Appalachian Food

We Knew When to Churn Milk

glass of milk and two eggs on table

“We knew when to churn when the milk went “blinky.” This was our custom before we got electricity: We had a springhouse, and we would put pitchers of milk, with a “milk rag” (a triangle, hemmed, from a bleached-out flour sack), tied securely around the top of the crockery pitcher. Later, when we got gallon jugs (sometimes my Daddy would measure his sorghum molasses he made for everybody in the community at his cane-mill, sorghum syrup-making mill, into gallon glass containers. We would use some of these for milk to the springhouse, after we had the gallon jugs.)

Anyway, from the springhouse, we would “fetch” the cold milk, skim off the cream that had risen to the top into the large crockery churn, so plenty of butter could be made later from the cream, and then drink the “skimmed” milk. If we happened to leave a jug or pitcher too long in the springhouse, it might become “blinky” or “clabbered,” too. But seldom did we have “blinky” milk that had been cooled in the extremely cold water of our “bubbling” spring. (I’ve written the story of “How Daddy Found the Spring” for Blind Pig before!). Then, whatever was left from the jug also went into the churn until it really became “blinky” (clabbered) and was ready to churn and make into beautiful molded squares of rich country butter–and left the buttermilk for making biscuits, cornbread–and for my Daddy to drink! He preferred to drink a class of cold buttermilk, and eat it with cornbread crumbled into it, than to have it in what we called “sweet milk” (before it turned blinky or we made buttermilk from it really, the “buttermilk” is milk minus the butter!).

All the milk was utilized around our farm house. And we had plenty of it, because we usually had four or five “milk cows” to tend and get rich milk from every day. We sold the excess from what our family would use to the “milk man” who came by week-days and took the large tin milk can we left filled from whatever we had left from our family’s need. He left us another can empty for that day’s supply to be picked up the next day. This (small) source of income helped with things we needed to purchase at my Grandpa Bud Collins’s country store! Many good memories of milk, the springhouse, driving cows to pasture, and taking those pitchers and jugs of milk to the springhouse for cooling before the days of electricity and refrigerators! Milk and water (with coffee for the grown-ups for breakfast) was our main drink in our growing-up years. If we had lemonade, or tea, (because we didn’t have ice to go in it), it was a rare treat. Tea was mainly served hot, as was coffee.

I love these memories. They take me back to a happy, secure, well-provided for youthful days (we were poor but didn’t know it, because we had everything we needed!!) Now that I am “fourscore and more” I look back and am so grateful for my Appalachian upbringing. Selah!”

—Ethelene Dyer Jones – January 2017



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  • Reply
    William J. Boone
    January 21, 2021 at 2:05 pm

    I only ate home made cottage cheese, or schmierkase as the Pennsylvania Dutch call it, once. A lady of German descent, Edith Bitzel Leister, who lived down the road from my aunt, Nanny, and kept a milk cow, had a lot of milk clabber one summer. She scooped out the curds and hung it in a cloth sack until it drained completely. She salted it and added a little fresh cream. She shared it with my aunt and Uncle Charley, where I was lucky enough to eat some. It was absolutely fantastic. Store bought pales almost to invisible in comparison.

  • Reply
    March 10, 2020 at 5:53 am

    I remember one time we went to visit my Dad’s sister and they had a milk cow and she gave me a glass of milk and I tried it and about threw up, I was use to store bought milk and there is a difference, I guess it’s all in what you get use too.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    March 9, 2020 at 4:16 pm

    My Grandma had a cow down at the ‘old place’ and my uncle on the ridge above us had one when I was a boy. My Grandma had an electric churn, quite upscale. I expect my step-grandpa got it for her. I cannot conceive of her ever asking for such a thing. We never had a cow at our house, not sure why. My brother learned to milk but I never did. I tried it but somehow just never got it right.

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    March 9, 2020 at 2:07 pm

    Ethelene could have been raised at Needmore since her tale brings back so many memories. We always had Golden Guernsey Cattle which had around a quart of cream on every gallon of the fresh milk which Mom would pour off until we got a “churnin” of cream and then take turns would churning with a dasher in a five gallon Crock. When the butter finally obeyed the chant “Come Butter Come” Mom would dip the butter out, wash it, salt it lightly and pat it in pattys that had been in the family for years. We enjoyed the better we needed and sold the surplus butter , fresh milk, buttermilk and eggs. The Butter was a lovely Gold which was where the Golden Guernesy cattle got their name due to the rich Butterfat.

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    • Reply
      March 9, 2020 at 3:01 pm

      Bill, I read your comment about the apple late in the day and I had wondered if that was the old timey horse apple. The horse apple I remember as a child was in an uncle’s hillside pasture. The ones I ate were huge with some being as big as softballs, Looking back they seemed that big. When they got mellow they were juicy and real sweet, That’s the only old timey horse apple I recollect. That tree is long gone. I haven’t tried to locate the old horse apple for several years but I couldn’t find that particular apple then. The horse apple I did find looked nothing like the old variety.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    March 9, 2020 at 1:52 pm

    I remember when I was little, we got a “gurnsey” cow, and that’s what Mama her, “Gurnsey”. That was one stupid Cow, but she gave plenty of fresh milk. And Mama made “real cow butter.”

    When I was at “Die Mold Corporation”, behind the Veteran’s Hospital in Oteen, a bunch of us boys got to talking one day and a guy from Texas asked me if I liked ‘real cow butter.’ I said “yeah”, and the next day he brought me over 70 cakes with that 4-leaf Clover on top. I’m telling you, I gave my farther-in-law a bunch and he put it in his freezer. We didn’t have a Freezer, but a big Refrigerator and the top got crammed full.

