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A 10,000 Year Food Fracas
by Mark Kurlansky
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Buffalo milk, which people in India and Philippins drink, has more fat but less cholesterol than cow milk. Cow's milk lacks linoleic acid, which babies need for brain growth. While cow milk had four times as much protein as human milk, most of that is in the form of casein, which human babies can't utilise in those quantities.
Human milk has far more lactose than other milks. Lactose is a sugar, so human milk is particularly sweet, and this is probably the source of our fondness for sweet.
Throughout history it has often been argued that, after human milk, goat's and donkey's milks were most suitable for us because their compositions are closest to ours. But that is not entirely true. Donkey's milk has far less fat than human milk, and goat's milk has triple the amount of protein.
Cows, sheep, goats, and buffalos have four stomachs; camels and llamas have three. Animals that have more than one stomach are known as ruminants. Some ruminants, such as cows and sheep, are grazers who munch on grass, and some, such as goats and deer, instead nibble on nutritious shrubs in the woods.
The word 'ruminant' comes from the Latin word ruminare, which means 'to rechew.' Food is regurgitated, rechewed, and sent to the rumen, one of the animal's stomachs, to be decomposed by fermentation before passing on to the other compartments. A cow chews for between six and eight hours a day, which produces some 42 gallons of saliva that buffer the acids produced in fermentation.
Animals that have one stomach are known as monogastrics, and it would seem to make sense that milk produced by an animal that digests the way we do would be most suitable for us. This is why even today, donkey's milk is produced commercially, especially in Italy, and sold as a health product.
Another monogastric animal is the horse, but mare's milk has caught on in only a few cultures, perhaps because it is extremely low in fat. Pliny the Elder reported that the Sarmatians, nomadic tribesmen in Iran and the southern Urals, consumed mare's milk mixed with millet, creating a kind of porridge that would become popular in other cultures when millet was mixed with different milks.
Herodotus, the fifth-century b.c.e. Greek historian, wrote that the Scythians, also Eurasian nomads, had a diet that consisted almost entirely of mare's milk. But when Marco Polo, who is credited with introducing many European food trends, reported that the Mongols drank mare's milk, Europeans were not tempted to take up the practice.
And why has the pig, another monogastric animal and the most ubiquitous farm animal in the world, never been called to dairy duty? Perhaps it is because we don't like to eat the milk of carnivores for cultural or psychological reasons, or because meat eating badly flavors milk. But a pig is whatever you make it. Pigs will eat anything, and they can be vegetarian if you prefer. Perhaps we shun pig milk because we prefer to drink from animals that bear one to three babies and have their teats arranged in a single bladder, an udder.
Northern Europeans once considered reindeer milk the best milk of all, and for a time were also partial to elk milk. Neither has remained popular.
Comparing the different types of milk is complex. But in the beginning, the most important issues involving milk were simple: What milk-producing animal was both easiest to domesticate and available in large numbers?
All evidence indicates that milking animals began in the Middle East, possibly in Iraq or the Assyrian part of Iran. Sumerians in the city of Ur created a frieze on a wall of the temple of al-Ubaid five thousand years ago of a scene of dairy workers milking cows and pouring the liquid into large jars. But as early as was this frieze, known to archaeologists as 'the dairy of al-Ubaid,' it probably did not depict the earliest milking, because cows were probably not available when milking began. Civilization in this area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is thought to date back seven thousand years.
Archaeological finds suggest that humans have been herding animals for ten thousand years, and they must have been living close to them for at least that long because animal pathogens started mutating into human diseases such as smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis ten thousand years ago. Was it then that milking started?
No one really knows. How was it decided that the milk of pastoral mammals could be substituted for human milk when a mother died or was unable to produce enough milk? It seems a bold step to replace mother's milk with that of an animal.
But perhaps animal milk was first recognized as a commercial product and only later used for feeding human babies. In a hot climate where milk spoiled very quickly, cheese and yogurt, made from soured milk, must have been developed early. In fact, until the age of refrigeration, very little fresh drinking milk was consumed in the Middle East.
Or perhaps the practice of humans drinking other mammals' milk began when lactating animals were used as wet nurses, the human babies placed on teats to suck milk. This practice occurred in ancient times, in the Middle Ages, and even in more modern times in poor parts of Europe. It is not known how frequently it actually occurred, but it is striking how often it comes up in the literature and mythology of Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
In ancient times, when abandoning babies was commonplace, there were many stories of infants being saved by lactating animals. The symbol of Rome is a depiction of its two founders, the twin boys Romulus and Remus, breastfeeding on the wolf that raised them.
Another mystery is what kind of animal was first used for milking. It was almost certainly not a cow. If milking really did start in the Middle East ten thousand years ago it must have been with some other animal, as there were not many cows there then, or anywhere else, for that matter.
The ancestor of cattle, of all bovines, was the aurochs. Aurochsen (the correct plural form) were large, powerful, violent, and aggressive animals. With horns more than two feet long and shoulders that stood higher than the height of a man, they fearlessly attacked the humans who hunted them and inspired awe, as testified to by the frequency with which they appear in cave wall paintings. Females were probably less aggressive than males, but even so, milking a wild aurochs was as practical as trying to milk a wild bison on the plains of North America. In all likelihood, neither ever happened.
In time, the wild aurochs were domesticated, and as this domestic version proliferated, the wild aurochs began to disappear. Once ranging over an area stretching from Asia through Europe, they eventually were confined to the forests of central Europe. The last aurochs died in seventeenth-century Poland.
