Yale University Press, 2011, 368 pp., $28
Why did milk, a product so quick to spoil, a natural laboratory for disease with a propensity for causing stomach upsets, become a symbol of modern nutrition and the consummate commodity? How did a liquid so thoroughly associated with ancient religious ceremonies concerning salvation and new life become forbidden food on Christian feast days by the 6th century? When did the white liquid develop into cheese and other products in Europe and eventually into the creamy frozen treat still identified with America’s 20th-century cultural dominance? What is the link between breast milk and infant health, and why was this misunderstood over so many centuries?
Deborah Valenze attempts to answer these questions and many more—certainly not a modest undertaking in terms of historical depth. As the author dryly notes, “In the beginning there must have been milk.” Her basic premise, however, is that “though a fact of nature, milk is really a product of culture.”
“Situated in culture, milk acted as a mirror of its host society, reflecting attitudes towards nature, the human body and technology”, she writes. She describes the liquid as “entering a matrix of human contrivance” from the moment of expression—well before anyone had ever heard of a mechanized dairy, or mass production or milk chocolate. Or, indeed, before it was considered a fundamental human right for consumers to be able to demand whole, low-fat, fat-free, evaporated, sweetened or condensed milk, along with every possible style and flavor of yogurt imaginable.
The dichotomy is inescapable. Milk in nature is designed to sustain the relationship between mother and offspring. Milk in society is more commonly the history of the attempt to extend that relationship to as many third parties as possible. And over the past century in particular, milk has developed into a litmus test of attitudes toward modern, basically Western, food production techniques.
Not that it was ever that simple in cultural terms. As the only food produced by female humans as well as by other mammals, attitudes toward milk (rather like attitudes toward women) have always been very complicated, as demonstrated by the way in which different religious traditions treat milk.
In 18th-century Japan, for example, milk was regarded as “white blood” that would bring divine retribution if consumed. In ancient Egypt milk was considered so fundamental to life that its hieroglyph was similar to the verb “to make.” Hindu gods were supposed to have churned ocean water into milk and then butter, from which emerged the sun, moon and stars, along with Surabhi, the Cow of Plenty, whose offspring assumed sacred status. In Greco-Roman times, milk was owned by the gods and seen as the elixir of immortality. The stars of the Milky Way, according to legend, were created after Jupiter secretively installed his infant Hercules to suck at the breast of his wife Juno. When Juno suddenly awoke, droplets of milk spilled messily into the heavens. Christian tradition proved far less enamored of the notion of an all-powerful earth mother, particularly one associated with “giving suck” in a manner so linked to animals. The early church fathers preferred a more abstract concept of the Virgin Mary and her nursing-mother status.
But it is also the idea and reality of milk as a source of nutrition and symbol of abundance for society that have given it such extraordinary potency for so long. The “land of milk and honey”, after all, is a phrase of ancient lineage. Valenze explains that, since one book can only cover so much, she has concentrated on the areas where milk first became crucial to diets and economies—namely Western Europe and especially the United States. She makes an historian’s apology: Her book is not about contemporary milk but rather about historical milk. That still leaves considerable territory to cover, however.
Take the history of cheese, for example. Given the impossibility of keeping milk fresh, it has been more than two millennia since cheese became a useful medium to ensure both longevity and nutrition. And taste. Elaborate Roman cheese cakes were being served at banquets in the second century BCE, as described in delicious detail by Cato the Elder. This adaptation of milk products continued through the centuries, with variations according to climate, taste and traditions. Southern Europeans were prone to consider its origins barbaric, but the colder climates of Northern Europe favored milk, especially from cows, which their inhabitants’ digestive systems evolved to cope with more readily. Lactose intolerance among adults remains more common in most Asian and Mediterranean cultures. As early as the 11th century, English dairy farmers were trying to defy nature’s limitations; calves were fed a variety of substances by hand while their mothers’ milk was diverted to cheese making or was sold at market.
But milk’s perishable nature meant it was often considered a dangerous if not repulsive liquid for much of its long history. And because it was classified as bodily product related to blood, milk was prohibited on Christian feast days—of which there were many. Otherwise, milk was usually put into dishes in small amounts as flavoring and sustenance rather than drunk straight. (In contrast, the Moguls sweeping westward were vigorous drinkers of milk from both cows and mares, a libation often laced with alcohol. Reports by two 13th-century Franciscans as part of their attempts to open communications between East and West focused heavily on this aspect.)
