Appalachia Appalachian Food

Clabbered Milk

bonnie-clabber

“Bonnie Clabber” written 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 Scot-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.

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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 if I did. In days gone by most folks had access to fresh 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 always said the milk was blinked if it was sour, but if it was really bad they said it was clabbered. Since Pap and Granny used the words blinked and clabbered to describe spoiled milk, my brothers and I do too. Hopefully our children will teach the words to their children and we’ll keep the Appalachian words for spoiled milk going a few more generations.

Tipper

Appalachian-Cooking-Class

Come cook with me!

MOUNTAIN FLAVORS – TRADITIONAL APPALACHIAN COOKING
Location: John C. Campbell Folk School – Brasstown, NC
Date: Sunday, June 23 – Saturday, June 29, 2019
Instructors: Carolyn Anderson, Tipper Pressley

Experience the traditional Appalachian method of cooking, putting up, and preserving the bounty from nature’s garden. Receive hands-on training to make and process a variety of jellies, jams, and pickles for winter eating. You’ll also learn the importance of dessert in Appalachian culture and discover how to easily make the fanciest of traditional cakes. Completing this week of cultural foods, a day of bread making will produce biscuits and cornbread. All levels welcome.

Along with all that goodness Carolyn and I have planned a couple of field trips to allow students to see how local folks produce food for their families. The Folk School offers scholarships you can go here to find out more about them. For the rest of the class details go here.

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14 Comments

  • Reply
    Vanessa
    February 26, 2019 at 6:03 am

    Gosh, I make a 1/2 gal of yogurt every week & strain off the whey. Ya’ll who are throwing it out don’t know what you’re missing. Nothing makes your yeast breads rise better. I add some to our oatmeal pot the night before & fill up the rest of the pot w/ water. Since whey is acidic it breaks down the phytic acid in the oats (any grain, really) & kind of predigests them for you, making it much easier & more digestible in your stomach. If you don’t soak your grains (such as sour dough) your body will pull the enzymes out of your own stores to break down the phytic acid for you. Your tooth enamel & bones in general can become thinner if you consume a lot of commercial grains. Aristotle used to prescribe whey on an empty stomach for indigestion; it is a tremendous boon to your guts microbiome.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    February 26, 2019 at 1:03 am

    Tipper,
    Blinked and clabbered….are the terms I’ve heard all my life for the most part…My Grandfather was a direct descendent from Scot….never heard any of them use the term bonnie-clabber…
    Loved this post today…
    Thanks Tipper and Jay for the research…very interesting.

  • Reply
    Gigi
    February 25, 2019 at 7:01 pm

    At home we put the milk in the churn to clabber. Then we would churn it and make good delicious butter and good o butter milk. Mmm good!

  • Reply
    Becky
    February 25, 2019 at 4:15 pm

    Blinked milk and clabbered milk were both used (and i still use during the rare times i have milk go bad) in the making of cornbread and biscuits in my family…to use the clabbered you had to shake it up to mix it all back together…granny and momma never threw out the milk that went bad…they never threw out anything

  • Reply
    Ann Applegarth
    February 25, 2019 at 12:53 pm

    I have never heard “bonny clabber,” but I grew up eating clabber. It isn’t cottage cheese. We made cottage cheese, too, but that involved heating the milk and adding vinegar and salt. Clabber formed with milk sitting at room temperature until it clabbered. It had a creamy, pudding-like texture and was delicious with sugar. Buttermilk was made by adding lemon juice or vinegar to fresh cold milk and letting it sit out about half an hour. Blinky milk was milk that wasn’t quite sour but on its way. We used it in cooking.

  • Reply
    Shirl
    February 25, 2019 at 9:07 am

    At our house, fresh milk was put in a large glass jar and left in a warm place or direct sunlight to clabber. Once the milk had clabbered, we churned it and made butter. If we wanted buttermilk for supper, we asked for a glass of clabbered milk. I don’t recall ever hearing it called bonny-clabber.

  • Reply
    aw griff
    February 25, 2019 at 8:24 am

    We just called it clabbered although I’ve heard it called blinked. We never ate bonny clabber but was often used in making bread. Mom always used a pinch of baking soade (what she called it) to bake bread with clabbered milk or buttermilk.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    February 25, 2019 at 8:15 am

    My Grandmother always had three milk cows. She sold some of the milk and kept the remainder for her family. They always had milk, cream, butter, buttermilk and cottage cheese and probably a couple of other things that I do not remember. The cottage cheese was made from buttermilk but I don’t remember the process. All of these were staples for a country family. The fresh milk was such a wholesome and available food that they used every bit of it in one fashion or another. I guess clabber was something similar to cottage cheese.
    Folks didn’t have refrigeration then so they had to do something with all the fresh milk. I’m sure they didn’t think and plan the various uses of milk, it was more a way of life.
    Most of those uses for milk back then cannot be repeated now because all the available milk is pasteurized, killing the bacteria that produced the clabber.
    I’m sure that pasteurization seemed like a good idea at the time but it ended a way of life that can never be returned. I think that our bodies were healthier with those natural enzymes and bacteria, and no one had to take probiotics to keep their body in balance.
    Thanks Jay, I enjoyed your article.

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    February 25, 2019 at 8:08 am

    I do remember my Mother using the word clabbered for spoiled milk. I never had any and do not think I want to try it now.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    February 25, 2019 at 8:00 am

    I’m with you and your family. Grew up hearing “blinky” and “clabbered”, though I had not heard either in years because pasteurized doesn’t do either. I expect ‘bonny clabber’ could vary a lot simply because of natural variation in the amount of butter fat because of cow breed and diet and also because of whether or not the milk had been skimmed.

    Like you, I hope blinky and clabbered doesn’t pass out of the language.

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    February 25, 2019 at 7:25 am

    My family also used the words “blinked” and “clabbered” the same way your family does. If bonny clabber was my only choice of sustenance I would have to opt on the “do without” group unless I was pert near starved. I would churn the clabber then eat the butter and feed the whey to the critters

    • Reply
      Sanford McKinney Jr
      February 26, 2019 at 7:38 am

      Bill,
      Thank you. I was trying to think of “blinked” yesterday and could only come up with “blanched” which I knew wasn’t right.
      Anyway, we referred to “blinked” just before the milk went into the clabbered stage. It was undrinkable in the “blinked” stage.

  • Reply
    Tom
    February 25, 2019 at 7:13 am

    Like my parents, I also refer to spoiled milk as “clabbered.” Mom would sometimes save clabbered milk to use when she made biscuits or cornbread, as a substitute for buttermilk.

  • Reply
    Sanford McKinney Jr
    February 25, 2019 at 6:54 am

    My Mother left the milk containers setting in a water trough in the earlier days and in the fridge later on to let the cream rise. After the cream came to the top and the clabber settled to the bottom, Mom poured off the cream and churned it for butter and butter milk. The butter milk was always thick and good unless the cows had gotten into wild onions. If they had eaten wild onions, the butter nor butter milk was fit for consumption. The clabber milk was then placed in a large container and placed on the old wood cookstove; electric range later on,. After the clabber milk was heated to some predetermined temp or time, only known to Mom, it was removed from the stove and cooled to a bearable temp so that Mom could strain it through a cloth. Mom made the cheese quite dry, not like what we buy today with the liquid to obtain weight which helps the manufacturer’s bottom line. That is not meant as criticism, just a fact. The cottage cheese was consumed by the family and the whey (Whey is the liquid remaining after clabber milk has been heated until it curdled and then strained. It is a byproduct of the manufacture of cheese or casein) was either thrown away or fed to the two slaughtering hogs.

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