My mom often had a container of buttermilk in the fridge during my childhood. She would pour a small glass for herself after a long afternoon in the garden or cleaning the garage.
It looked so delicious I wanted some in a real way. Eventually I faced a raised eyebrow from my mother, poured myself a glass, took a big fat swig and gagged. Sour, cloying, unnaturally smooth.
The only reason the buttermilk stayed in my mouth and did not fly into the sink was that raised eyebrow. It dared me to waste something I poured for myself. So I drank that gulp, and vowed never to touch the stuff again. I poured the rest of the buttermilk back into the carton once my mom’s raised eyebrows were safely in the backyard. And from then on I consumed buttermilk only when it was securely embedded in pancakes.
I’ve gradually learned, at the urging of others, to embrace buttermilk. There was lore of a salad at Vie Restaurant in Chicago, where I often work in the winters, of sliced beets dressed in buttermilk alone. Still, my appreciation for the stuff never crossed love and certainly never approached drinking a glass, standing over the sink.
Then, while making a pasta salad for a Memorial Day party, something clicked. I bought a quart of Shetler’s, poured a spoonful to get a sense of its texture and sourness. I was flabbergasted — not sticky, delightfully tart. My mom had been right; I poured myself a glass.
Buttermilk originated when families had a cow or two and before refrigeration was ubiquitous. The cream that would become butter was saved over the course of several days. They added a culture to the cream to keep it from spoiling — to promote healthy bacteria development that would out compete the bad. The mixture eventually was turned to butter.