By the later Middle Ages, the notion of sacred milk became increasingly popular in Christian tradition, particularly associated with the lives of the saints and visions of milky abundance, albeit more for purposes of spiritual rather than physical sustenance.
But it was milk’s widespread adaptation into cheese that became the key nutritional advance of the era, both as sophisticated local delicacies created by the monasteries or as everyday cheese for laborers, useful as their main daily protein. Parmesan cheese soon turned into the great traveler of cheeses, well known beyond its home in northern Italy, probably due to its relative imperishability as both a highly salted and very hard product. By the third day of the great London fire of 1666, the noted diarist Samuel Pepys, for example, was worried enough to bury his papers in a hole in his garden. By the evening, assisted by Sir William Penn, Pepys decided on a second excavation of the garden, this time to safeguard his wine and his “parmazan cheese.”
The Italian Renaissance had also produced a much richer phase in the appreciation of milk and by-products like butter and cheese. Milk-based gastronomic delights became a vital part of the increasingly heavy tables of the elite. Eaters, particularly hearty ones, overlooked concerns that dairy products might impede digestion in favor of new culinary temptations. Even the new art of treating matters of the mind like melancholia focused on the potential for milk to be a powerful adjunct to the humors created by an excess of “black bile.”
We can also look at the same psycho-cultural dynamic as part of a continuing modern battle, often depicted in moral terms, between the abstemious and the indulgent in terms of diet. Depending on their use and the culture in which they thrive, milk products can still symbolize either gluttonous excess or a form of natural, nutritional purity.
But in the colder climes of the English, Irish, Scots, Dutch and Swiss, dairy products were more consistently able to retain the image of sturdy nutritional benefit rather than either gluttony or disease (and possible death). Think of the bland appeal of curds and whey. This also reflected an increasingly popular English fashion for versions of the milk diet to cure indigestion and other stomach ailments—even though in many cases, it probably only exacerbated the symptoms given the overall intake of the sufferers.
The Dutch in the 17th century were, if possible, keener still on the qualities of milk, particularly its formidable by-products like butter. Many of their European neighbors mocked their well-fed stolidity. But the Dutch had clearly perfected the link between industrious, flourishing prosperity and a well-organized dairy industry, much of it thriving on lush pastures reclaimed from the sea. The Dutch were also pioneering the ability to have an efficient system of commoditizing milk supply from the surrounding countryside in order to meet the demand for consumption in the cities. That included methodical dung collection to use as rich fertilizer, a profitable and fattening virtuous circle.
This idea of cattle farming and a developing dairy industry would prove an appealing model for the New World as well. The first Dutch Holstein cows stepped into Manhattan in the 1620s, although the inferior English stock proved initially hardier in adapting to the rugged new environment and less in need of care. While the Dutch and the English expanded milk production in their own countries, it was in the United States that the fusion of European skills in farming and the primacy of cattle conquering virgin territory produced the most dramatic growth in the dairy industry. Cows’ milk quickly colonized all palates in the United States. The Protestant cultural traditions placed milk on a pedestal as a food that “nourished without indulgence”, as one food historian described it. Abigail Adams wrote husband John in 1777 that a breakfast of milk made the boycott of foreign luxuries like tea no hardship.
Nor did alternatives to cows’ milk ever really gain momentum in the United States. As one 19th-century American enthusiast put it, only exotic people drank the milk of exotic animals: camel milk in Africa and China, mares’ milk in Tartary and Siberia, buffalo milk in India, reindeer milk in Lapland, and goats’ milk in Italy and Spain. America, along with northern Europe, was cow-milk territory, the ultimate expression of the sensibly non-exotic.
So successful was this expansion in the United States that it helped encourage the great population movement westwards, especially as land around cities became more expensive. Farmers from New England took up residence in the Western Reserve of Ohio, for example, which in the mid-19th century was known as “Cheesedom” for obvious reasons. By the 1840s, New York farmers were able to channel bulk milk supplies into industrial-size “cheese factories” and eventually undercut even the London market for cheese.
