A History of Everything, Served in a Cold Glass of Milk

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Even in the olden times, babies were bottle-fed — the pottery has been found amid the ruins of ancient Roman nurseries. People were already arguing milk: safety and danger, variety. We accept cow milk as the way to go, but different cultures had different favorites. At various times, donkey and mule milk have been preferred. Ditto buffalo, goat, sheep, horse, pig and camel, which is said to be salty but otherwise not bad. Seal milk is the heaviest, 53.2 percent fat, whereas human is 4.5 percent. Instead of passing out bottles, French orphanages once distributed goats and donkeys for “direct feeding.” (Kurlansky mentions an 1816 German book called “The Goat as the Best and Most Agreeable Wet-Nurse.”) Of course, the preferred wet nurse was usually human, but even then you had to be careful. Many believed a baby would take on the nature of whomever she was suckling. (“It was thought that a baby who suckled a goat would become very sure-footed.”) “A study in Berlin in 1838 compared the composition of milk from brunettes, blondes and redheads,” Kurlansky writes, “and claimed to show definitively that redheads had the worst milk and brunettes the best.”

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The idea that there’s something magical about mother’s milk persists. Kurlansky writes about milk banks. Created for caregivers who cannot produce milk, they’ve sometimes been put to use in the same way Jason Giambi once turned to human growth hormone. “Some customers, believing that breast milk has medicinal purposes, are buying it when they are ill,” Kurlansky writes. “Some athletes, who believe that it will make them stronger, are also buying it. Other customers sell soap made from breast milk, and when a London ice cream shop started selling vanilla-with-lemon-zest breast-milk ice cream for more than 20 dollars a scoop, they could not keep up with the demand.”

Kurlansky organizes his book chronologically — the timeline of milk is a timeline of civilization — as well as by culture and product. There are chapters on cheese, butter, pudding, yogurt. Some of the finest sections are on the places Kurlansky visited for research — a valley in Tibet where “the air is too thin for trees and at times feels too thin for humans,” a feta-filled island in Greece where “wild capers grow in the mountains between the rocks.”

The book is as much about the worlds that grew up around milk as about milk itself. Its best moments come as pictures that form in your head when you read the description of everyday life in some ancient society. “Another use of yogurt popular in the Arab empire was kamakh rijal, which was yogurt and salt left to bake in the sun,” he writes. “This was often an urban dish made on household rooftops.” Or, regarding London: “The farmer would wander the streets, calling out, and women, either housewives or servants, would come out with buckets or other receptacles and he would milk the warm, foaming liquid directly into their containers.”

“Milk!” is a kind of stealth memoir — between the lines, it’s all Kurlansky, memory, taste. Now and then, he breaks through. “I have to confess that this soup was one of my favorite treats as a child,” he writes of crème vichyssoise glacée. “I loved its presentation and taste, loved the way it was served in a metal bowl sitting on a dish of shaved ice, loved the way the bowl and the soup were so cold, loved the thick creaminess of the soup as I moved my spoon through it, and loved those bright green random dashes of chives.”



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