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The solace of butter (and beer)


My sense of spirituality trends academic ... yet making butter has awakened something in me.

This is weird. I have begun making our own butter. It is ridiculously simple, and when it is done — this is the weird part — I get some small sense that God had let me in on an altogether unexpected surprise. As if something was tucked away within the hidden recesses of creation and, with very little ingenuity, it appears before me. I only needed eyes to see it. It becomes something I had not known before and only just now discovered for myself.

That’s how it seems, anyway. It is a strange and pleasant sensation. I don’t know what to make of it except to say I find it spiritual, a caress of the numinous brushing lightly against my consciousness. This, admittedly, is odd for me. My sense of spirituality trends academic, a little dry, and I have never once knowingly prayed for an open parking spot.

Nor am I in any sense a back-to-nature person. Eighteenth-century living leaves just a lot to be desired; the 19th has its downside too. Nothing wrong with it, I suppose. The Amish seem to manage it well, but I have no interest in grinding my own flour, starting a garden, building a wood-peg barn with the neighbors, or reverting to telegraph for texting. Yet making butter has awakened something in me.

Brewing home beer has its pleasures, too. I make ten to 15 gallons annually; two of my sons got me started. Federal law permits the home brewing of 500 gallons, or 5,333 12-ounce bottles, or 14 bottles a day for 365 days. I am content with something less.

But there is more science to beer than with butter, which may explain why beer feels less basic than my primordial butter made at home. For some reason I cannot completely grasp, butter discloses to me God’s work in nature in a way I’ve never experienced. Beer requires several precisely ordered steps to produce it, while butter is a revelation emerging before my eyes.

Of course, yes, I know butter is a discovery of long ago. Yet it is easy to forget – while browsing the dairy aisle – somebody sometime long, long ago first made butter for the first time, and somebody tasted it and liked it for the first time.

Neolithic humanity, by the best research, figured out butter while settling into an agricultural life around 11,000 years ago, with domesticated milk-producing goats and sheep. Cattle didn’t follow for perhaps a thousand years afterward.

I cannot say what Neolithic people thought of while making butter, but I’ve found it is doing one thing while virtually thinking of nothing. It’s my 25, 30 minutes of mindfulness, if you will. It is the perfect meditative exercise period for people who otherwise cannot sit still, and it’s good for people who prefer doing nothing while sitting still.

Fill a Mason jar halfway with heavy cream, cap with a tight lid and shake vigorously for 25 minutes give or take. Remove the cap, agitating it further with the handle of a wooden spoon, and the result will be, seemingly from nowhere, a ball of butter. Drain the accumulated liquid (which is actually buttermilk you may use in other recipes), rinse it in cold water a couple times, add a pinch of salt, and it is done, and you have butter. Through the works of creation, St. Paul puts it, God reveals himself, sometimes with the smallest of gestures.

What do you do while shaking it? Nothing. Think of it as quiet time for reflection, prayer, meditation on the wonders God lays before us. Yes, I’m serious; and when it is finished and you gaze at the golden glob, you might wish to say a Shehakol, a Jewish thanksgiving for foods like butter (also bologna sandwiches and candy).

As the prayer has it:

Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu
melekh ha’olam shehakol niyah bidvaro

“Blessed are You, Lord our God,
Ruler of the universe,
at whose word all things came to be.”

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