Ah, remember how we used to sit around the campfire with Dad in the Pacific Northwest roasting marshmallows and downing cold mugs of buttermilk?
Remember when you could walk into a bar in Portland and load up on all the buttermilk you could drink for ten cents?
Gone are those days.
Remember back in ancient times when Cleopatra bathed herself head to toe in butter byproduct for more supple skin?
But Peter Rice, buttermilk champion, author and drinker does. He not only remembers, he has written an entire vignette-style book on the now archaic dairy product beverage entitled Drinking Buttermilk: A Eulogy for an American Pastime.
There are chapters on his visit to the town of Buttermilk, Kansas, recipes for buttermilk beverages (liquid orange creamsicles, chocolate buttermilk) and a funny account of what happens when you go into a restaurant in modern times and try to order up a glass of buttermilk. There’s a chapter in which he attempts to codify a buttermilk rating system. And a chapter where he lists great buttermilk shout-outs in classic literature such as Charlotte’s Web (“…Wilbur stood still and closed his eyes. He could feel the buttermilk trickling down his sides. He opened his mouth and some buttermilk ran in. It was delicious. He felt radiant and happy. When Mrs. Zuckerman got through and rubbed him dry, he was the cleanest, prettiest pig you ever saw.”)
In this week’s Euforkia, Peter talks a bit about his fermented dairy beloved and shares his recipe for his miraculous, possibly sainted, eminently dummy-proof, buttermilk-rich Irish soda bread.
Bio: Seven years ago the hale young Peter Rice packed his bags in Olympia, Washington and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico as the second-to-last reporter hired at the now defunct Albuquerque Tribune. Fast forward to the present where he survives as a jack-of-all trades, almost literally—a journeyman electrician, solar panel man and a video producer for software companies. I was prying for more esoteric and weird hobbies beyond buttermilk, but he says his buttermilk fixation is his weirdest. He is currently penning a book about bike touring (after touring every western state except Nevada and Wyoming).
What He Likes About New Mexico Food Culture Other Than Our Fine Selection of Buttermilk: Taco trucks. “If you were to tell me I could never patronize another brick and mortar place again, but was allowed to eat at taco trucks, I’d be fine.”
Why Buttermilk: “My father enjoyed it and made sure his kids did too. He did this by making an occasion out of acquiring buttermilk on vacation and trips. My sister and I have positive Pavlovian associations with buttermilk. I associate it with high adventure and father-son bonding. I realize nobody else does.”
Buttermilk 101: There are two distinct kinds of buttermilk: sweet cream and cultured. The sweet cream buttermilk is a by-product of churned butter. When you rile up butter, you rupture the protective coating around the fat globules and the milk breaks apart into what Peter calls the “membrane soup” (buttermilk) and the butter. This most innocent of buttermilks is eminently drinkable and faintly sweet. Peter has a nice glib way of describing it as “like milk, only much more so,” a much easier sell than “membrane soup.”
Then there’s cultured buttermilk (what you see in the dairy case), traditional buttermilk’s imitator, in which live cultures are introduced to milk. Peter calls this a more liquid cousin of plain yogurt, containing most, if not all, the probiotics of a good live culture yogurt and as little fat as the milk to which the cultures were introduced. Cultured buttermilk is not eminently drinkable, but then neither is beer, or wine, or mate at first.
How to Turn Your Home into a Buttermilk Factory: You can keep cultured buttermilk in your home in perpetuity by buying buttermilk from the store and combining it in a jar with regular milk (fat content is not important) at a ratio of 1/3 buttermilk to 2/3 regular milk. Shake the jar to combine and then store covered at room temperature for 24 hours. So easy, it’s almost insulting. Peter does warn that if it smells “off” when you unscrew the lid, you probably shouldn’t drink it. Aside from having fresh buttermilk on hand, making it at home also saves money. In his book, Peter estimates a 50 to 100% mark up from milk to buttermilk.
