Review: Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages by Anne Mendelson

Here's something you need to know at the beginning: I am from Wisconsin. As such, much of Anne Mendelson's new book, Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages (buy at Amazon), was not new to me. Many of the basics in the book — the common types of milk cows*, the system by which milk is priced, the reasoning behind milk fat ratings (you know, 1%, skim, etc), the controversies surround rBGH and Monsanto — all of these are things with which I have a passing familiarity, thanks to elementary school field trips to the World Dairy Expo and watching the local news with my parents.

The dairy-farm basics make up a lot of the book, and they are certainly relevant to any natural-history style rundown of milk, of course, but I think much of this information could be gleaned more easily, more efficiently, and in some cases in more deeply, from someone like Harold McGee.

Mendelson's prose style tends to be more of the dense historical variety than I care for, but that's to be expected. She isn't trying to compete with McGee and his nicely digestible layman's reference texts. Her aim is to go deep into her chosen subject and wear it out entirely, and then sprinkle some recipes on top.

The Story of Milk Is, in Fact, Surprising

Is the history of milk surprising? The title of this book tells me it is. It very well may be surprising to the non-Wisconsinites among us. For example:

By 1851...[the] supposedly healthful "new milk" straight from the cow [was] being sold in St. James' Park to children...The ability to see fresh (i.e., full-lactose) milk for drinking at a high profit than in any other form

The children of the rich were literally "milk fed"! I use it here to poke fun at my heritage. Mmmm, smell that dairy-air!

That said, even I gained some fresh insights. For example, there was a now-extinct breed of master cows called the aurochs (plural: aurochsen, which sounds like a choir of angels) that were huge and gave everyone the idea to start milking cows in the first place. The last one died in the 17th century, which I found very exciting for some reason. (So recently! Mammoth cattle!)

Or Maybe Not That Surprising

Really, though, much of the controversies surrounding milk production in America — which is what I'm assuming she refers to as "surprising" — really shouldn't be all that foreign to anyone with a even the slightest familiarity with modern agriculture. It follows the usual pattern: big agriculture buys out family farms, no actual farmers are making any money, the product tastes like crap. And... ?

And, as it happens, modern agriculture turns out to affect cooking with milk in ridiculously significant ways. Many are familiar with the US raw cheese imports ban and its affect on cheese flavor, but Mendelson is desperate to show her readers that American milk is boring and flavorless in all its varied forms. Much like another reviewer noted in Eat me daily's review of Jennifer McLagan's Fat, the author at times gets more preachy than I like. It's understandable in books like these, when passion is involved. It is, however, annoying.

Nearly Impossible Recipes

Similarly, Mendelson's fanatic insistence on the quality of ingredients used is understandable but nearly impossible. Mendelson's recipes demand unhomogenized milk at every turn — but while this is becoming more readily available, it is certainly not easily accessible to all. But at the same time, that's what Mendelson's saying: only when the dairy industry addresses the problems she is passionate about can any of these recipes be truly and universally useful.

In the meantime, though, a great many would likely be tasty even bastardized with supermarket milk and cream, and I would be lying if I said I hadn't been dreaming of her clam chowder recipe since I finished this book.

*There are six! *deep breath* HolsteinJerseyGuernseyBrown-SwissAyrshireShorthornYES!

–special EMD contributor Paula

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