A Buttery Subject

    Guest Posts on County 10 are provided by contributors and the opinions, thoughts, and comments within are their own and may not necessarily reflect those of County 10.

    Lately, my reading list is a bit more obscure, far from the mainstream. After a lifetime of reading about the Civil War, the American West, and onward into the modern era in an endless series of historical works, I’ve found them to be a bit repetitive. It’s not that you can’t find out something new from every author on subjects you consider familiar, it’s just that there are so many other things you can learn about between the covers of a good book.

    I prefer heavily constructed paperbacks rather than hardbound books. I like the feel better and they pack easier into a backpack or carry-on bag. As “official” retirement hit, I found myself traveling a lot more, and reading several books a month as well.


    Instead of broad topics, I’ve delved into niche subjects. Over the last couple of years, I discovered Mark Kurlansky.

    If you’re not familiar with his work, it’s a historical romp based on a simple subject. I’ve read his works, Salt, Paper, Cod, Birdseye, The Food of a Younger Land, and 1968: The Year that Rocked the World. They were all excellent. I started down this path with a book on the history of wood. That’s right, wood. Chairs, tables, the stuff in the fireplace, wood.

    Spike Carlson made the subject come alive in his “A Splintered History of Wood.”

    Yes, it was far from a wooden read. (I know, lousy pun.)


    My current book by Kurlansky is Milk: A 10,000 Year History.

    You might think milk would be a dry subject, (another bad pun) but it is an interesting read that ties in ancient history with the modern world.

    For most of mankind’s existence, after early childhood, no one ever tasted milk again. When villages began to form in the Middle East and Africa 10,000+ years ago, it wasn’t the cow that was first domesticated for milk, but rather sheep, goats, and camels, yes, the angry, snarling dromedary. Imagine milking an angry one-humped camel, it’s not for the faint of heart.


    The story of milk came with a touch of reality this weekend when a friend posted a photo of the butter she had made from one of their cows.

    We made butter when I was a high school kid back on the farm at Kinnear, but there wasn’t much romance in making it.

    The first step was to milk a cow, then separate the cream, and finally churn the cream into butter.


    My dad and I milked up to three cows at a time by hand. We didn’t have the luxury of modern mini-milking machines that niche farmers now use. Our method was a stool, a bucket of grain to keep the cow occupied and a clean three-gallon galvanized bucket to squirt the milk into.

    Usually, we had calves on the cows, but throughout the year we’d milk by hand. My mom and dad traded the cream we made, along with eggs, with a small grocery store in Riverton for produce.

    The cream came in a hand-operated cream separator, a marvelous invention that changed the lives of pioneer families beginning in the late 19th century.

    The machine was a heavy cast iron device with a 10-gallon hopper on top. We’d pour milk into the hopper, then start cranking the handle.

    There was a little bell that rang with each turn of the crank, as you spun the handle, the separator accelerated. When the right speed was reached, the bell stopped ringing. When that happened, you opened the spigot and the milk flowed into the device. The skim milk flowed one way into a big bucket, and the cream dribbled out the other side into a series of quart jars.

    We mixed the milk with oats and fed hogs with it, which they relished. The smell of sour milk permeated the hog pen in the summer.

    The cream we took inside to the refrigerator and either used it ourselves or traded it in town.

    A few times I made butter by rolling one of those quart jars under my foot while rocking in one of our rocking chairs. I read a book as my foot rolled the jar back and forth. When it stopped rolling smoothly and I felt a clunk, the butter had arrived.

    It was pale white, not like the artificially colored yellow butter you find in the store, and it was unsalted. Unsalted butter doesn’t have much of a shelf life, even when refrigerated. The salted variety keeps its consistency much longer, even without refrigeration.

    The Romans reviled the “butter eaters” as they called the Gauls and other Northern European tribes. Romans and the Greeks before them had such an abundance of olive oil that they never had a use for milk, butter, or cream.

    The Romans claimed they could smell the stench of rancid butter on their barbarian neighbors long before they saw them. It’s much the same with Chinese and Japanese people who can’t stand being in tight public spaces with Americans since we smell like rancid meat to them.

    Milk has a very short shelf life without refrigeration. Before the modern era, people rarely drank milk, but preserved it in the short term as butter and for longer periods as cheese.

    The sharp cheddar, Swiss, and Muenster we take for granted at the grocery store was discovered by accident when milk was stored in a lamb’s stomach for transport in the Middle East. After a long day, the milk had turned into cheese. It was the rennet in the lamb’s stomach that did the magic. You can get rennin, the active enzyme in rennet from plants such as artichokes, nettles, and some thistles, or from some mushrooms.

    Cheese made from sheep or goat’s milk is found throughout Europe and is especially popular in France. They look down on cheese made from cow’s milk, but many squeamish Americans shy away from anything aside from bovine milk products. It’s all in your viewpoint. I find all the varieties, no matter the mammal that produces them, excellent.

    In the ancient world, through the 19th century, warmer climates required hard cheese. A hard cheese repels bacteria and remains viable even in warmer temperatures.

    There is an unverified story that an assassin was hired to kill a queen in Northern France in the 13th century. She had a habit of bathing in a stream a few hundred yards from her castle. He planned to hit her with a rock from a sling in the head.

    He practiced for weeks when she was away slinging stone after stone where her head would surface in the stream.

    When the day arrived and conditions were perfect, he panicked, discovering his bag of stones had a hole in the bottom and he had nothing to sling. He broke off a piece of cheese he had in his pouch, fitted it into the sling, and hit the queen directly in the forehead, killing her instantly.

    Now that’s some sharp cheddar. No wonder those goat milk-based cheeses are strong.


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