Empowerment through home dairy.
by Ashley English . photo by Naomi Johnson
The first time I made butter, you’d have thought I’d transformed iron into gold. For me, watching as the cream morphed from a fully liquid state into thick, stick-to-the-spoon butter was like witnessing first-hand a form of alchemy in my standup mixer. When I graduated to making my own yogurt, I felt like a card-carrying kitchen wizard, practically capable of turning water into wine. Once mozzarella worked its way into my homemade dairy repertoire, I began to feel pretty much like the culinary version of King Midas.
Some time ago, I read Barbara Kingsolver’s chronicle of her family’s year of eating locally, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. A passage in the book details her own foray into the world of home dairy-making. Kingsolver said something along the lines of, after telling friends and family she intended to make homemade cheese, their reaction was akin to her informing them she’d decided to begin practicing witchcraft. I can’t quite argue with their reaction. Before I begin whipping my own butter and stretching curds of mozzarella, I might have found those endeavors exotic, esoteric and perhaps even a waste of time, too. Once I started dabbling, though, these culinary pursuits buttered me up (forgive me) right out of the gate.
I’ve always been a deeply inquisitive person. I track the weather ten days in advance. I keep abreast of international news (to the best of my abilities, while chasing after an even more inquisitive 14-month-old). I pay attention when folks living along the route to my house cut down a tree, mow their lawn or paint their homes. Likewise, I extend the same curiosity and attention to the foods I eat and grow. I want to know not just that fresh honey or a late-September apple taste delicious, but what accounts for those qualities? How do these crops grow? What are their temperaments? When do I harvest them to achieve the most robust flavor they could ever offer? This might explain why discovering the inner workings of dairy products grabbed me by the collar and dipped me straight into the milk vat.
It feels as though there’s a great disconnect in our modern diets between how things are grown and prepared, and how they are consumed. Convenience foods absolutely have their place in the home kitchen. Where would harried home cooks be without packaged pasta or canned soup? That said, it seems like the veil between rendering tomatoes into marinara sauce, or cucumbers into dill pickles, is so very thick. So, too, with dairy products. The first time I showed a friend how to make butter, she kept repeating in an awe-filled tone: “I can’t get over how easy it is.” It’s like making donuts after having only picked them up at Krispy Kreme, or whipping up some peanut butter-fillled chocolate cups after buying Reese’s for a lifetime. It’s a kitchen epiphany, on so many levels.
I can’t vouch that it’ll happen to everyone, but for me, making chevre and cheddar in my own kitchen imbued me with an “I can do anything!” sensibility. If you’ve got a bit of milk, some cheesecloth, a large stockpot and a couple hours to spare, you, too, can be enjoying the multitudinous pleasures of home dairy (for complete instructions, grab my book from the Homemade Living series, Home Dairy with Ashley English: All You Need to Know to Make Cheese, Yogurt, Butter & More; and, check out the list of suppliers and resources on my blog). Figuring out what went into creating these foods felt empowering and revelatory. Today, I might only make yogurt, but I nonetheless feel like I could tackle any problem tossed in my direction. Home dairy-making as a form of self-confidence building: who knew?
Ashley English is author of four books in the “Homemade Living” series from Asheville’s Lark Books. For more of her writing, check out her blog, Small Measure, at http://small-measure.blogspot.com.