We take milk for granted. Today this ancient food has been reduced to commodity status, packaged in plastic jugs for modern convenience. Somehow it's there, we drink it, and then it's gone. Anne Mendelson's fascinating book Milk, the Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages unpacks all of the essentially lost history of milk, and in the process reminds us of its cultural significance.
There's so much interesting information here it's hard to know where to begin...but I should emphasize that it's not one of those books that is overly academic in tone or loses readers in a whirl of facts and figures. I was completely riveted by Mendelson's revelations - for example, she begins by explaining that in centuries past, goats and sheep were the primary sources for milk as opposed to cows, who were, among other things, less adaptable to hot weather. Also fascinating (and obvious once you think about it) is the fact that until the advent of modern refrigeration, humans primarily experienced milk in sour, curdled or cured form as yogurt, cheese or any of the hundreds of dairy products that have evolved throughout the centuries of human existence. Each revelation is a piece of the puzzle that eventually comes together as the product - fresh milk - that we know today. After reading this book, you'll never look at milk the same way again.
Just as Mendelson's book is a cultural history, it is also a culinary exploration - a large portion of the book is devoted to recipes using all manner of dairy products. But the recipes are not presented clinically, they're richly annotated with stories about the food in question. A simple mashed potato recipe, for example, becomes a way to discuss the importance of buttermilk as a source of protein in Ireland. Seemingly innocuous panna cotta has roots in medieval blancmage, which Mendelson notes is still a staple in Turkey.
Somehow milk has escaped the popular scrutiny being directed at produce or meat, in this era where we demand to know where our food comes from and how it is produced. I think it's about time everyone understood milk's complex origins and evolution as a food staple in Western culture. If this is something you are interested in learning more about, Mendelson has just book for you.
Interview with Anne Mendelson on NPR's Fresh Air December 2008
Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages
Knopf, 352 pages, hardcover
$29.95 US/$34 Canada