Jerry Nelson: Butter boy

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum

Nutritional advice can be confusing. Getting a definitive answer regarding whether any particular food is good or bad for you is like trying to pin Jell-O to a wall with a red-hot branding iron.

For instance, there once was a time when nutrition authorities implied that coffee is bad for every lifeform on the planet. Java, they said, could engender any number of maladies including noxious halitosis, felonious foot odor, and widespread outbreaks of speed-talking which, in turn, caused spittle spatter to become a major public health concern.

We were given the impression that all liquid coffee should be poured down the drain, except that doing so might severely damage the sewer system. You should no sooner drink espresso than you would chug paint thinner.

Nowadays, it’s generally agreed that coffee is good for you. Which is fortunate, because the only way you will get my coffee mug from me is when you pry it from my cold, dead, caffeine-stained fingers.

Not so long ago we were told that consuming butter was a nutritional sin, and that full-fat milk would cause a vast constellation of alarming side effects. These included such things as saggy elbow skin and the type of extreme eyebrow bushiness that causes small children to shriek and run away.

Now, it turns out that whole milk is better for you than the skim stuff and that including butter in your diet won’t, in fact, cause you to habitually drop things, a condition known as “butterfingers.”

You don’t have to convince me. Like many, our family went through a period when the milk in our fridge was 2% or 1% or — horrors! — skim. Let’s face it, skim milk is just bluish water.

Growing up on a dairy farm meant that my siblings and I had access to an unlimited supply of milk. We didn’t worry about such falderal as the fat content or homogenization. The adage “the cream rises to the top” was something that we experienced every day.

An infinite supply of butter was also available to us when we were kids. Whenever we needed butter, we simply mentioned it to our milk truck driver and he would cheerfully give us however many one-pound boxes we wanted. It was thoughtful of him to keep a supply of butter in the cooler in the back of his truck.

We kids assumed that the butter was free, not realizing that its cost would be deducted from our parents’ milk check.

When we were stuck at home during days-long prairie blizzards, we might pass the time by making butter. Mom would skim the cream from the gallon bucket of milk that we kept in the fridge. She poured the cream into a canning jar and showed us how to slosh the thick liquid back and forth, back and forth. Repeat and repeat.

It seemed like it took forever to turn the cream into butter. I bet that Mom knew this and saw churning homemade butter as a valuable method for keeping her brood of kids busy and out of each other’s hair.

The end product — in addition to weary wrist muscles — was a golden gob of goodness. Homemade bread was quickly sliced and toasted and the new butter liberally applied. One of mankind’s highest culinary achievements is homemade toast that has been gilded with melting butter.

In a world where so many things are synthetic, it was easy for us kids to understand how our butter came into existence. It didn’t involve a sprawling manufacturing plant that contained an endless maze of pipes and a list of ingredients that read like a chemistry textbook. You didn’t have to know about such things as diglycerides and potassium sorbate and calcium disodium, let alone figure out how to spell them.

There was only one ingredient in our butter: cream. And our cream was so fresh that it was alfalfa hay and corn silage the day before.

It’s been said that there are three secret ingredients in French cooking: butter, butter, and butter. Julia Child wouldn’t even say the name of its manmade alternative; she simply referred to it as the “m-word.”

French cooking isn’t the only type of cuisine that benefits from the addition of large amounts of butter. The same is true of dishes that are part of my Norwegian culinary heritage. Eating lutefisk is just an excuse to consume mass quantities of melted butter.

During these troubled times, it’s only natural that we reach for comfort foods. Which is why, when the nightly TV newscast airs, you can find me burrowed under the covers with a stick of butter clutched in my fist.

Jerry Nelson