I was young enough when my family got our butter keeper that I don’t remember it not being in our kitchen. It sat right next to the toaster oven. On the other side was the cutting board and the loaves of sourdough bread my parents made every weekend: A sweet little toast station. It wasn’t until I got to college, and spent many a morning struggling to spread butter straight from the fridge on a scone or some toast, that I realized how essential the butter keeper was. It kept butter soft and optimally spreadable, and it’s brilliantly simple design makes sure butter never went bad.
The butter keeper—sometimes called a butter bell, or a butter crock, or, if you’re feeling chichi, a French butter dish—was likely created in nineteenth-century France, a land of dairy appreciators if there ever was one. It’s made up of two typically ceramic pieces: a dish that serves as the base, and a lid that’s also the vessel for your butter. You put an inch of water (or just shy of it) in the base, and then smash your favorite butter into the lid so it’s one mass (and not still cubes of the stuff). Then, just pop the lid onto the base until it’s toast time. Or scone time, or baguette for dinner time, or grilled cheese time. You get the picture.
The water in the base creates an airtight seal, so that oxygen can’t reach the butter and it won’t go rancid, even when you’re not keeping it in the fridge. That said, you do need to make sure to regularly change out the water to keep things fresh. And, it’s important to note that if you—like me—live in a non-air conditioned apartment, keep in mind that for all the butter keeper’s many charms, it doesn’t provide the temperature control required in the middle of July. So on summer’s hottest days, it’s probably smart to stick it in the fridge and deal with slightly less spreadable butter, just so you don’t end up with grease stains down the front of your shirt.
These days, mornings at my parents' house are a bit of a nostalgic affair. Everything is as it was, but—as I put my own kitchen things in my own drawers in my own kitchen in Brooklyn, over and over, replicating some things from childhood and adding my own twists—the kitchen's organization begins feeling just a little bit less ingrained.
When I'm back home with my family, and I stumble into the kitchen in the morning, the one thing I can do without second guessing the location of a particular casserole dish or measuring cup is my toast routine. It's an easy, muscle-memoried choreography. I grab the bread knife near the window, twirl the loaf of bread from the plastic bag, cut myself a slice or two, and stick it in the toaster. As it's browning, I open the fridge and reach for my mom's marmalade or strawberry jam on the top shelf. I pull the butter knife from the drawer at my left hand, and lift the lid of the butter keeper, enjoying the particular smooth scrape of porcelain against porcelain, and the quiet gulp of the water seal broken. I burn my fingers pulling toast from the toaster before it has dinged, smear it with butter, then with marmalade, and don't even bother with a plate.