Mendelson, Anne Entries

Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages


I am no foodie. While other kids were dreaming about jet packs and flying cars, my favorite childhood sci-fi fantasy was the invention of a pill that would obviate the need for three meals a day, freeing up my time for less burdensome pursuits. There was a solid year and a half during middle school when I ate the same Stouffer's microwave dinner literally every single night. In fact, I amassed enough proofs of purchase to send away for various prizes through the mail, including a copy of Robert Redford's 1992 adaptation of A River Runs Through It on VHS. Incredibly, I never remember getting tired of this routine. I just wanted not to be hungry; I didn't really care how my dinner tasted. And while my cooking skill and culinary range have greatly expanded since becoming an adult (out of a desire for the basic self-respect that comes with going out to a restaurant with friends without having to coerce the chef into making me a grilled cheese sandwich), food will never be my source of soulful joy in life. And that's fine, because I have books.

I go into all this because one of the only exceptions to my general malaise around food is, and has always been, dairy. I've always loved fresh milk and cheese. Even before I read Anne Mendelson's excellent book on the subject, I was already in the habit of shelling out for organic, non-homogenized milk in amazingly appealing glass bottles, which I have actually taught myself to remember to load into the panniers for return whenever David and I embark on another grocery run. That is how much I love milk. But I don't love it anywhere near as well as Mendelson, and she has the literary chops to do justice to her passion.

Before going any further, taste the milk. Concentrate your attention on what's in your mouth: something ethereally subtle but concretely there. This milk has a kind of roundness or depth that the homogenized equivalent doesn't. The reason is that the contrast between its leaner and richer components hasn't been ironed out but remains just delicately palpable. Its flavor is not so much flavor as a sensation of freshness on the palate that scarcely translates into words. "Sweetness" is as close as anything, but it's an elusive note on the thin edge of perception rather than sugar-in-your-coffee sweetness.

Isn't that lovely? Sometimes it truly is the simplest thing that inspires eloquence.

In addition to its high-test writing, Milk is one of the most physically beautiful books I have ever held in my hands. You can see the gorgeous cover art at the beginning of this review, but that's really just the tip of the iceberg. The dust jacket has a slightly antique-y, stippled texture that invites touching, and even the pages are more creamy and textured than usual - which is fitting, in a treatise on the delights of textural, unhomogenized dairy products. There are vintage line-drawings throughout the book, and although they come from different sources, they all contribute to a coherent ambiance. Merely leafing through Milk is a pleasure.

As is diving in and reading the thing. Mendelson's text is an interesting amalgam of different literary genres: part food history, part chemistry lesson, part political treatise, and part recipe collection. She begins by tracing the history of dairying in its four major seats: the "Diverse Sources Belt" aka "Yogurtistan" (the modern-day Near and Middle East); the "Bovine and Buffalo Belt" (the Indian subcontinent); the "Northeastern Cow Belt" (modern-day Eastern Europe and Russia), and the "Northwestern Cow Belt" (western Europe, including the British Isles). One of the major takeaways from her text is that the way the majority of westerners now think of milk - best cooked with and consumed in its "fresh" (unsoured) state - is very unusual in the world-wide history of dairying. Fresh milk-drinking was originally pioneered in the Northewestern Cow Belt, the youngest of the four main dairying regions and the one whose inhabitants, unlike most of the word, happen to possess a rare genetic ability to digest lactose into adulthood. It only gained currency world-wide due to the rampant imperialism and cultural arrogance of Western Europe, which applied its own standards of food quality to all the diverse peoples it colonized. Ironically, by the time the British (and French) were acting all snooty about the savages' "ignorant" sour-milk-drinking habits, they had forgotten that the consumption of unsoured milk was a relatively new development even on Albion's bonny shores, and felt secure in their convictions that no child could be strong and healthy without a daily dose of fresh, sweet milk.

Imperialism. Amazing all the places it's insinuated its dirty hooks, isn't it?

Mendelson goes on to lament the homogenization of the dairy-consuming scene in the West. Although she loves fresh milk and cream, she points out how much we've lost by narrowing our conception of "good" milk to an exclusively Western-European model. She then gives the reader a brief tour of the state of modern corporate dairying, which has devolved into a race to produce ever-greater quantities of an ever-more-insipid product, at high cost to the health of the cows involved. (The sections about the bovine health problems caused by breed-and-feed tactics were nauseating, and made me an even stronger convert to buying unhomogenized milk from local, grass-fed cows, despite the expense.) Mendelson ends on a positive note, though: the influx of Turkish, Indian, and Eastern-European immigrants to the Western centers means that a diversity of dairy traditions is beginning to be restored to the American scene, and she strongly encourages readers to seek out these rich and varied dairy options.

I don't mean to give the impression that Mendelson's book is a dire political slog. Her writing style is often delightfully pithy, as when she discusses the sweetened commercial soy milks "created from improbable faragoes of ingredients," or when she announces, "I will not attempt to describe the labyrinthine USDA milk price-support system, which baffles my comprehension and probably hasn't been understood by the last five secretaries of agriculture." I found Milk to be a frothy mixture of interesting information delivered in a passionate, personable voice.

Not being the kind of person who devours cookbooks for pleasure, I didn't read the recipe section that follows cover-to-cover. I skipped the meat-based recipes, for one thing, since I don't touch the stuff. But I have to admit that Mendelson's recipe section is not your average cookbook: each division (fresh milk, yogurt, cultured milk and cream, butter and true buttermilk, and fresh cheeses) is accompanied by a short but lovely essay detailing the basic food chemistry involved with each milk product, and a survey of the various takes on the same theme found in different world traditions. And because I'm a milk enthusiast (at least compared with my feelings about other foods), there were a glut of recipes for things I love to eat. Lassis! Clotted cream! Saag Panir! Custard! Fresh, spreadable cheeses! Oh my!

The fact that even I, who normally can't be bothered with the edible world, so thoroughly enjoyed Milk is truly a testament to its appeal. I can only imagine how much a dedicated food-lover would glean from its pages.

(Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages was my seventh and 600-century book for the Dewey Decimal Challenge.)

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography