Book Review: Milk: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas

Kurlansky, Mark. Milk: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas (NY: Bloomsbury, 2018) Kindle Edition.

Ah, dairy products, a blessing from the gods or an overrated tool of Euro-normitive dietitians who should have known better? Is milk a healthy food or the scourge of the environment? Depends on who you ask, which milk it is, and where you happen to live. Mark Kurlansky provides a detailed, thematic history of dairy products, including the controversies about milk, cheese, ice cream and other milk-based foods. Alas, his political asides drag the tale down from five stars to four, in my opinion.

Most of us of European descent who live in the Northern Hemisphere drink cow, goat, or sheep milk, eat cheeses of varying kinds, eat yoghurt, devour ice cream, and don’t think too much about it. Some opt for “organic” milk products, others argue vehemently for the benefits of unpasteurized milk. For the rest of the world, un-fermented dairy is a dietary disaster after age two or so, because they don’t have the enzymes that allow them to digest lactose. And milk spoils very quickly in hot climates, so you have to use it or dispose of it.

Kurlansky’s book starts with an overview of the different types of milk (cow, sheep, goat, mare) and compares them with human breast milk. Then he looks at the broad history of dairying and cheese making before focusing on different sub-topics. When he’s talking history and genetics, he does well, and pulls up interesting comparisons and points of reference. Alas, he also tosses in asides about, for example, the sexism of an early 18th century French author, that have nothing to do with the matter at hand. I get the sense that he’s trying to please the New York City-based publishers and check off all the important political and social boxes.

He also spends time on the anti-dairy arguments, and the environmental debates about modern dairies. Having seen commercial dairies, and having lived downwind of several CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operation, or feedlot), I know very well the problems of too much manure and too many animals in a small space. What had me shaking my head was that once a dairy cow in an “organic milk” herd is treated with antibiotics for an infection or ailment, she must be sold. A single treatment means her milk can never again be sold as organic. Talk about a waste of animals! And a misunderstanding of how bodies process and excrete antibiotics.*

For someone who has no background in modern ag, or genetics, or cultural history of food, this is a very good overview of the benefits and problems of milk, and a fun read. If you are already familiar with some or all of the material, it is a good synthesis. I just gritted my teeth at the presentist asides and political comments, although they did toss me out of the flow of the book (pun intended).

I like Kurlansky’s earlier books better, but this one is interesting, and to his credit, the author goes places, talks to people both pro and con, and tries his hand at certain things. It’s not as lop-sided as some things I’ve read. There are pure academic histories and environmental histories of milk and dairying, but this is for the general reader.

I was disappointed in the book because of the asides. I didn’t catch any glaring errors of fact. It is well written and engaging, as are all of Kurlansky’s books.

*I am very aware of the arguments against antibiotic use, especially in cattle, where they have been abused as fatteners instead of used as medicine. However, they do not linger in the milk for the rest of the cow’s life, which is what some activists have averred.

FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and received no compensation from the author or publisher.

I am udderly certain that puns are going to erupt in the comments. How cheesy they are is up to you.

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25 thoughts on “Book Review: Milk: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas

  1. Digesting lactose as an adult: it’s the mutant superpower that enables people of a certain ethnic background to overrun the world! See, milk really is racist!
    (Puts on sane hat.)
    Sounds interesting… like something I’d buy on paper for my father and then end up reading myself eventually. Except that we’re in a radical decluttering phase right now, so it goes on the “maybe after the move” list.

  2. Explicit permission to pun? Dairy say that Peter will milk that for all it is worth?

  3. Lactase persistence is not strictly limited to European-descended individuals. There are several known mutations/alleles that result in lactase persistence, and some are fairly-common among certain African and Central Asian pastoralist groups (e.g. Mongols, Maasai).

    • Point. In my defense, I was using Kurlansky’s argument. He focuses on the European strain, probably because the Maasai don’t have commercial dairies (that I know of).

      • I’m fuzzy on the genetic derivation, but modern day Arabs seem to be lactose tolerant, because the Saudis have one heckuva dairy farm out in the middle of nowhere. I visited it in late 1997 or early 1998. It is right across the highway from Prince Sultan Air Base, near Al Kharj, about 90 km southeast of the capital city Riyadh.

        At the time they said it was the largest dairy farm in the world, and that probably hasn’t changed. Twenty-five THOUSAND cows. Enough milk (and ice cream!) not only for Saudi Arabia but exports around the Middle East as well. Nine veterinarians on staff, 35 calves born every day. Cows are grouped in “herds” of, IIRC, 28, each with its own Sun shelter. They’re led into the air conditioned milking barn, hooked to the milking machines, glurg glurg for … however long…, then unhooked and the next herd is brought in. 24 hours per day. I don’t think they take Friday off either.

