The Best Butter

There is a little dairy in the valley of the Swananoa, — river of music, — a place of miracles and of pleasant rites, which will ever leap into memory with the sight of butter-pats. We lived high up on Sunset Mountain, above the valley mists and above the clouds, too; but we went down into the valley for our butter.

There were many such dairies then. Every little farm that owned a cow had one, built over a running stream or a mountain spring, often of unfinished logs whitewashed on the inside, and always very clean and sweet and cool. There they brought the milk foaming in buckets, and poured it into shining wide pans, to stand and collect a thick head of cream; for separators, though already in use, had not yet traveled that way. It was there, too, that the churning was done on the hottest days, or else just outside the doorway, in the pale morning sunshine.

I have not seen such butter for a very long time. We get our butter now at a shop called a creamery, where they also sell biscuits and salt fish and canned vegetables, and where it comes in neat medallioned squares, wrapped in paper gritty with salt. I do not like that bland yellow hue, or the too solid look, as if only a flame would melt it. But that other butter was the very essence of the fields, its ingredients born of the dew and of fresh June grass, rising in golden richness to the word of incantation: —

Come, butter, come,
Come, butter, come;
Peter’s waiting at the gate
For a bit of buttered cake;
Come, butter, come.

For, it seems, you must do your churning with a song, or else the butter will take an unconscionable time in coming, if, indeed, it come at all. You may blame it on the kobold if you like, that same kobold who is not averse to drinking thick clotted cream in the early hours before anyone is up, who whispers in the cow’s ear to kick over the milking-stool, and plunders from the pantry when the cook’s back is turned. It may be that singing warns him away. I do not know. But presently the handle of the churn grows heavy, and the great mellow lump must be lifted out into the waiting bowl.

It is a magical moment. The moment when you open the oven door and find your new bread prodigiously puffed and brown with the baking is magical, too, and yet not like this. For you have been your own chemist in your breadmaking, while only God knows the elements that enter into cream. Summer skies soft with clouds, summer winds sweet with wild cucumber and gourd, the music of birds, the intonings of bees, the cool caresses of showers — all are there, and more, cunningly commingled by an alchemy that will never fail to convert into gold.

They are trying very hard, these days, to divorce butter and milk and cream from that gentle fount, which accounts for so much that is lacking in butter, even in the best butter that one can buy. I never see a milk-cart go by without a sense of vats and pipe-lines and pulleys and pandemonium, of everything that is gross and mechanical and utterly foreign to the fields. Lob-lieby-the-fire would flee from the modern dairy with his fingers in his ears. It is no wonder that there is something wrong with their butter.

I know a kind that clings to the palate like a faintly perfumed memory. It is dusk. The guinea-fowl are calling and quarreling in the valley below, and the turkeys, with much squawking, are finding their roosts in the trees; but the sounds ascend the mountainside as subdued and soft and pleasant as do the warm odors of rank sugar-cane and ripening fodder at noon. How near the toy farms in that limpid air! A stable-door slams, and a new calf bawls its complaint into the coolness of the evening. The smoke curls up from supper fires— And I am going down into the valley for my butter.

Yet it is only as I look back that I can see the opal of that sunset time, or butter as anything but butter. I cannot remember that it possessed any significance then, or fine flavor, either, when there was so much that was more alluring to the eager appetites. Bread’n’-’lasses, or bread-’n’-sugar was the food of my fancy, with only incidentally butter, and then only as a binder, the cementer of all the sweetness it could hold. Butter-pudding could redeem it, and so could tea-cake, fragrant and light, topped with the glistering brown that only one ingredient can give; and so could saucer-pie, the top crust flaky and rich with the unguent. But in time these, too, became homely and lacking savor, the real ambrosia lying farther off, beyond our barrier of hills, where dwelt the strange gods.

It was not called ambrosia, to be sure; something or other with sauce piquante, preceded, perhaps, by an antipasto to give a fillip to the jaded taste. James would have made a very wry face over sauce piquante, I dare say. Those were lean years for the soul.

Butter, as well as beauty, it seems, may be a point of view. And though apparently but a decoration, not of the body, as in Africa, but of bread, that a homely fare may be made beautiful, it still contains in itself an elusive something that will remain long after the obvious has been licked from the fingers. We need it as a beautifier, not only for bread, but for that wistful part of us that looks for more than food. ’Lasses years pass, and cinnamon-and-sugar years, and sauce-piquante years, until in the end, the common thing may suddenly acquire a new and unperceived loveliness to our astonished eyes, and bread and butter be meat indeed.