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A 10,000-Year Food Fracas

by Mark Kurlansky

Hardcover, 385 pages, Bloomsbury Publishing, List Price: $29 |


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A history of milk shares how it has played a crucial role in cultural evolution, religion, nutrition, politics, and economics around the world.

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A man pours milk into a can in India's Mayong village in 2015. India is the world's largest producer and consumer of milk. Anupam Nath/AP hide caption

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Milk! The 'Most Over-Argued Food In History'

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Milk!


A 10,000-Year Food Fracas

Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Copyright © 2018 Mark Kurlansky
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63286-382-9


A Note about the Recipes, xiii,
Acknowledgments, 335,
Bibliography, 337,
Recipe Index, 349,
Index, 355,


The First Taste of Sweetness

Since milk is a food and this book contains 126 recipes, it might seem as if this should be a food book. But 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.

Here is a food fight that gourmets, chefs, agronomists, parents, feminists, chemists, epidemiologists, nutritionists, biologists, economists, and animal lovers can all weigh in on.

One great misconception about milk is that people who cannot drink it have something wrong with them. In truth, the aberrant condition is being able to drink milk. Milk drinkers are mostly of European extraction, and as we are living in a Eurocentric world, we tend to think of consuming dairy products as a normal thing to do — something that is forgone in some regions only because of a malady known as lactose intolerance. But lactose intolerance is the natural condition of all mammals. Humans are the only mammals that consume milk past weaning, apparently in defiance of a basic rule of nature. In nature, the babies of most mammals nurse only until they are ready for food, and then a gene steps in to shut down the ability to digest milk. Lactose, a sugar in milk, is digestible only when lactase, a genetically controlled enzyme, is present in the intestines. Almost everyone is born with lactase. Without it, a baby could not breastfeed. But as most babies get older, a gene cuts off the production of lactase and they can no longer consume milk.

But something went wrong with Europeans — as well as Middle Easterners, North Africans, and people from the Indian subcontinent. They lack the gene and so continue to produce lactase and consume milk into adulthood.

The gene travels in blood-related tribes and family groups. So though most black Africans are lactose-intolerant, the Masai, who are cattle herders, are not. Those who are intolerant tend not to have dairy in their culture. But in societies that do adopt a dairy culture, such as the Masai or Indians in Asia, the ability to digest milk remains. The early Europeans had dairy cultures and so were lactose-tolerant, though this was truer in the north, where short growing seasons necessitated a supplemental food source. However, being lactose-tolerant certainly is not entirely a question of climate, because the original Americans — occupying two continents stretching from Patagonia to Alaska and including just about every imaginable climate — were lactose-intolerant.

Though most Europeans drink milk today, we don't really know the original extent of lactose intolerance on the Continent, because centuries ago, milk drinking there was rare. Hard cheese and yogurt were popular, but they do not contain lactose, and this might have been a reason why the Europeans favored them. Somewhere between then and now, though, Europeans began to drink milk, and because they always had a way of defining their aberrations as the norm, they took their dairy animals with them wherever they went around the globe.

* * *

To think of milk as just another food would be to ignore the galaxy we live in. Not just figuratively, but also literally. Our galaxy is called the Milky Way, and both it and the word "galaxy" have their origins in the Greek word for milk, gala. According to Greek mythology, the Milky Way was formed when Hera, the Greek goddess of womanhood, spilled milk while breastfeeding Heracles, known to the Romans as Hercules. Each drop became a speck of light, known to us as a star. And Hera must have spilled a lot of milk, because modern astronomers estimate that there are 400 billion stars in the galaxy.

Numerous cultures have such milk-based creation myths. The Fulani people of West Africa believe that the world started with a huge drop of milk from which everything else was created. According to Norse legend, in the beginning there was a giant frost ogre named Ymir, who was sustained by a cow made from thawing frost. From her four teats ran four rivers of milk that fed the emerging world.

In what is today Iraq, the Sumerian culture, the first civilization to develop a written language, was among the first to milk domesticated animals. According to one of their legends, a priest named Shamash in the city of Urak spoke to animals and persuaded them to withhold their milk from the goddess Nidaba. But two shepherd brothers, discovering the plot, threw Shamash into the Euphrates, where he transformed himself into a sheep. The brothers discovered his ruse and threw him into the Euphrates again. This time, he turned himself into a cow. Discovered a third time, he assumed the form of a chamois, a kind of antelope. This appears to be a legend about a search for a reliable milking animal.

Isis, the Egyptian goddess of motherhood, giver of life, was often shown breastfeeding a pharaoh, while Osiris, her husband, was celebrated for pouring out bowls of milk, one for each day of the year. Isis was a popular deity throughout the Middle East, and was depicted with large breasts and a cow's head and horns. Images of her Greek counterpart, Artemis, sometimes had several dozen breasts. The Egyptians also worshiped another deity, Hathor, as the cow goddess. Milk was a common offering in Egyptian temples.

