THE SAFETY OF CURDS
He curdled half the milk and set it aside in wicker strainers, but the other half he poured into bowls that he might drink it for his supper.
—ODYSSEUS, observing the Cyclops in Homer's The Odyssey
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.