that. The value added is worth more than the product itself. Too much of what you pay for milk goes to the processor instead of the dairyman or farmer. Governmental entities, of course, side with the processors because that’s where the money is.

  • Reply
    Lee Mears
    May 14, 2018 at 4:34 pm

    Interesting. I’d hated to have lived in those times. The only milk I drink is ‘Blue John.’ Granny used to skim the cream off just for me . The family all made fun of me but I never cared about that. I don’t know why, but I don’t like whole milk and never did. I do put 1/2 – 1/2 in my coffee and use sour cream and cream cheese but I cant drink it. I read that ‘white coloring’ is added to skimmed milk in store so it would look ‘blue’! I’d just soon they not add that stuff!
    LOVE buttermilk.
    Have read American soldiers at war , WWI and WWII really, really missed milk and coffee.

  • Reply
    May 14, 2018 at 3:32 pm

    Thank you for sharing this fascinating excerpt. I agree with Pinnacle Creek that the book should be required reading.
    My great grandfather learned to make moonshine from his grandfather in Polk County, TN. Living in Alabama during Prohibition, he figured on a little side business with his sons. It didn’t work our well when they were busted. No jail time, but resulted in loss of property and revenue. I don’t think we really know about hard times these days.

  • Reply
    May 14, 2018 at 2:48 pm

    Like Ann, my mother and our family called (and still calls) milk that is starting to sour “blinky”. I don’t recall hearing the term “Blue John”. I do know about being raised in a family where parents and Grandparents lived through the depression. Even in the hospital Mom would never use more than 4 sheets of toilet paper at a time. Eating all the leftovers is some form or another was the rule and if there ever was anything “thrown out”, the dogs got it – otherwise they survived on whatever they caught in the surrounding fields and orchards – but they were still plump and had shiny coats. Clothing was passed down, re-used, and recycled over and over – . I understand being called a “hoarder” but I defend myself as being an “organized hoarder” – I can think of several ways to use everything I’ve saved but doubt I have enough lifetime left to do half of the things I have in mind. When I was teaching I’d get fussed at for saving and storing so much – but who do you think they came to when they couldn’t find something they needed? – and I usually had it or a reasonable substitute. At church yesterday, the tribute to mothers mentioned the old time thriftiness of saving aluminum foil and the inside “wrappers” (wax paper) in cereal boxes or nowadays washing “baggies” for reuse. There was a muffled giggle through parts of the congregation and a few people pointed at me. . . . guilty as charged!

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    May 14, 2018 at 2:36 pm

    I’ve been watching the US moving it’s Embassy to Jerusalem. Daddy noticed this many years ago, but did you know that JER USA LEM having USA in the Center of Jerusalem? Something to think about.

  • Reply
    May 14, 2018 at 1:01 pm

    My daddy and mama was married and raised 3 sons during the Depression years, but the last 3 had it a little easier. I remember my parents talkin’ about cornmeal mush and cornmeal gravy as in B. Ruth’s comment. Ain’t never had that I don’t recon.

    But we had a black and white Guernsey cow and boy did she give milk, and lots of pigs and hogs. At one time we had about 300 pigs from our 56 girl hogs and we had 6 registered bores. My favorite was the Poland-China. …Ken

  • Reply
    Ann Applegarth
    May 14, 2018 at 10:47 am

    The terminology I grew up with was a bit different. Blue John meant skim milk. If the milk was beginning to sour, it was called “blinky” milk. You could make gravy or bake with blinky milk. At our house, we never had Blue John — Mama’s theory was that if the good Lord wanted us to drink milk without the cream in it, He would have made it come like that from the cow.

    • Reply
      b. Ruth
      May 14, 2018 at 12:45 pm

      Although, I have heard the term Blue John=skimmed milk!…I agree with you…Skim milk does have a bluest cast to it…If it sours it is called “blinked” milk….I didn’t drink skim milk until I was grown. Very well used to it now…growing up we always had whole milk, but that was in the good ole days and after Mom had skimmed some of the cream off the top for a pie or other tasty dish she liked to make.

  • Reply
    Charles Fletcher
    May 14, 2018 at 9:41 am

    Milk is my favorite drink. While in Europe during
    WW-2 the only milk we had was dried milk. We
    Were ordered not to drink the milk in Europe.
    After 28 m0nths with only powdered milk I was
    Starved for the taste of real milk.
    After boarding a ship to return to the USA I
    Volunteered for KP in the kitchen so I could drink
    As much milk as I wanted. I drank 5- or 6 cartoons
    The first day. At the age of 96 I still drink a gallon
    Or more milk every day.
    Charlie Fletcher

  • Reply
    May 14, 2018 at 9:40 am

    I was raised by a depression age Mother, and I have retained a lot of the habits of saving and not discarding even when there was no need. I was kind of caught between generations, and my granddaughter officially named me a hoarder. With the granddaughter’s help, I have worked on decluttering for the past few years. Many books were shared or donated, but I am proud to say I hung on to the book “More than Moonshine.” Thanks for the reminder, Tipper, as I will just have to keep this handy for some summer reading. It sounds like it should be required reading in schools, because it could teach the younger generation so much.

    I often heard my Dad speak of “Blue john”. and he spoke as though it were the worst curse on their big farm. People spoke of the hard times of the Great Depression. Maybe that is why I always feel so tolerant of the moonshiners, because back in the day that was the only way to feed their children. I had a great uncle killed at his still in ’29. and that always made a lasting impression on me. I wrote a poem about that hardship, and I included the story in any genealogy stories I wrote. Just recently, a very dear old man in his ninties was laid to rest. They spoke at his funeral about him telling the story about how his family of 14 kids survived growing up. His dad made moonshine, and the kids delivered it in mason jars painted white to look like milk. His dad was never caught, and all the children were able to grow up in one of the hardest times in our nation’s history.