It was believed that a baby acquired the personality of his or her wet nurse, so these caregivers needed to be carefully selected. It was said that Zeus was so unfaithful to women because he had been suckled by a goat, an animal infamous for debauchery, on the island of Crete. Infants who were suckled by the same wet nurse were regarded as milk siblings and were forbidden by the Assyrians from intermarrying.

In the third or second century b.c.e., a letter written to a new Roman mother stated: "The wet nurse should not be temperamental or talkative not uncontrolled in her appetite for food, but orderly and temperate, practical, not a foreigner, but a Greek." This last requirement came up frequently in ancient Greece. Soranus, the first- and second-century a.d. Greek physician, repeatedly told his Greco-Roman audience that wet nurses should be Greek.

Hindus revered, and continue to revere, cows. In Sanskrit the word for cow is aghnya, which means "that which cannot be slaughtered." Hinduism has a creation myth in which the god Vishnu churns a sea of milk to create the universe.

The early Christians regarded all this cow worship as pagan, but still kept a special place for milk — human milk, that is — in their religion. The Virgin Mary was continually depicted exposing a breast and lactating. A leading Christian figure, the twelfth-century Bernard of Clairvaux, was said to have derived his inspiration from the Virgin Mary, who had appeared to him, bared a breast, and squirted three drops of milk into his mouth.

Medieval Christianity abounds with stories of people drinking Mary's milk, and even, in a few inexplicable cases, Christ's milk. These people received not Bernard's circumspect three drops, but rather a long, arched stream, at least according to some artists. One ignorant monk was said to have acquired great wisdom when the soft, sweet-spoken Mary bade him come close, bared her breasts, and had him suck at length on them. All this reflects the old and enduring Christian belief that the breastfed child acquired the traits of the woman who fed her or him.

Christians in the Middle Ages thought that milk was blood that had turned white when it traveled to the breast, which is why milk was banned on meatless holy days — more than half the days of the year. Japanese Buddhists had the same belief and avoided consuming dairy products. They looked down on Westerners, who they thought consumed too much dairy. They claimed they could smell it on them, and even into the twentieth century used the pejorative term Bata dasaku, "butter stinker," for a Westerner.

Nor have Jews ever been comfortable with the consumption of dairy. In Exodus, it states, "You shall not boil a young goat in its mother's milk." This has been interpreted as an absolute ban on eating any meat product, even chicken, in the same meal as any dairy product.

And yet even in ancient times, there have always been those who insisted on the health-giving qualities of milk. A Sumerian cuneiform tablet states that milk and laban, a yogurt-like sour drink, drive off illness. Pliny the Elder, the first-century A.D. Roman, claimed that milk was an effective antidote for those who swallowed quicksilver.

Producing milk is what defines a mammal. The scientific class Mammalia, to which humans belong, is so labeled from the Latin mammal, meaning "of the breast." We are the milk-producing class of animals, and we share milk among ourselves, although animals other than humans usually drink only the milk of their mothers unless humans intervene.

Still, to varying degrees, most mammal milk is acceptable food. And which milk is the best milk is one of history's unending debates. There is not even universal agreement that human milk is best for humans.

Different milks have varying amounts of fats, proteins, and lactose, and arguments abound over the relative merits and possible harms of each. For many centuries, milk with a high fat content was considered to be the best, and low-fat or skimmed milk was considered fraudulent — in fact, selling it was often illegal. Cow breeds that produce milk with a high fat content, such as Ayrshires, Jerseys, and Guernseys, have always been valued, especially for cheesemaking.

It is often stated that milk, produced by nature to feed newborns, is the ideal food. And it has long been recognized that newborn humans, calves, and lambs do not have the exact same needs. Early on, people understood that the milks of different species varied somehow, though it wasn't until the eighteenth century that those differences were quantified.

Each species has its own unique milk, designed by nature to meet its needs. Young whales have to build a layer of fat quickly in order to survive, and so whale milk is 34.8 percent fat, as opposed to human milk, which is only 4.5 percent fat. Northern seals also have to acquire fat quickly; a gray seal's milk is 53.2 percent fat, making it about the fattiest milk of all. Even aside from the logistical problems of milking gray seals, let alone whales, their high-fat milk is not suitable for us.

Human babies like and need milk that is 4.5 percent fat, only 1.1 percent protein, 6.8 percent lactose, and about 87 percent water. Not surprisingly, one of the milks closest to that of humans comes from monkeys. But while we have managed, with considerable ease, to accept the idea of feeding our young on the milks of other animals, we prefer that those animals not be too biologically similar. Most societies would find the idea of monkey dairies upsetting.

