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MY COUSIN SUSIE lived on a street with several pretentious homes. Her parents’ home was a large two-story house with many bedrooms, a library and a large tile bath. I was quite young when her parents purchased this house and up to this time had not experienced an indoor bathroom. When I heard that the toilet was an indoor one, I thought that the effect would certainly be disastrous on the rest of the house.
An enormous wooden bark was at the back of their house. A previous owner had kept large numbers of stock and had housed them there. At this time, no ordinance governed the keeping of animals within the city boundaries. Many people took advantage of having no restrictions on animals and kept all kinds of stock in their back lots. This practice often resulted in having oodles of flies in a neighborhood, and they proved to be awful pests.
My aunt liked to keep a cow, so this barn and back lot were the ideal place to keep one. As soon as a farmer or some individual came by one day with a cow that suited her fancy, she lost no time in buying it to occupy her big lot.
My aunt had several cows at various times, but I seemed to remember Daisy best. She was a pretty brown cow whose large stomach always looked overly full like a poked-out clothes bag. We admired Daisy, but it was always from a distance because getting too close occasionally brought a sweeping hook from her horns which made us take to our heels.
My cousin, who was a tall, lanky lad of twelve or thirteen, was assigned to care for Daisy. He wasn’t too happy with this chore, but he accepted it and did a rather good job. His chief complaint was that his hands always smelled like a cow from milking her so much. Sometimes he would play late and not get home for the regular milking time. But whenever he came, Daisy would be standing in the lot with her large back strained from its great quantity of milk and mooing loudly to protest his omission.
We didn’t help with the milking but quite often Susie and I would help churn the milk after it had soured in order to make buttermilk. My aunt kept her churn on her large back porch. It was considered an improvement over the tall wooden churn of earlier years with a dasher that was a long pole in a round wooden block with holes. Another nice feature about this barrel-type churn was that one could sit in a chair while turning and churn the milk without too much effort.
My aunt would fill the churn with clabber, a substance that is formed when milk is left out for two or three days. When she wanted a sizable amount of clabber for churning she would purposely leave most of the evening’s milk out on the table to turn into this thick, lumpy substance. When the churn was filled with the sour milk, we would take turns whirling it over and over. After a while, small flecks of butter would escape and dot the top of the churn. They were not left there very long, though, because our eager fingers would swipe off the fresh butter in a hurry. We loved it.
Sometimes the butter seemed to come very slowly, and our young arms would get tired of churning. Then came a few grunts and groans and dialogue similar to this, My arms are tired. This old milk is taking too long to make buttermilk. Let’s get some hot water. This short cut method was usually acceptable to us, and we would put in hot water to make the butter come quicker. My aunt discouraged this method because it was not considered to be good for the butter.
Our cousin, who was a few years older, usually superintended the final opening of the churn if our aunt was not present. If the butter had gathered in a big flat mass on top of the milk, it was time to skim it for butter-making. We did the skimming with a large spoon while being careful to leave some specks of butter floating in the milk so the buttermilk would taste extra good. We liked it that way.
The butter was put in a bowl, the milk was washed out of it, and a bit of salt was added to improve the flavor. After this process, the butter was ready to be molded into pounds and one-half pounds for table use or for sale.
Butter molds always seemed to fascinate me. They were pretty little objects made of wood with designs stamped in them. Sometimes the raised design was shaped like a flower, a ship or some other object. When the butter was packed in the mold and pressure applied to both sides of it the imprint made the soft butter seem like a work of art. It was carefully removed from the mold and then refrigerated or packed in ice to make it firm and saleable for the customers who came to buy butter.
Love, Rose Leary. Plum Thickets and Field Daisies: A Memoir. Charlotte, NC: Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, 1996