Sunday, May 17, 2020

Milk! - Mark Kurlansky

   2018; 343 pages.  Full Title: Milk! A 10,000-Year Food Fracas.  New Author? : No.  Genres : Food History; Cookbooks; Non-Fiction; Farming; Dairy Science.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Once upon a time, you didn’t go to the supermarket for your milk, it was delivered to your doorstep on a daily basis, and it came in a glass bottle, not a carton.  There was a thick-papered cap on top, sealed with a twist, with a circular sticker in its middle bearing the milk company’s logo or name.

    Every morning, the milkman put your order in a small box (capacity was about 6 bottles) that was on your front porch.  You let him know what you wanted the next time he delivered by sticking a note in one of the empty, washed bottles that you put in the box.  Recycling was fashionable way back then.

    Because the bottles were clear glass, you could actually see the milk you received.  It had two phases – mostly “regular” milk on the bottom, and a bit of thicker cream on top.  Nowadays, milk is “homogenized”, meaning it only has one phase.  Back then, you could do your own  homogenizing (i.e., shaking it well before opening it), but occasionally your mom would scoop the cream out and use it in some recipe she was making.

    If you lived in a cold-weather place, like Pennsylvania for instance, you’d occasionally step out the door on a winter’s day to get your morning milk delivery, and find that it had frozen.  You’d know this because the solids at the top had expanded and pushed the paper cap upwards, leaving a weird-looking white “collar”.  This was no big deal, you still used the milk without any concern about contamination.

    This may sound like 19th-century history to you, and it is, but it still was true into the 1950’s, and Mark Kurlansky’s recounting of it in Milk – A 10,000-Year Food Fracas triggered a Proustian reaction (a what?!  see below) in my long-term memory banks.

What’s To Like...
    Mark Kurlansky divides the 20 chapters of Milk! (we’ll dispense with the subtitle for the sake of brevity) into three parts, namely:
    Part 1 : The Safety of Curds (Chapters 1-9)
        The history of milk and other dairy products.
    Part 2 : Drinking Dangerously  (Chapters 10-14)
        Science and technology make milk safe to drink.
    Part 3 : Cows and Truth  (Chapters 15-20)
        Current and recent hot-topic dairy debates, and the answers.

    My favorite chapters (YMMV) were:
    Ch 01 : The Taste of Sweetness
        The ancient history of milk-drinking.
    Ch 03 : Cheesy Civilization
        The history of chess-making.
    Ch 09 : Everyone’s Favorite Milk
        The history of ice cream.
   Ch 16 : China’s Growing Tolerance
        The changing Chinese milk and dairy products tastes.
    Chs 19 & 20 : The Search for Consensus & Risky Initializations
        The author’s views on the topics listed in the first excerpt below.

    I was surprised at the number of foods that are derived from milk and its byproducts: curds, whey, pancakes, sillabubs (huh?), possets (huh?), cheese butter, shortbreads, griddle cakes, mysa & syra (wha?), yogurt, sour cream, dodines (wha?), porridge, custards, powdered milk, applesauce (really?), cottage cheese, pudding (yum!), ice cream (double yum!), crème brûlée, ices, fudge, marshmallow fluff, cream sauces, chowders, and many more.  The origins and history of each are detailed in this book.

    I also learned several "dairy" pejoratives along the way.  “Kaaskoppen” is Flemish for “cheese heads”, which was their insult word for the Dutch.  Once upon a time the Japanese referred to us Westerners as “bata  dasaku”, meaning “butter stinker”, due to our disgusting dairy tastes.  And the Persians have an expression, “boro mastetobezan”, which translates to “go beat your own yogurt”, an idiom meaning “mind your own business”.

    I was amazed to learn that the majority of humans (60%) are lactose-intolerant, and saddened to read about the terrible impact “swill milk” had on infant mortality rates.  There are some Roman Empire era recipes included, which are surprisingly "modern-sounding" and at times doubled as medicinal advice.  More importantly, I learned how to make booze from dairy products if I am ever stuck in Iceland.

    My buddy, Moses Maimonides, makes a cameo appearance, so does Velveeta cheese, which was a mainstay in my collegiate cuisine options.  If you have trouble remembering whether it’s “Welsh rabbit”, or “Welsh rarebit”, you can find the answer here, and it might surprise you, and it was enlightening to read what Mark Kurlansky has to say about the GMO fracas.  The drawings and pictures were a nice touch, including a mind-blowing painting by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (ca. 1311-1348) depicting the Virgin Mary breastfeeding Christ.

Kewlest New Word ...
Proustian (adj.) : relating to or characteristic of the French writer Marcel Proust or his works, particularly with reference to the recovery of the lost past and the stimulation of unconscious memory.

    Milk is a food with a history – it has been argued about for at least the past ten thousand years.  It 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.
    People have argued over the importance of breastfeeding, the proper role of mothers, the healthful versus unhealthful qualities of milk, the best sources of milk, farming practices, animal rights, raw versus pasteurized milk, the safety of raw milk cheese, the proper role of government, the organic food movement, hormones, genetically modified crops, and more.  (pg. 3)

    People do not want to live near a dairy anymore.  Cows defecate and they are extremely flatulent.  This was never an issue with the charming forty-cow farm with the little red barn.  But when a few thousand cows live next door, farting and producing mountains of manure that the farm endeavors to dry out and convert to fertilizer, they are very strong-smelling neighbors.
    Farmers with large herds usually have more manure than their pastureland can absorb.  The total annual waste in the United States is one hundred times more than what is taken in by human sewage treatment plants.  (pg. 319)

“A dessert without cheese is like a lovely lady with only one eye.”  (Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin).  (pg. 278 )
    There’s not much to nitpick about Milk!.  The black-&-white pencil drawings of the various cow breeds didn’t impress me; I would have much rather had color photographs/paintings of them.  It was a slow read, but that’s because I was fascinated by all the technical details therein, so that's not really a criticism.  

    It should be noted that there are 126 recipes (by Mark Kurlansky’s count, and I’ll take his word for it) interspersed throughout the book, some from as far back as the first-century A.D. by a cook named Apicius.  Reading though these recipes got tedious after a while, but that’s probably because my culinary skills are legendary, and not in a good way.  I once destroyed my kitchen when trying to make tomato soup from the can.  People with "normal" cooking skills will most likely find these recipes interesting, even to the point of trying some out.

    But overall I found Milk! to be a informative and interesting read, even if I skipped over those pesky recipes.  Milk! is my third Mark Kurlansky book (the other two are reviewed here and here), and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all three.  So if you’re into reading history and science, or concerned about food safety, or want to be well-versed when topics like GMO’s and breastfeeding come up at your next social engagement, or just want to try making some strange new dishes, Milk! is bound to be your cup of tea.

    8½ Stars.  Fur more Mark Kurlansky books are on my Kindle or my TBR shelf: Salt, Cod, The Basque History, and The Big Oyster.  I suspect all the food-themed ones will also have recipes in them.  We shall see.

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