    I sure love Ethelene’s stories. She knows a lot. She use to be a Teacher, and I would Love to sit (quiet as a mouse) and listen to her tell stories of life in Appalachia. I am not Jewish, but in her last words, she said Selah. That means “Think about it.” As my friend Don said “I hope All is Well.” …Ken

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    March 9, 2020 at 12:47 pm

    My Grandmother, Dolly, had milk cows. She milked every morning and every evening so she always had fresh milk.
    She made buttermilk, butter,and sometimes cottage cheese. She sold to the neighbors any that she didn’t use. The life of a country woman was not easy. Those cows had to be milked morning and evening regardless of the weather.
    My Grand daddy worked in the paper mill and when he retired she handed the milk bucket over to him!
    Thanks, Ethelene, for the story and the memories.

  • Reply
    March 9, 2020 at 12:27 pm

    What a wonderful story from Ethelene Dyer Jones. I agree with one of your readers when he said, “it takes me back to a happy, secure, well-provided for youthful days.” I heard my parents and aunts make the following statement so many times, “we were poor but didn’t know it, because we had everything we needed!!”

  • Reply
    Shirley Hogan
    March 9, 2020 at 12:20 pm

    We would eat the clabbered milk with homemade syrup mixed in it.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    March 9, 2020 at 11:03 am

    That could have been me Ethelene! I lived all those things. Thanks for refreshing my memories!

  • Reply
    March 9, 2020 at 10:28 am

    Wow, four or five cows to milk is a lot of work! Bet the milkers had hands like iron.
    Thanks, Ethelene, for sharing such pleasant memories 🙂

  • Reply
    March 9, 2020 at 9:28 am

    Thank you so much, Ethelene, for your wonderful story about growing up in Appalachia. I always enjoy your additions to Tipper’s blog. I too have memories of many having milk cows and the whole process of churning, storing milk in springs, and the wonderful taste of what we always called “cow butter.” I recall some would have a fancy mold and add color while others molded into a block. To this day nothing tastes quite as good as a buttered biscuit. I had the privilege of helping my grandmother churn, but never could catch onto the milking, although I was allowed to try. Usually most people only had one milk cow, and they were given pet names, and they were well loved by the family. I would often go help my uncle hunt the cow, and bring her back in the evening. This sometimes involved going through some tall grass which was not to my liking. These memories are priceless!

  • Reply
    Sanford McKinney Jr
    March 9, 2020 at 9:25 am

    (clabbered) milk was used to make cottage cheese by my Mom. She would put the clabbered in a container that was almost like a dish pan and heat it on the wood cook stove. I have no idea how she knew the correct temperature and time to heat the milk.
    As my Dad used to say, “Well, the cottage cheese is good if you like cottage cheese.” Dad always said that something was good only if you liked it, otherwise, if you did not like it, it could not be good. I did and still do like cottage cheese, especially the fresh dry cottage cheese that Mom made.
    The thing I remember vividly was when the cows ate “wild onions” which caused the milk and butter to have the wild onion flavor. Not a good tasting flavor.

  • Reply
    March 9, 2020 at 9:11 am

    When I used to come come from up north, I would go looking for someone selling fresh butter. Mom stopped milking when the kids moved away. An old lady up the road from my parent’s house was known to be a clean housekeeper and that kept customers coming back for her homemade butter. I remember paying 25 cents for a bowl of her snow white butter. I would gladly pay ten times that much for a small cake of fresh butter if I could find it.

    • Reply
      Ed Ammons
      March 9, 2020 at 11:10 am

      Most of the butter found in stores is “sweet cream”butter. Cultured butter is what our parents made out of soured cream skimmed from raw milk. In NC it’s illegal to buy or sell raw milk or it’s byproducts. It’s even illegal to give it away. We have to have our own cows. That’s a shame because it has a much better flavor.

  • Reply
    March 9, 2020 at 8:39 am

    I always enjoy Ethelene Dyer Jones stories.
    I don’t remember Mom ever making buttermilk. She doesn’t like buttermilk or sweet milk. Now my Mamaw Lewis, that’s a different story. She always had buttermilk and that’s where I learned to love it.
    My Wife has told me at her Grandparents house there would always be a lot of cousins gather in on the weekends and of course, being kids, they would get into something they were told not to do. Yell, there punishment was taking turns at the crockpot using the dasher to make buttermilk.

    • Reply
      March 9, 2020 at 8:44 am

      I just remembered Mamaw always said (frash) fresh buttermilk.

      • Reply
        March 9, 2020 at 10:20 am

        AW-frash is how Pap would have said it too 🙂

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    March 9, 2020 at 8:37 am

    Ethelene’s writings always brighten the day; sure hope she’s doing well.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    March 9, 2020 at 8:11 am

    Thanks to Ethelene for sharing this slice of a world we have lost. She has the storyteller’s gift of evoking setting and situation in a fashion which makes you feel (and wish) you were there. Obviously her family, like many another one in Appalachian days of yore, eked out a hardscrabble living however they could.

    Daddy would have loved this story, because he loved to tell about sneaking out to the spring house on a hot summer’s day for a glass of cold buttermilk. I suspect, and I imagine he eventually did too, that Grandma knew about his surreptitious milk-drinking all along.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Don Byers
    March 9, 2020 at 6:24 am

    I remember when we lowered our milk and butter in a bucket on a rope down into the well. Our Aunt Minnie kept hers in a “spring house”..

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