Modern cattle do not stem from these last Central Europeans, but from a cousin, the Urus, which was very hairy and, according to Caesar, almost as large as an elephant. The Urus roamed over Europe, Asia, and Africa. An early domesticated Urus breed was the Celtic shorthorn, a small but sturdy animal that not only provided the Celts with milk, but was the ancestor of many modern breeds.
Was the first milking animal a goat, as goat enthusiasts always claim? Or was it a gazelle, the wild ancestor of goats? This is possible, but gazelle farming would have been difficult unless they were soon domesticated into goats. Perhaps it was a sheep, a relative of the goat. But sheep's milk, with its high fat and protein content, is rich for drinking, and sheep produce only miserly amounts of milk.
Once cows became easily available, most milk producers chose to milk them rather than other animals, though that choice has never been without controversy. Mohandas Gandhi, father of the modern cow-worshipping state of India, drank exclusively goat's milk, which he considered most healthful. But cows are easy to work with and they produce a tremendous amount of milk. A goat might produce three quarts in a day; a really good goat, a gallon. A cow naturally produces several gallons a day, and modern farmers using advanced production techniques can hope for eight or more. However, the larger the animal, the more it has to be fed, and a goat produces five times as much milk in proportion to her body weight as a cow, four times as much milk for her weight as a sheep.
Goats have another advantage over cows, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. They don't need rich green pastures in which to graze and can find food in places where a cow would starve. They can even climb trees to eat leaves.
Farmers need animals with whom they can have a peaceful, even affectionate, relationship. The Assyrians chanted prayers and magical invocations in which they asked for their livestock to have a friendly attitude.
There is a simple trick for more easily milking cows, goats, sheep, and other animals that animal rights activists abhor. When a calf, kid, or lamb is born, it is taken away from its mother and fed milk from a bottle by the farmer. Most animal rights activists say that the separated animals moan and cry with grief. Some farmers say they do, too. Others deny it or appear not to care; as Brad Kessler, a small- scale Vermont goat farmer puts it, 'Milk is power.' Separating a calf from its mother is another of the many enduring controversies around milk.
When animals are left to suckle their mothers, they drink up a considerable portion of their milk - more than they need - and a farmer's profits. They also grow up to be very independent and sometimes distrustful of humans. But if a farmer feeds the young animals, they grow up with a real fondness for human beings. Cows are too big to frolic with people the way goats sometimes do, but they nuzzle farmers with their noses and follow them around. They like life to be calm and easy, which is why cow farmers are usually calm, soft-spoken people. Sheep follow farmers around in a cluster but demonstrate none of the individualistic behavior of cows or goats. They seem to exist more as a flock than as individuals, which is probably why there is no distinct name for them in the singular. Farmers and milking animals can enjoy a very warm relationship, but it never ends well for the animal, because a farmer cannot afford to keep feeding an animal that has stopped producing milk.
Heres a list of things I'd be if I had been breast- instead of bottle-fed: 2 to 3 inches taller, more confident, more sane, allergic to neither cats nor horses nor camels, less uncomfortable in my skin, 15 to 20 I.Q. points smarter. Because I had always blamed my mother, I experienced a rush of relief when I came across the following sentence near the end of Mark Kurlansky’s magisterial Milk! A 10,000-Year Food Fracas: In 1971, only 24 percent of American women breast-fed and only 5 percent continued to do so after six months. The best food for babies, most people were convinced, was commercially bottled baby formula. I was born in 1968. In other words, my mom wasn't negligent — she was fashionable!
Breast versus bottle is but one of the many debates wending through Kurlanskys often fascinating (Thomas Jefferson liked to serve ice cream on sponge cake with a lightly baked meringue on top), sometimes mundane (In addition to milk, cheese and porridge, the Dutch ate huge quantities of butter) and occasionally weird (There are also records of women in the highlands of New Guinea breast-feeding piglets, pre-European Hawaiians breast-feeding puppies, and Guyanese women breast-feeding deer) new book, which can be seen as nothing less than an attempt to tell the history of the world via what is, let's face it, a bodily fluid.
It's probably Kurlansky's most innovative idea: the notion that, if you focus with enough intensity on a single product or commodity, you end up telling the story of everything. He did it, to great effect, in his earlier books 'Cod', 'Salt' and 'Paper'. Now it's milk's turn to take the perp walk. He starts with the ancient Greeks, who believed milk was, in some symbolic way, at the center of creation. 'Gala' - the root word that gives us 'galaxy' - - actually means 'milk.' And it was said that the Milky Way, that great band of light, resulted from a spill while the goddess Hera was breast-feeding baby Hercules. Each drop became a speck of light, known to us as a star, Kurlansky writes. The Sumerians, the Fulani of West Africa, the Norse of the Viking wastes, all had a milk-based creation story. It filled their cosmology as it still fills our chocolate and coffee.
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, and claimed to show definitively that redheads had the worst milk and brunettes the best.
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.'
It's the sort of book that Proust might have written had Proust become distracted by the madeleine. If Proust had followed his trigger right out of the plot and into the kitchen, if, in addition to telling you what the cookie evoked, he told you the recipe. In the end, you step away from this book with a new vantage on history, a working knowledge of exotic milk and cheese, acceptance of your mom, a sense of what makes Mark Kurlansky tick and a weird craving for buffalo mozzarella.
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