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Views and opinions: Dairy has a long history in culture as well as farming

Milk! A 10,000-Year Food Fracas by Mark Kurlansky

c.2018, Bloomsbury

$29/$39 Canada

385 pages

Your cookies are no good today. They’re too crumbly, too soft, too … something. They don’t taste right; maybe because you’re missing an essential from your fridge.

Ah, no snacks for you; instead, you might as well dunk into Milk! A 10,000-Year Food Fracas by Mark Kurlansky.

In the beginning, there was Earth – sprang from milk, if you subscribe to the beliefs of the Fulani of West Africa, the Norse, Iraqis, the Egyptians or the Greeks. They and others had milk or lactating women at the forefront of their creation myths, which made things easy for them to explain.

Even so, there’s no denying that farmers were in on this history. “Each species has its own unique milk,” says Kurlansky, and though it should be no surprise that simian product is “closest to that of humans,” virtually nobody ever has a refreshing glass of monkey milk.

Instead, we mostly drink cow or goat milk, as we have for the last 10,000 years since herding began, though mule milk may be better for us, and pig milk is likewise palatable.

Even so, it’s possible that the first time milk was taken from an animal, it wasn’t meant to be consumed in liquid form: it was probably meant to become cheese, yogurt, butter or something portable and less liable to spoil. Nobody knows when those products began, but curds show up in ancient text and the Greeks knew how to make feta.

Ice cream, by the way, surely has roots that are ancient, but it wasn’t written about until surprisingly later in history. By the time that happened, Europeans had already literally changed the landscape with cows they brought with them to the New World; settlers underscored that by accepting milk cows from England, and new dairy practices.

As for the littlest milk-drinkers, wet nurses were often employed for reasons of illness, convenience or vanity on behalf of the mother. Maybe that was safer anyway, because drinking cross-species milk was sometimes chancy and could even be deadly, but, says Kurlansky, by the late 1800s there was “a scientist in France who had a theory.”

You may not believe that there’s a lot to consume about a basic substance like milk. All you know is that you can’t touch the stuff, but hold on: Inside Milk there’s a surprising fact about lactose intolerance, and a whole lot more.

Starting in antiquity and bringing us up to modern times (and modern problems), author Mark Kurlansky exhaustively examines everything you ever wanted to know about milk but didn’t know enough to ask. Kurlansky writes about humans, milk and human milk.

We learn that dairying was perceived as playing in Marie Antoinette’s time. We see how American history would look vastly different without cows. Kurlansky shares other facts and looks at esoteric milk-based foods that have been enjoyed through the ages – and he includes recipes for the brave.

While this book is absolutely entertaining, it may be best-suited for foodies, historians and the curious. If you got Milk, you’ll know exactly how the cookies crumble.


Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old and never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 14,000 books.