        Al Kharj long had a well, first hand dug in the 1800s, but nowadays modern drilling goes a mile deep and comes up with boiling hot water. You see cooling trestles steaming along side the road. They not only water the cows but the hay fields in the area. This makes it easy to find on Google maps — search for Al Kharj, turn on the satellite view, and look for all the circular irrigate hay fields in the area. Also they import alfalfa and hay from other countries. There are several other dairy farms in the area as well.

        And with 25,000 cows, you have 25 bazillion flies. Oh my Allah, do you have flies. And they are very aggressive about finding the least bit of water, the invisible salive at the corner of your mouth or the tear duct in your eye.

        I’m 58 and I still love milk, so the SJW greenies can sod off. Dang, now I’m thirsty.

          • Kurlansky touches on that, but not in much detail. I suspect no one in Saudi worries about AGNPS (agricultural non-point source pollution) of local streams. It appears, per Kurlansky, that the world population is becoming more lactose tolerant because milk is a prestige item. And children that get more protein tend to be taller, also a prestige item in some places.

            You can milk camels, but the milk is far higher in fat than most people want to drink, and then there’s the wee matter of camels’ “charming” disposition.

    • Which was good, since mare’s milk was a campaign staple of the Mongols. And campaigning with a constant case of scours would have not been pleasant.

      • The Mongols fermented their milk, however (kumis). That makes a difference in digestion (makes it easier).

  4. (Puts on serious hat)

    The lactase advantage gets coupled to agrarian and trading societies. There’s now a method to store high caloric value food for an extended period of time. These can support populations through minor or larger famine, and provide compact, rugged foods for extended journeys. These cultures can now afford arts (mechanical, practical and fine) and gain a large advantage over their neighbors. Parchment form animal hides now give a more permanent, easily stored and transported set of records and knowledge. Advantage gets larger.

    The purely pastoral cultures depend on rain and grasses to feed their herds. Range density puts a lower top limit on hard sizes, and takes more energy to move and manage herds. They have a smaller advantage over primitive farm cultures, but a larger one over hunters. They’re at a disadvantage with advanced farming or metalworking cultures, which explains why the Mongols created a desert and called it “peace.”

    • The place where the Mongols “made a desert and called it peace” was in the MidEast and Persian empire, and not in their homelands.
      At the continued resistance of MidEast polities, the Mongols exterminated cities down to the dogs and cats, burned them, and broke the wells.
      John in Indy

  5. Kind of cool, apparently the ability to drink milk isn’t just genetic– folks who don’t have the gene for tolerating it can keep the ability, IF they never stop drinking milk.

    Has to do with gut bacteria.

    Which explains why there are folks who definitely don’t have the gene, but grew up on American diets and don’t have an issue– and why there are so many folks who have some level of intolerance who have a history of just not liking milk. (*raises hand*)

    • And, also, why fermenting the milk helps with that digestion. Fermentation (of lots of things, not just milk) provides good gut flora. And it evidently helps with a LOT of things related to the digestive track.

  6. I’m curious, did he ever address the controversy over “almond milk” and “soy milk”?
    Either that it’s not milk and shouldn’t be called that, or how you manage to pull on those really tiny teats on the almond…………………

    • He touches on it, but his focus is on animal products. There’s a strain of anti-industrial-ag in the last third of the book, and I don’t know of any industrial almond dairies. Now, if you want to talk about water controversies, almond milk probably pops up (see California agriculture, insurance companies as land owners, and the Delta Smelt et al.)

    • Then there’s the USDA and skim milk. You sell it as “skim milk” unless you also fortify it with vitamins A and D. If you don’t add the vitamins in, you can sell it as a “milk product” but not as “skim milk.”

    • It’s been called “almond milk” since the middle freakin’ ages, when it was an abstaining-friendly ingredient to substitute for milk (plus you can cook with it like it’s milk, and not have to worry about scalding)– and right there in the oxford dictionary, “milk” is defined to mean stuff that LOOKS LIKE milk.

      Like coconut milk. And dandelion milk. And the milky way…..

      It’s not a controversy. It’s a long running marketing ploy by the American dairy association, on par with France demanding we stop selling “champagne” unless it was made in champagne. Because the name is totally the reason folks are buying something other than their product…..

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