Monday, May 28, 2012


Grandpa Paul  Clabber enthusiast & 
grandchildren not so fond of the drink
Yesterday morning after preaching a Pentecost sermon at St. Mary’s, the Episcopal Convent here on the bluff at Sewanee, Tennessee, I went into the refectory to breakfast with the congregants and Sisters and got into a conversation with Henry Hamman, publisher of Plateau Press. Henry had begun searching for his wife Kathy because he said that he had to get home and build a fence around his tomato plants – the ubiquitous deer on the Cumberland Plateau had been sniffing around his garden. I immediately went into a déjà vu about homegrown products; namely, the tomatoes that my Grandfather Paul used to grow in his backyard at Franklinton, Louisiana (the town where I was born)… and the memory lengthened into one about supper feasts in the “country.”

When I visited my grandparents during summers of the 40’s, the supper table often contained simple fare of thick slabs of Big Boy tomatoes, sliced cucumbers that I helped my grandfather pick, butterbeans left from lunch and warmed up, fried cornbread, and clabber. My grandfather’s supper consisted of only a tall green glass filled with clabber and crumbled cornbread, a concoction he drank throughout the summer.

At the age of nine, my appetite centered more on the vegetables than the strange concoction Grandfather Paul drank because I thought that clabber was a medicinal food he endured as a remedy for his condition of Bright’s Disease. Years later, I tasted clabber and agreed with the moniker it acquired through the Ulster Scots in the Appalachians – that of “bonny clabber.”

Clabber is simply curdled milk, or unpasteurized milk that has been allowed to turn sour at a specific temperature -- room temperature. As the milk curdles it develops into yogurt-like consistency. In this age of pasteurized milk regulations, the drink isn’t too popular anymore, and the pasteurization process kills the bacteria necessary for it to sour. The closest we can get to a clabbered drink is buttermilk. I’m told that if you heat clabber a little, the curds in it separate and become cheese.

Some farmers use clabber to feed their chickens as it provides calcium and protein for the chickens – the farmers claim that if chickens are fed this concoction, their meat is softer and they become better layers.

I have no idea where my grandfather got his raw milk because he didn’t own cows, but Washington Parish abounds in dairy farms, and he may have obtained milk from the owner of a cow that grazed on an open lot on 10th Avenue in Franklinton, one that I skirted on the way to visit my Aunt Kathryn who lived about a block away from the cow. I’d get off the sidewalk and wade through weeds to avoid the harmless cow who kept her head lowered and had no interest in a frightened, nine-year old girl. My mother had a phobia about cows and passed on the fright to me, along with fear of lightning, tramps, and a host of other senseless anxieties. A contradiction to this phobia was my liking for the verse in Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse about the “friendly cow, all red and white/I love with all my heart…”

A few decades ago, perhaps a thousand dairy farms abounded in Washington Parish, and I understand that today there are less than two hundred; however, the three parishes of Tangipahoa, St. Helena and Washington parishes have the largest concentration of dairy farms in Louisiana. I don’t know how much of the milk is used for curdling purposes, but in many rural areas, people still enjoy their milk soured to the stage of a firm curd. Remember the old nursery rhyme, “Little Miss Muffet /sat on her tuffet/ eating her curds and whey?”

I recently read an article highlighting Russel Creel, who owns a dairy farm five miles east of Franklinton. Creel received the title of “Dairyman of the Year” from the LSU Dairy Science Club (once known as the Cow and Cream Club!), and I bet he knows how to make a good bowl of clabber since he has been in the dairy industry for over forty years.

By the way, clabber can be eaten with brown sugar, nutmeg, or molasses. However, my grandfather was a purist and ate it unsweetened, flavoring it only with fried cornbread (no sugar added). A Greenlaw, of Scots lineage, Grandfather Paul thought it was “bonny clabber.”
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