home     authors     titles     dates     links     about


19 october 2011

When there's a hurricane on the way and people contemplate being cut off from supplies for a while, they always go and buy milk. Now, this is a perfectly reasonable idea. But it is highly unnatural. Till very recently in human experience, we didn't drink the milk of other mammals. And till extremely recently, we didn't expect to pick it up at the store every few days along with bread and bananas.

In Milk: A Global History, Hannah Velten explores the strong, continual internal tension in human attitudes towards the milk of other mammals. (Mostly cows' milk – Velten is also the author of the Reaktion Animal volume Cow – but with some attention to goats, sheep, and buffalo.) On the one hand, milk is the most natural food imaginable: like honey, one of the few foods we eat that other animals produce as food for themselves. On the other hand, milk is so perishable, so imitable by dishonest means, so indigestible by so much of the human race, that its presence in our food system leads to countless anxieties.

A tall glass of milk is the most wholesome thing imaginable, after all: unless it's sour, or teeming with TB bacilli, or composed of chalk and tap water, or will make your belly bloat intolerantly a half-hour later. Pasteurization, regulation, better production and distribution systems, and lactase pills have tried to bring milk back into the good graces of consumers. But problems persist. Modern milk is a factory item, processed in ways that our cowherd ancestors would find incredible.

The latest fears are aroused by what Velten calls "technological milk" (111). High-yield milk cows, treated with concentrated hormones, are suspect for all kinds of green reasons. Cloned cows will be less altered by injection but, if possible, even more scary: will biodiversity disappear even within species, in the interests of the most (literally) homogenized supply of milk?

Lucky for me – I put soy on my cereal. Not that they can't genetically modify and otherwise chemically douse soybeans . . .

Velten, Hannah. Milk: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2010.