Milk also contains more than just fat, protein, lactose, and water. There are such things as cholesterol and linoleic acid to consider. For example, buffalo's milk, which people drink in India and the Philippines and use to make mozzarella cheese in southern Italy, has more fat but less cholesterol than cow's milk. Cow's milk also lacks linoleic acid, which is considered important for human brain growth. And while cow's milk has four times as much protein as human milk, most of the extra protein is in the form of casein, which has valuable commercial applications but is not needed in that quantity for a human baby's development.

Human milk has far more lactose than most other milks. Lactose is a sugar, so all milks are a bit sweet, but human milk is particularly sweet. Humans and most other mammals develop a fondness for sweets, probably because of their first food.

Before sugar cane and beet sugar became ubiquitous, honey was the number one sweet available. Milk was a close second, though, which is why the two were often grouped together. In a Vedic song of India, at least as old as the Old Testament, Rigveda says to Indra,

With honey of the bees is milk mixed, Come quick. Run and drink.

In the Old Testament, there are twenty references to milk and honey amid some fifty references to milk alone — human, cow, and goat. Most famously, the Hebrews are promised a land of milk and honey, a land of rare sweets.

Of course, there may have been a purely gastronomic aspect to this. Milk and honey are a pleasing combination. Honey mixed with yogurt, the sweet and the sour, is especially tasty. There may even be a medical reason for the combination.

* * *

Throughout history it has often been argued that, after human milk, goat's and donkey's milks were most suitable for us because their compositions are closest to ours. But that is not entirely true. Donkey's milk has far less fat than human milk, and goat's milk has triple the amount of protein.

Cows, sheep, goats, and buffalos have four stomachs; camels and llamas have three. Animals that have more than one stomach are known as ruminants. Some ruminants, such as cows and sheep, are grazers who munch on grass, and some, such as goats, sheep, and deer, instead nibble on nutritious shrubs in the woods.

The word "ruminant" comes from the Latin word ruminare, which means "to rechew." Food is regurgitated, rechewed, and sent to the rumen, one of the animal's stomachs, to be decomposed by fermentation before passing on to the other compartments. A cow chews for between six and eight hours a day, which produces some 42 gallons of saliva that buffer the acids produced in fermentation.

Animals that have one stomach are known as monogastrics, and it would seem to make sense that milk produced by an animal that digests the way we do would be most suitable for us. This is why even Etching by Jean-Louis Demarne, 1752–1829. (Author's collection) today, donkey's milk is produced commercially, especially in Italy, and sold as a health product.

Another monogastric animal is the horse, but mare's milk has caught on in only a few cultures, perhaps because it is extremely low in fat. Pliny the Elder, the first-century a.d. writer, reported that the Sarmatians, nomadic tribesmen in Iran and the southern Urals, consumed mare's milk mixed with millet, creating a kind of porridge that would become popular in other cultures when millet was mixed with different milks.

Herodotus, the fifth-century b.c.e. Greek historian, wrote that the Scythians, also Eurasian nomads, had a diet that consisted almost entirely of mare's milk. But when Marco Polo, who is credited with introducing many European food trends, reported that the Mongols drank mare's milk, Europeans were not tempted to take up the practice.

And why has the pig, another monogastric animal and the most ubiquitous farm animal in the world, never been called to dairy duty? Perhaps it is because we don't like to eat the milk of carnivores for cultural or psychological reasons, or because meat eating badly flavors milk. But a pig is whatever you make it. Pigs will eat anything, and they can be vegetarian if you prefer. Perhaps we shun pig milk because we prefer to drink from animals that bear one to three babies and have their teats arranged in a single bladder, an udder.

Northern Europeans once considered reindeer milk the best milk of all, and for a time were also partial to elk milk. Neither has remained popular.

Comparing the different types of milk is complex. But in the beginning, the most important issues involving milk were simple: What milk-producing animal was both easiest to domesticate and available in large numbers?

All evidence indicates that milking animals began in the Middle East, possibly in Iraq or the Assyrian part of Iran. Sumerians in the city of Ur created a frieze on a wall of the temple of al-Ubaid five thousand years ago of a scene of dairy workers milking cows and pouring the liquid into large jars. But as early as was this frieze, known to archeologists as "the dairy of al-Ubaid," it probably did not depict the earliest milking, because cows were probably not available when milking began. Civilization in this area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is thought to date back seven thousand years.

Archaeological finds suggest that humans have been herding animals for ten thousand years, and they must have been living close to them for at least that long because animal pathogens started mutating into human diseases such as smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis ten thousand years ago. Was it then that milking started?