Remember the fat-o-phobic early ’90s, when every speck of fat had to be removed from every product, and nothing would sell in the supermarkets unless it was labeled “lo-fat” or “no-fat”? And margarine laden with trans-fats was touted as health food? Well, as with the lo-carb era that followed, the effects linger long after the nutritional theory has been exposed as a total fraud. (Nutritionists and diet docs, please stop telling us what to eat. You’re totally full of shit!)
Before the low-fat craze began, there was nothing more wonderful than buttermilk. Technically speaking, it was originally the milk left over after making butter. Buttermilk was brought to America by Dutch settlers, and was well-known in colonial times, when buttermilk vendors sold the product on the streets of New York for three cents a quart, and citizens frequently consumed it at breakfast, where its tart flavor and thick mouth feel were an asset.
Since that time, buttermilk became indispensable to American gastronomy, since you can’t make great biscuits or pancakes without it. Early in the 20th century, dairy operators made a technical breakthrough when they learned to make buttermilk–still a wildly popular and quintessential product for home bakers–by adding lactic acid and bacteria to skim milk. At the time, skim milk was thought useful only for feeding hogs.
But the name of the beverage became a grave liability as the ’90s arrived. Out of touch with their agrarian roots, Americans thought “buttermilk” meant “milk with extra butter added,” rather than “milk with the butter removed,” and fled the temple of buttermilk in droves. And gradually, greedy dairies removed more and more fat from the buttermilk before culturing it. Thirty years ago, buttermilk contained 2 percent fat or more. Ten years ago, most buttermilk was 1 1/2 percent. Now, nearly all buttermilk is 1 percent–that is, if you can find it at all. With the proliferation of low-fat milks, lactose-free milks, and soy milks, many stores have removed buttermilk from their dairy cases entirely. Can you get it at your food store anymore?
One percent buttermilk is a thin and lifeless fluid, and it doesn’t make very good pancakes. I’ve tried to get higher-fat buttermilk from farmers’ market sources, but it’s very very difficult to find. Ronnybrook Dairy used to make it, but when I asked about it in the Chelsea Market store recently, the countergal wrinkled up her nose and said, “We never had it.” Which is very sad, because, as I said, you can’t make great pancakes or biscuits without it.