MILK: That Old White Magic


[Note: Ironically, I just came across this December 15, 2008 NPR interview with Anne Mendelson:  “A Culinary History of Milk Through the Ages.” The NPR story includes a recipe for Apple-Onion Cream Soup.]

Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages, with 120 Adventurous Recipes that Explore the Riches of Our First Food, by Anne Mendelson (Alfred A. Knopf. 338 pages. $29.95).

When it comes to writing about food, Anne Mendelson is no slouch. A southeastern Pennsylvania native, Mendelson grew up surrounded by the numerous family-owned dairy farms once common to the area. Her first book, Stand Facing the Stove, delves into the story of the women who wrote the perennial bestseller, The Joy of Cooking. Mendelson’s food writing also appears in many food magazines, particularly Gourmet and Saveur.

Milk, thus, is a natural topic for Mendelson and she covers it well. Beginning with a little history, she navigates through the milky beginnings of the first food of all mammals. Fresh milk, because of preservation issues and lactose-intolerance in human populations, was not a major vehicle for dairy-food consumption. Cheese-and sour-milk-making developed in order to store highly perishable milk. By dividing the world into several areas, which she calls “belts,” Mendelson smoothly handles the various milk cultures that developed over the centuries: Diverse Sources Belt (Middle East, with goats, sheep, camels), Bovine and Buffalo Belt (Eurasia), Northeastern Cow Belt (Russian steppes and Caucasus), and Northwestern Cow Belt (northern Europe). Unfortunately, she does not include Africa in the discussions, stating that her “reason for leaving them out is that many crucial practices simply are not reproducible in American kitchens.” Although she examines the Eurasian connection, somehow she misses mentioning kourmiss, a fermented, and often smoked, mare’s milk product from Kazakhstan, definitely an acquired taste!

After a very brief global history lesson about the origins of dairying, Mendelson moves into a somewhat distressing and detailed chapter on the history and methods of modern dairying. It’s a fascinating story, though, revealing how producers meet the demands for fresh milk and public health efforts to ensure quality and safety. Like Michael Pollan in his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Mendelson pulls no punches about the toll that modern dairying takes on the animals supplying us with milk. She writes, “… more and more of the fluid-milk supply comes from huge farm operations completely dependent on high-producing cows, bred, fed, and injected to be still higher-producing. On many farms, the animals never see a blade of grass-not because farmers are unnatural villains but because pasture management for hundreds of ground-trampling twelve-hundred- to eighteen-hundred-pound Holstein-Friesians is a time-consuming luxury.” A short chapter follows on raw vs. pasteurized, organic vs. conventional milk products, covering the “simpleminded claims on both sides” of the issues.

Since Mendelson advocates for home cooks, she includes a unique chapter, “White Magic 101,” consisting of six experiments using milk to make different versions of milk products routinely available in chain supermarkets. She calls it “ancient applied dairy chemistry.” Her point is that modern milk lovers don’t know what they’re missing. And they don’t. “Why should all the white magic be left to the big dairy processors and not the home cook? It’s as if the only way people could buy wheat were as cake flour, prepackaged cake mix, biscuit mix, white sauce mix, frozen bread dough, flavored instant bulgur, and so forth.”

The “whipped cream with a cherry on top” lies in “Part II: Recipes.” Ranging from Devonshire-style clotted cream to fresh cheeses, these recipes will propel you into the kitchen. Milk is a veritable and adventurous feast, just as Mendelson’s subtitle promises.

© 2008 C. Bertelsen

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