Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Please pass the butter

This story is going to be a bit of a stretch but I though it hit the themes of history, food and what's going on with the Wagner Farm crew. Yesterday, the Glenview Park District had their Fat Tuesday pot luck. Sarah and I thought it would be interesting to make something that came out of the old cookbooks. Sarah put together all her kitchen magic to make perfect down home flaky biscuits. I put my efforts to making butter and adding in some local honey to move the biscuits from the bread station to the dessert table. When we do the dinner's program the honey butter has become a favorite. With all the talk about biscuits and butter I got to thinking about a book I recently read by Sam Watkins. Back in the 1880's Sam was asked to write down his experiences in the 1st Tennessee Regiment of the Confederate Army during the Civil War. These stories were knit together and put in book form under the name, Company Aytch. If you have seen the Ken Burn's Civil War series on PBS then you have heard of Sam Watkins as he is quoted in nearly every episode. That's Sam's picture that I posted under Sarah and I showing off our work. There is a short chapter in Company Aytch where he talks about being assigned to go foraging. This meant that he was to go buy, borrow or steal any food he could for the army. At one house, the men are able to buy some corn. After the transaction, the farmer invites the soldiers into his home for a meal the likes Sam has not seen in years. Here is his account.

"If I had ever eaten a better supper than that I have forgotten it. They had biscuits for supper. What! flour bread? Did my eyes deceive me? Well, there were biscuits and sugar and coffee-genuine Rio-none of your rye or potato coffee, and butter and ham and eggs, and turnip greens, and potatoes, and fried chicken and nice clean plates-none of your tin affairs- and snow white table cloth and napkins, and white handled knives and silver forks. At the head of the table was the madam, having on a pair of golden spectacles and at the foot the old gentleman. He said grace. And, to cap the climax, two handsome daughters. I know that I had never seen two more beautiful ladies. They had on little white aprons, trimmed with jaconet edging, and collars as clean and white as snow. They looked good enough to eat, and I think at that time I would have given ten years of my life to have kissed one of them. We were invited to help ourselves. Our plates were soon filled with the tempting food and our tumblers with California beer. We would have liked it better had it been twice as strong, but what it lacked in in strength we made up in quantity. The old lady said, "Daughter, hand the gentleman the butter." It was the first thing that I had refused, and the reason I did so was because my plate was full already. Now, there is nothing that will offend a lady so quickly as to refuse to take butter when handed to you. If you should say, "no, madam, I never eat butter," it is a direct insult to the lady of the house. Better, far better for you to have remained at home that day. If you don't eat butter it is an insult; if you eat too much, she will make our ears burn after you have left. It is a regulator of society; it is a civilizer; it is a luxury and a delicacy that must be touched and handled with care and courtesy on all occasions. Should you desire to get on the good side of a lady just give a broad sweeping slathering compliment to her butter. It beats kissing the dirty faced baby; it beats anything. Too much praise cannot be bestowed upon the butter, be it good, bad or indifferent to your notions of things, but to her, her butter is always good, superior and excellent. I did not know this characteristic of the human female at the time, or I would have taken a delicate slice of the butter."

For us living in the 21st century butter would have to be one of the most taken for granted, insignificant additions to the dinner table. For previous generations this was not the case. For them, to have butter meant that not only did you have a cow in milk but you separated the cream, clean it, whip it, salt it and then put it in a mold. Sam's account seems an exaggeration and he is making a bit of fun at himself in the story but it is true that farm wives were pretty particular about their butter. A women's butter making reputation carried from the table to the local store as most homemade butter was taken to town and became part of the barter and trade system for the farm family. Because some ladies butter was better than others they would trademark their offerings by placing the butter in a special mold that would stamp a unique symbol in the top so that everyone would know who's butter that was they were about to buy. These stamps were called butter molds and we found a way to tie this important part of dairy life into our heritage center building. When we commissioned our donor quilt one of the interesting features is the left and right side bars that highlight different butter stamps that were common in the nineteenth century. Two of the most common stamps that you will see in molds that survive today are a shock of wheat and a pineapple. These were considered signs of well wishes for prosperity and safe travels respectively.

Next time you think about smearing a little pad of butter on that piece of toast or bagel just think about how lucky we are to be able to live in a time and place where we can take something like butter for granted.