It was also in the United States that demand in the cities most clearly crashed into the limits of technology and the contradictions of mass production in attempting to keep supplies of milk suitable and safe. These days, all regular milk processed and sterilized for sale in the United States must follow 400 pages of guidelines supervised by the Food and Drug Administration. It’s the ultimate supermarket standard. It stands is stark contrast to the situation in the 19th century, when scientists blamed rising rates of infant mortality on unsanitary “swill milk”, with cows fed on the slop of distillery grains, producing contaminated supplies.
This level of debasement of “natural” milk was not only apparent in the United States. Descriptions of milk being carried through the grime of 18th- and 19th-century London are enough to make the reader marvel that anyone drinking “fresh” milk survived the ordeal. The risks were exacerbated by the fact that so many women did not breast-feed their own babies, for reasons ranging from ill health to fashion to a common belief that breast feeding was not appropriate for upper-class women or those aspiring to be.
The new public mood for lessons from the new “science” of nutrition also meant that households in both countries were remarkably comfortable trusting supposedly scientific advances in food, including chemically designed baby food, powdered milk and canned condensed milk. These innovations also avoided any risk that the milk of the wet nurse might convey her unwanted personal qualities to a child—a commonly held theory in Europe and the United States until well into the 19th century.
The Ladies’ Home Journal of 1888 recommended good cows’ milk or other substances as a substitute for breast milk that was deficient in either quantity or quality. There’s no wondering, then, where the late 19th-century and early 20th-century revolts against contaminated milk supplies came from—or the subsequent industry reforms, which were often led in the United States and England by outraged mothers campaigning for better hygiene for children. (Such crusades were also precursors for the international activist campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s against companies like Nestle for contributing to global malnutrition and disease by marketing baby formula to women in developing countries without reliable access to clean water).
The new standards in Europe and the United States also set the scene for the remarkable post-World War I expansion of the dairy industry, boosted by the combination of technological advance and the embrace of affordable, pasteurized milk as a miracle of nutrition, a wonderfood good for young and old alike. And its popularity soared: Between 1919 and 1926, as the book points out, the national production of milk products in the United States increased by one third and the production of ice cream by 45 percent.
The Depression altered that equation, cutting demand even as production grew. Eventually, governments stepped in to ensure that farmers would be paid or subsidized, in turn ensuring supplies of basic milk products for poorer families and schoolchildren. It all contributed to what Valenze calls the “dairy saturated continents of Europe and North America.” By the 1960s, Europe and the United States had more milk than anyone could sell or drink. The European Community was struggling, as she puts it, with its “milk lakes and butter mountains.”
The balance between supply and demand, between quantity and perceptions of quality, is still uneasy in the 21st century. Valenze’s decision to focus on the history of milk rather than exploring its modern incarnation may be understandable given the significance of “nature’s perfect food” over so many previous centuries. But it does mean the competing forces of the current market for milk are not well explored. The one chapter on “Milk Today” is disappointingly scant. There is also only brief mention of the protracted and ultimately successful consumer campaign starting in the 1990s against the use of drug horomones in American daity herds to stimulate milk production. Now milk “purity” is a key but still much debated selling point—at either supermarket or organic brand level.
Valenze does acknowledge, however, that many dairy farmers are accepting prices below what it takes to produce milk and that low supermarket prices mean even industrial dairy farms are now under threat. In most developed countries, milk drinking and milk use has been declining; the exceptions are Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Ireland, whose populations are still consuming enormous quantities of liquid milk—around double that of the still sizeable U.S. intake of 21 gallons per capita annually as of 2008. More people, though still in a tiny minority, are keen to pay more to drink raw product, fresh from the farm, in the belief it provides health benefits that are lost in all the processing.
It’s not surprising, then, that Western food corporations are trying to find new markets and develop new dairy industries in Africa and Asia to exploit the rising popularity of milk and milk products like yogurt. Valenze’s only real foray into developing markets is in a brief exploration of the development of a home-grown milk industry in India to become the world’s largest producer as part of a “white revolution” in buffalo milk.
It’s already clear, however, that the new taste for milk in traditionally non-milk drinking countries may come with a repeat of some of the older scandals of contamination. The Chinese milk scandal in 2008 saw many dairies test positive for the toxic compound melamine in their baby formula products, for example. Even so, Valenze points out, the magic of milk has always added up to much more than the sum of its parts. That, at least, will continue. The answer to the marketer’s question, “Got milk?” is therefore likely to be “yes” for quite a while.