  • Reply
    Sheryl A. Paule
    May 14, 2018 at 9:27 am

    Anytime there is little food is a sad time, how people make do is a wonderful stiry. The good they put on the table in this family was wuite a bounty I think. So not nearly as bad as it sounds

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    May 14, 2018 at 9:27 am

    We always had enough to eat. But we did eat a whole lot of pinto beans and “thickening gravy”. After Grandpa quit farming, we never had cows or pigs to kill again. Mama did raise a big garden & eventually she had two huge gardens ao we had plenty of vegetables & strawberries & some peaches. We had biscuits and cornbread every day but not loaf bread or crackers. After the cows went we never had fresh milk–only condensed. Later on Mama used powdered milk and inoculated some with buttermilk for making bread.

    We were all so tired of gravy in those times but of course now I love to have it.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    May 14, 2018 at 8:56 am

    I remember this excerpt from the book “More Than Moonshine”…What puzzled me was there was never a mention in this essay about eating Cornmeal Mush for breakfast or supper…just cornbread and Blue John gravy…They must have had eggs to make cornbread also…unless they made water (Blue John for liquid) cornbread, etc. no eggs or fat renderings with the cornmeal…
    Cornmeal Mush was traditional fare back in those days when things got tight. It was eaten also when times were not tough in a lot Appalachian mountain homes…My Mother said she got to where she couldn’t stand to eat the stuff; so funny and then she craved it on occasion when she was grown with children of her own. She would let it congeal in the refrigerator and then slice and fry it sometimes just to satisfy her cravings of old time eatin’…
    I would have thought having Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans and corn for cornmeal would have been high class eatin’ ! Then also having canned berries and apples would have supplied good sweetening for a lot of their food, etc. What about them having corn but not making hominy…and/or having grits…Man oh man, if I had dried corn I would have grits and butter for breakfast every day…love it! Dad said he hated hominy…His Mom made hominy and he tired of eating it on the farm when he grew up…but liked mush…which Mom tired of…go figure!
    Here’s is what I concluded from this little essay…They were much better off than a lot of folks. She just didn’t realize it at the time. I would have taken a fried apples, cornbread to school or a container of apples or berries and not been ashamed to eat it in front of anyone.
    I ponder this tale. Most mountain mills would trade or exchange cornmeal and flour! My Grandfather did this when he ran his mill. Also, I think that the corn was misused or appropriated in the wrong manner. That much corn could have been sold to another local moonshiner to buy a hog or just the ham or bacon, chickens and a new milk cow! Selling the corn would not have risked making a couple of runs of moonshine to sell, which if caught, would have put the family in terrible straits for some time until Father got out of jail. The family would, for shore been drinkin’ and eatin’ cornbread and Blue John milk n’ gravy!

  • Reply
    May 14, 2018 at 8:52 am

    Mom told a story about having to eat cornmeal gravy when she was at home but I don’t think we ever did. What I wouldn’t give for some fresh sweet milk right now! I wouldn’t drink it, I would make butter with every lasting drop.
    The story about the greedy sawmill owner makes me so sad. I’m sure the suffering for what he did lasted a lot longer than September through November.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    May 14, 2018 at 8:01 am

    I think I can predict that sawmiller lost his business and probably more than that. Such a hard place to be in for each member of the Farr family, all because of a cheat. My Dad had some experiences like that but we were never quite as up against it as the Farrs. Dad would say about the cheaters, “I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes.”

  • Reply
    Betty "JO" Eason Benedict
    May 14, 2018 at 7:45 am

    Love this writer……Is this a book in stores? One of the canning groups I belong to I’ve seen a lot of folk can milk and butter, when it was cheap or plentiful, even preserving eggs……..big families and hard times like time it certainly would have made sense.

    • Reply
      May 14, 2018 at 9:18 am

      Betty Jo – The book is More than Moonshine by Sidney Saylor Farr. I’m sure you can find it online. It’s one of my favorite Appalachian Cookbooks 🙂

      • Reply
        Papaw Ammons
        May 14, 2018 at 7:00 pm

        I ordered a paperback today from Amazon. I thought I had a copy but couldn’t find it. If I find it now I’ll have two. It was only $12 or $13.

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    May 14, 2018 at 7:19 am

    After reading that post I thank God for all my blessings. I never went hungry and didn’t ever have to eat Blue John Gravy.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    May 14, 2018 at 7:11 am

    I’ve never known hard times like that. We didn’t have what you would call a lot but we always had plenty to eat.
    My grand mother always had two or three cows. They sold the calves and milked the cows. I remember her churning and making butter. She would sell any of the milk and butter that they didn’t use and feed the skim milk to the pigs. I didn’t grow up in the country so going to visit my grand mother was very different from my regular life. I was fascinated with cows/milking and pigs/slop.
    I noticed that nothing was wasted. My grandmother made use of every scrap of food. She lived during the depression and she knew what it was to not have enough food and for the remainder of her life she was very careful with food.

  • Reply
    Kathy Poteet Dubrer
    May 14, 2018 at 4:20 am

    I love reading your blog it reminds me of stories my Dad used yo tell me. He grew up near you in Murphy,NC My grandparents had a farm on the NC/GA line. I loved to help my grandmother churn milk. Your dtory brought back great memories

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