My late grandfather, the third James Allison Ridley, used to say that he'd rather have cornbread chased down with cold buttermilk than a piece of cake. The cornbread I could understand--especially in my mother's sour-cream recipe, baked in an ancient iron skillet with butter melted in the bottom to assure that crunchy crust. But buttermilk? Bleah. If it spoiled, how could you tell?
Over the years, I've tried to make peace with buttermilk's sour twang. I've come closest pairing it with finger-thick sourdough pretzels, whose salt and bready taste bring out the buttery Dr. Jekyll side of the buttermilk, rather than yogurty Mr. Hyde. I'm still not entirely convinced...but after reading Sunday's NY Times Magazine report on Knoxville's Cruze Farm (h/t Caleb Hannan), I'm ready to give it another try:
Once a popular Southern drink, buttermilk had gradually been relegated to the ingredients column, starting in the 1940s. But with its tangy flavor, creamy consistency and golden flecks of butter, Cruze Farm's buttermilk has the necessary charm for the artisanal generation.
"If you dare to do a side-by-side taste test, you'll be blown away," said the chef John Fleer, who found it at a local farmers' market 10 years ago and incorporated it into the Foothills cuisine he was pioneering at Blackberry Farm, a luxurious restaurant and inn in Walland, Tenn. Fleer has showcased buttermilk in everything from panna cotta to cornbread soup, even whipping it with cream to give desserts "an acidic edge." Fleer is figuring out how to get it to Cashiers, N.C., where he'll open Canyon Kitchen at Lonesome Valley this summer. (The Cruzes deliver only within 90 miles.)
Ninety miles! D'oh! I'm not sure I'm ready to drive to Maryville for buttermilk. Then again...
That week, Earl received "the rock star treatment" for his cultured buttermilk, which remains a key ingredient in such totemic Southern dishes as biscuits and fried chicken. (Said treatment also stemmed from the video in which the smooth-skinned, twinkly-eyed 66-year-old Earl, who drinks up to a quart of buttermilk a day, deemed it "better than Viagra.")