I am not a great fan of buttermilk. Indeed, I am not a great fan of
milk of any kind so the idea that one should drink milk which appears
to be slightly off (I am told this is not so) does not inspire me
with overwhelming gastronomic yearning. As a child the thought of
Little Miss Muffet and her whey never seemed like the fairytale image
I am sure it was meant to evoke.
Nevertheless, I will concede that the dreaded fluid did have its
uses. Most of these revolved around my grandmother's baking. Like
most people of a certain generation my grandmother took a pride in
being able to rustle up fresh bread of differing categories at a
moment's notice. The one thing these delicacies all had in common was
that, at some point, copious amounts of buttermilk would be stirred
into whatever flour mixture was on the go for that day's bread. And
often as not, I would have had to rush off to the shop to purchase
the buttermilk to ensure that it was fresh. (The concept of 'fresh'
buttermilk has, I confess, always baffled me.) So it is unsurprising
that, even though I cannot stand the stuff, it is still associated
with comfort, home and extended family.
One can imagine my absolute confusion then when, as an innocent child
on the cusp of teenagehood, I was informed by a preacher, bellowing
from the Sunday pulpit, that the greatest threat to me over the
coming years of adolescence would be 'the Devil's buttermilk'. It was
bad enough the Devil having all the best tunes but now he had gone
and purloined one of the few things I knew to be wholesome and
resonant of Northern Irish family life.
For this teenager the idea of juxtaposing buttermilk and the Devil
was absurd. One was self-evidently evil and the other (even though I
had no taste for it) was self-evidently good. The following months of
my entry to teenage angst were spent trying to solve this
ecclesiastical conundrum. Maybe this was the way in which the Devil
tempted innocent young men, luring them into sin with promises of
super-fresh buttermilk running down the sides of large piles of
steaming champ. Or perhaps the Devil himself was into home cooking
rustling up, like my grandmother, in two shakes of a forked tail, a
Devil's wheaten bap, a dozen Devil's treacle scones or a few slices
of Devil's soda and potato farl. This may even have been the origin
of the ubiquitous 'home bakery', where inattentive virgins are lured
with the siren call of tray bakes like your granny used to make only
to find that in this den of lies the Devil buys the baking in and it
is, in fact, a shop.
It was only when the same preacher informed the congregation of which
I was forced to be a part that one of our number had fallen foul of
'the Demon drink' that the penny dropped; the Devil's buttermilk had
to be alcohol. The question was now whether all drink was the Devil's
buttermilk or merely one particular beverage. I did not discover the
answer to this riddle until many years later when, as a university
student, I met a man from Kerry who used to carry a pint of
buttermilk with him at all times which he utilised to top up pints of
draught Guinness after he had drunk about a third of the measure.
Here was the answer to my riddle; the Devil's buttermilk was, in a
rather fitting irony, the black stuff.
In this age of global branding I have never understood why preachers
like my mentor have not thought about patenting this concept. Then we
could have had the Devil's range of products; things like the Devil's
exercise (dancing), the Devil's peep-show (cinema), the Devil's
shopping basket (food) and the ultimate in the range, the Devil's
handshake (sex), all released with accompanying coffee-table
publications with sorround sound, 3-D and smell-o-vision.
But then it would have been the Devil's own job deciding how all the
money should be spent, Presbyterians in Ulster would have found
themselves constantly embroiled in scandals of Jimmy Swaggart
proportions and the country would have been overrun with anti-drink
ranters bellowing from dour pulpits like the Devil's foghorn.