Milk! by Mark Kurlansky
Mark Kurlansky writes that milk is a “10,000-year-old controversy. When you think about it, it was a pretty weird thing to begin with, the idea that we could replace mothers with secretions from animals. Whether milk is good for you has been fought over. In recent years they have come up with new things to fight about: GMO and organic and hormones.” No wonder the subtitle of his new book Milk! is “A 10,000-Year Food Fracas.”
Even the United States government, kowtowing to commercial interests, does not want to support and acknowledge the value of mother’s milk. The North Carolina Legislature’s latest move is a proposal to ban any “milk” that is not from a creature. “Almond milk,” for example, is artificial; therefore, it is not milk and cannot be so named.
Kurlansky’s comprehensive gulp on the history of milk spans the Earth, focusing in part on England, Iceland, China, Tibet, and the United States. More than 100 recipes are interwoven into his compelling narrative where one can learn how to make Irish scones, Cato’s cheesecake, Paneer Makhani, beurre blanc, fried milk, yogurt, or hot chocolate. Dominican batida de lechosa, fromage à l’angloise, fudge, and kalakand (a milk-based sweet from Rajasthan) are also featured. Recipes are included because they are “invaluable artifacts. They teach us about societies and the social order in which they are created.” Readers will enjoy imagining how these recipes taste, all while pondering their history, such as whether Cato cooked to reduce the stress of public life.
Milk destined for human consumption comes from a variety of animals. Tibetan yaks are suited for the high altitudes in which they live. Yaks provide nomads with skin and hair for clothes and tents and some meat, although yak milk and dairy products are the nomads’ primary foods. Sheep’s milk is important in Basque, Iceland, and India. The limited availability of grazing land for cattle gave rise to the value of sheep which could survive and thrive on the rocky bits of grass. Cattle are prominent elsewhere in the world: the volcanic island of Sao Miguel in the Azores, for example, has two cows for every human.
Milk!’s history is traced in three sections. “The Safety of Curds” covers the early days when milk’s broader usage began. “Drinking Dangerously” examines death from milk and the subsequent efforts to make it safe. “Cows and Truth” deals with some of milk’s more controversial aspects, such as the ubiquity and economic value of cows’ milk in large-scale dairy farming in countries such as Britain, Netherlands, and the United States. Economic efficiency requires that calves be separated quickly from their mothers, and the cow must be milked nearly dry every day, which is easy for automated milking machines. Animal rights activists claim that “separated animals moan and cry with grief. Some farmers say they do, too.” There have even been arguments on whether to serve milk hot or cold. Per Kurlansky, milk is “the most argued-over food in human history, which is why it was the first food to find its way into a modern scientific laboratory and why it is the most regulated of all foods.”
Kurlansky has written on a variety of subjects as their interest moves him, such as Cod, Salt, and Paper. His remarkable ability to bring such seemingly simple subjects to comprehensive life has resulted in best-sellers that continue to entertain and educate readers. Who would have believed there was so much to be learned and written about milk from various animals, how hot and cold climates affect both sources and usage, and how religious beliefs and prohibitions have affected its consumption.