Buttermilk as Symbol: The history of buttermilk is the history of America in the last century as it transitioned from a small town agrarian society to the high tech capital of the world. People moved off farms into cities/suburbs in droves and accumulated wealth. This transition pulled us away from the traditional foods we ate (not necessarily because they were superior choices but because they were available, back when wasting food was not an option).
Buttermilk in a glass was a casualty of this shift. Buttermilk consumption is at 25% of what it was in the early 60s. Much of the greasy spoon fare with buttermilk touted as an ingredient (pancakes, ranch dressing and fried chicken) actually use buttermilk powder instead of the real stuff. Next time you see a carton of buttermilk in the store, you can think of it as a poignant relic of a lost era.
Buttermilk’s Raw Deal: Buttermilk just can’t catch a break, says Peter. Yogurt gets all of the props for its probiotic superpowers, while buttermilk is ignored. Peter suspects that the name itself kills it. “Buttermilk” sounds like a super-fattening, liquid butter that will wreck havoc on your health, when in fact it has no more fat than regular milk. He goes on to state that buttermilk, like alcohol, is an acquired taste, but unlike alcohol it will not help you get a date or get you high—it will only initiate you into a very quirky fraternity of people who appreciate sour dairy beverages.
Signs of a Superior Buttermilk: You can recognize a good buttermilk by its creamy mouthfeel, pleasant sour taste (not annoying sour) and a bit of tang that hangs on the tongue. The locally produced Creamland is good, he says. Trader Joe’s version is not.
On the Fork: When people think of buttermilk, their first association is pancakes, but Peter says that they should be thinking of Irish soda bread. Bread is a staple in most homes, but many of us are intimidated by the process. All of that kneading. All of that waiting. All of that troubleshooting. Enter Irish soda bread. Soda bread doesn’t require the practice, patience and finesse of yeast breads. This quick and versatile bread is composed of only four ingredients and the hardest part is kneading the dough for a tedious 30 seconds. Peter puts it this way: “A rank amateur can get A minus bread for D minus effort. There are very few breads where at 5:00 you can decide you want bread for dinner and at 6:00 sit down with a warm loaf and have leftovers for sandwiches the next day.” Buttermilk is a key ingredient to the bread’s chemistry (as in pancakes it adds spring and fizz when it reacts with the baking soda). The result is a flexible and bubbly slice of bread. This recipe is the most basic version adapted from James Beard. You can add sugar, raisins, dried cranberries, whatever your fancy.
Voila. You have unlocked the mysteries of quick, Irish-style bread with buttermilk as your key.
In closing, a lost Vermeer portrait (Man Drinking Buttermilk) and an excerpt from Peter’s book:
Is there anything better on a warm summer afternoon, or beside a campfire in the dead of winter? Beer and wine, the critics will say, but they are simply wrong. While these drinks have their merits, they are but fly-by-night beverages. They come, they get themselves ingested, they conquer. At the end of the day, they are but ships in the night.
Buttermilk, on the other hand, is soothing and carries a deeply textured personality, like a good friend. You sip it until fulfilled, nothing more. But as you do this, it almost seems like you are drinking down life itself. For life is not like beer, or even fruit juice for that matter. These drinks take a concentrate of something that a social consensus has deemed “good” and then pile it on.
While they’re at it, they miss the point. Life is not always sweet and life is not always intoxicating. Life is usually a lot more like buttermilk: Sometimes sour, sometimes salty, but rich, thick, and wholesome – a grand tradition that we have no choice but to celebrate. Buttermilk has been around for a long time. It knows about those embarrassing things you did when you were younger. It knows your family. But it revels in humanity anyway. In the end, the taste isn’t automatically satisfying, but the feelings the taste inspires – both in the body and in the brain – certainly are.
Next up on Euforkia: Brazen and delicious gourmet weed dishes (fried dandelion flower fritters and more) from Ellie Hadsall and Dara Saville.
Edible celebrates New Mexico's food culture, season by season. We believe that knowing where our food comes from is a powerful thing. With our high-quality, aesthetically pleasing and informative publication, we inspire readers to support and celebrate the growers, producers, chefs, beverage and food artisans, and other food professionals in our community.