Harry Neil :: We Discover Cottage Cheese ::

Creative Non-Fiction

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born in a very rural part of North Carolina’s Cape Fear Basin. My grade school was part of Penderlea, “America’s first farm city,” a depression-era homesteading project that ultimately failed. I went on to the University in Chapel Hill, where I roomed 20 feet and 50 years from Thomas Wolfe. I never graduated because I discovered and fell in love with the UNC Univac 1105 computer. My work there eventually led to a job at UCLA and thence to retirement in the California Desert and a new career as a writer. Now I have the time to reflect on my time in the old South, and sometimes to write about it. Wistfully.

We Discover Cottage Cheese

It must have been the arrival of the Homemakers’ Cookbook that triggered the search for cottage cheese. Mama had finally decided that she had to have help if she were ever to cook edible lacto-ovo-vegetarian meals. When you learned to cook in a house where “correct the seasoning” meant “toss in a chunk of fatback pork,” making edible food that was free of “hoggy” ingredients was a real challenge and making nutritious vegetarian food without help was impossible. So somehow, Mama scraped together the money and ordered the vegetarian cookbook published by her new church.

Now it was not that we had never heard of cottage cheese. I for one had read about it in a grade school reader. That reader, like all the textbooks we used, was written for city kids, and treated all country things as great and mysterious adventures. In this story, a city kid visited his country grandmother, who showed him how she made butter, something we did every week on our farm. The city kid was incredulous. Make butter? Make cottage cheese, yes, but not butter. You had to buy butter at the market. 

No store in our area sold cottage cheese; nobody we knew ate cottage cheese; and most certainly, no farm that we had heard of made cottage cheese. It was apparently a city food, and one that we had yet to encounter. 

Of course, we had “real” cheese. The mom-and-pop stores at the intersections of dirt roads sold it. It came in large wax-covered wheels, which, upon being opened, revealed an orange product that we in our ignorance called “cheddar.” I assumed that it was made in magic factories far, far away, using technologies which, like pasteurization, were far beyond the reach of the family farm. Now I realize that every wheel looked and tasted quite different, and that they probably came from a variety of small providers in surrounding towns. 

I was completely aware that the “curds and whey” eaten by Little Miss Muffet were the intermediate products of the cheese-making process. The schoolbooks had said so. But I believed that producing these intermediates from fresh milk must use highly secret techniques known only to the privileged few, as with the recipe for Coca-Cola. 

The Homemaker’s Cookbook recipes used cottage cheese wantonly, and it was clear that if we were to get the benefit that we had expected from the book, we would need to make the acquaintance of this exotic. So, Mama made inquiries among her few remaining friends. Nobody was much help. Mrs. Strauss finally said, in jest, “wouldn’t it be funny if this cottage cheese stuff turned out to just be clabber?” 

Mama just smiled. She was thinking about the Bloodworth clan. 

If I remember correctly, and I often do not, the Bloodworth household consisted of two spinster sisters, whom I don’t remember ever seeing, and one brother, Rupert, whom I remember well. The Bloodworths were notable for three things. 

First, Rupert B. was fat; obese even, obscenely obese even. One did not forget meeting Rupert B. Perhaps it was that overpowering presence that has left me with no recollection of his siblings. Or perhaps not, but that’s not important now. I do recall that, while I saw Rupert B. many times at some place, I never saw him arrive at or leave any place. I do not know how he did that. Surely he could not have fit into any closed vehicle. Did he ride as cargo in the back of a pickup truck? Could he only go out when it was not raining? I’ll never know. 

Second, the Bloodworth name was pronounced “Blubbuth.” As a small child, I assumed that this was a variant of “blubber.” Even today, I have not decided whether it was due to the habit of the English people to pronounce names in absurd, probably Celtic ways, or to the same Southern indolence that produces the better-known “Bubbah.” In any case, I found it a spellbinding anomaly. 

Third, the Bs were reported to eat, nay to enjoy, sweet clabber. This set them apart in their community, for clabber was generally pig food. It is true that it had its uses in cooking, as did lard, but like lard, it was never a major part of the volume of any edible. One did not eat it with a spoon. You must remember that this was America already, and we had long passed the age of the English “pudding.” Pardon while I say a little prayer of thanks. 

It may be that today’s reader is not acquainted with clabber. Well, when my Grandpa brought in fresh milk by the peck bucket from the barn, Grandma poured it into wide, shallow settling pans and left it in the warm pantry until the cream rose to the top in a rich light-yellow layer. She skimmed this off with a big spoon and saved it for making biscuits or butter. The skimmed milk that was left had one of two fates. Either it went into pitchers and onto ice for drinking and cooking, or it just stayed where it was until it coagulated into the thick goo called sweet clabber, which was then fed to the pigs. 

I now know that this process was time-honored, even ancient. Back in the old country, sweet clabber had been called bonnie clabr, and I presume that it was used then much as we used it ourselves. The old country, of course, was Scotland. Our area was rich in Scottish place names: “Wallace,” “Aberdeen,” “Castle Hayne.” Our neighbors often had Scottish names: “McGowan,” “Murray.” Presbyterianism was rampant, followed closely by Methodism. And sweet clabber was food for pigs. 

Now I cannot say that it never happened, but I personally never heard anyone propose that Rupert B’s porcine proportions were the product of his partaking of pig food. In retrospect, it seems almost impossible that nobody ever thought of this. This was moonshine country, and when the locals were passing quart jars of “special recipe” around, such a thought, once conceived, would not have stayed long unspoken. 

Time passed, as it always does, and eventually, Mama found a “recipe” for cottage cheese, and discovered that it was, in fact, sweet clabber with the whey squeezed out through cheesecloth. This cleared up the secondary mystery of why they call it cheesecloth. It also brought the Bloodworth clan back into the realm of near respectability, at least at our house. It took us a while to master the art – at first the clabber just sat in the suspended cheesecloth forever, with only the tiny fingers protruding statically through the cloth resembling what we came to know that cottage cheese should look like. By the time practice made perfect, the whole effort had become academic. 

I do believe in Karma, at least in some of its manifestations, and it is hard not to believe that Mama’s determined seeking of cottage cheese and of the world in which it existed drew that world toward us. In any event, magically, cottage cheese began to turn up on the shelves of the brand new and totally awesome Piggly Wiggly. The old South was giving way to the age of television, where everybody would eventually know everything about everybody else, where all things would be made out of ticky tacky and would all look the same, and where there would be massive glass supermarkets which, wherever they happened to be, would carry all the same things, wherever they happened to come from. 

I am a man who wallows in guilt – Mama saw to that – so I wonder if I had a part in the loss of the dear old South. Perhaps, if we had not gone on our search for cottage cheese, the old South might have held on for just a few years more. When I miss the close, hot summer days when bees buzzed in clover, and when old folks sat around country stores, swigging RC Colas and waving paper fans that advertised mortuaries, and when Grandpa toted pails of clabber out to the pigs, it’s easy to wish that it had.