Healing in the Land of Butter

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Prior to working at Banner Butter, I didn’t know the first thing about butter, aside from it being a love and delight in my Southerner’s heart. But I quickly became passionate, and all-in on the butter bandwagon as our product made headlines for its health benefits, and the media issued apologies for decades of bad-mouthing the creamy delicacy. Everyone was bullet-proofing their coffee and slathering their toasts with a healthy layer of the good stuff yet again.

Founded in January 2013 by a young couple with an entrepreneurial spirit and passion for local, wholesome organic foods, Banner is an exciting workplace. Helmed by good people with a ton of real world experience and business know-how, the owners have a combined background in law and marketing, giving them an edge that won’t melt under pressure.

The office and industrial kitchen is located just north of Atlanta, where employees pick up and drop off butters and equipment for working at farmers’ markets and making deliveries to local restaurants and retailers, like star chef Linton Hopkins’ Restaurant Eugene in the upscale Buckhead neighborhood. Selected by Delta Air Lines to create a specialized menu for BusinessElite flyers, Hopkins brought Banner along for the ride, so alongside cutting our usual compounds, every week, we cut smaller rounds for the delight of travelers up in the air. Since it’s truly a food startup, I like to think Banner will become the Google of butters, and I’m in on something that will change the world in a very delicious way.

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“Have you guys ever taken the Meyers-Briggs personality test?” says the co-worker who is working towards a career in counseling. We discover that most of us have virtually the same exact personality profile, which makes sense considering we get along and work together so well.

As we lull in and out of comfortable silence and heated discussion as a group, I can’t help smiling, feeling we are akin to our grandmothers who worked in factories during World War II, or even like old-timey weavers or launderers. Women gathered together for a slow and tedious, yet cathartic practice. I quickly find that cutting and packaging butter is actually incredibly therapeutic and satisfying, due to the methodical nature of the task, and the smooth, creamy texture of the butter. Call me crazy, but there’s something really relaxing about slicing through a giant round of the creamy stuff, and even perfectly chiseling out and re-smoothing a round with extra butter scraps until the correct weight is reached is for lack of a better word, fun.

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Friends are enamored by the idea of us women in the butter kitchen, though their image of us donning skirts and bonnets, hand-churning in a yard full of chickens is far more idyllic than the reality of the cold kitchen, sassy hairnets, and our bodies glistening with butter grease by the end of each shift. (We also sometimes get to take home small scraps of butter leftovers. I scraped together and saved enough samples to eventually try impressing my friends with homemade hot buttered rum at one point.)

Working as a freelance writer for a few years, on top of my babysitting, dog walking, personal assistant, and caretaking gigs, I spend a lot of time alone. Never knowing when my next paycheck will come, or where from, I’m a manic ball of stress and desperation. But over our butter duties, I find a safe place to express my vocational grief and regret, my hopes and dreams. We all do.

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I watch Barbara* and Joan*, the brawn of the operation, slowly churn in small batches, add cultures, and mix ingredients to create butter compounds with a subtle tartness in a process that can take 20 times longer than industrial-scale butter.

We get to work on the compounds, of which there are seven: Sea Salt, Lightly Salted, Unsalted, Roasted Garlic, Basil & Parsley, Balsamic fig & Caramelized onion, Cinnamon, Cardamom & Ginger, and a seasonal flavor. The seven of us work on the aesthetic side of things, cutting, weighing, and hand packaging each five-ounce butter round for wholesale vendors and farmers’ markets. We do what is so often done by machine, and so, our duties feel satisfactorily old-fashioned and revolutionary to me.

From frank discussions about virginities and lack thereof, to coping with unruly, sharp-tongued exes and unresponsive, dismissive beaux, the kitchen becomes a safe haven and an escape from an otherwise isolating, confusing stage of my life. Elsewhere I feel ignored, undermined, and overlooked, as though my ship has sailed before even leaving the harbor, but the butter babes are my own tribe of scrappy misfits. In butter world, I’m somebody. I have a place there, and I’m loved.

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7:30 am : “Running a little late. 7:50. Text you when I leave the house.”

When she does, I move to the front porch with my coffee and book to wait for her. Meg* is my co-worker and my ride. I look forward to our morning commute together. We’re always running late, and it reminds me of school days, particularly one morning as I run across the street barefoot and balancing my sneakers, coffee mug, book, backpack, jacket, and a fork. I reach for the door handle like a dinosaur, but Meg has already leaned over to open it for me. She has kids, is an artist, and like me, she works several jobs, so she doesn’t bat an eyelash at my haphazard chaos.

We spend the entire ride engrossed in conversation—talking about love, life, loss, and belief. She’s going through a painful divorce, and I’ve been dedicating what little time and energy I do have to a boy who is so engrossed in his own projects that sometimes I think he’s forgotten I exist. But mostly, I’m heartbroken and beaten down because my career feels like a warzone and I’m not gaining any traction. I want so badly to be employed full-time so I don’t have to chase after so many separate jobs, because I am worn so thin.

On my hardest day, Meg looks at me and recites her favorite quote by Theodore Roosevelt.

And I sit in silence, fighting back tears as we enter Banner Butter’s industrial kitchen and don our hairnets and aprons, knowing those words were meant for me, are exactly the revival I need.

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A few weeks before my last day, I worked the farmers’ market, and borrowed my friend’s car to load up the table, tent, cooler, and display materials. It was my first time representing Banner at the farmers’ market and I was going it alone, so I had no idea what I was doing, but successfully setting everything up all by myself was exhilarating.

Giving customers my spiel about our cream, which happens to be culled straight from happy, hormone-free cows that spend their days peacefully grazing on small family farms we personally know, and letting them know that no, our butters are not unpasteurized, because it’s still illegal to sell raw butter gave me a sense of empowerment I hadn’t experienced in years. Even frantically running around the market parking lot with my phone trying to get a signal for processing Square payments gave me a sense of satisfaction. I knew my product, and I was proud of it. I was beaming, and not just because the farmer in the stall nearest mine had a nice smile and kept my Mason jar topped up with the best mimosa I’ve ever had throughout the day.

Banner Butter was so much more than a part-time job for me. Cutting butters, folding them into papers origami style, and slapping stickers on them was cathartic. But it was simply the medium. The women I worked with are the message—other creatives trying to scrape a living out of the gig economy, and wrestling with joys and depressions as deep and all consuming as mine. They are mothers and masters students, yoga teachers, florists, and gardeners. They are my butter babes, fighting alongside me in the arena. I couldn’t have guessed that another part-time job would give that to me: hope and belief, a reminder of my own resilience, and the best damn butter I’ve ever tasted.

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*Names changed

Abby Carney is a freelance writer with a well stamped passport and a closet full of (stretchy) party pants. She loves talking to strangers, and you can find her byline on The Billfold, The Toast, xoJane, and Austin Monthly, among others. Tweets of her misadventures and travels at @AbbyMCarney.

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