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Milk: A Local and Global History

Deborah Valenze
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    How did an animal product that spoils easily, carries disease, and causes digestive trouble for many of its consumers become a near-universal symbol of modern nutrition? In the first cultural history of milk, historian Deborah Valenze traces the rituals and beliefs that have governed milk production and consumption since its use in the earliest societies.

    Covering the long span of human history,Milkreveals how developments in technology, public health, and nutritional science made this once-rare elixir a modern-day staple. The book looks at the religious meanings of milk, along with its association with pastoral life, which made it an object of mystery and suspicion during medieval times and the Renaissance. As early modern societies refined agricultural techniques, cow's milk became crucial to improving diets and economies, launching milk production and consumption into a more modern phase. Yet as business and science transformed the product in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, commercial milk became not only a common and widely available commodity but also a source of uncertainty when used in place of human breast milk for infant feeding. Valenze also examines the dairy culture of the developing world, looking at the example of India, currently the world's largest milk producer.

    Ultimately, milk's surprising history teaches us how to think about our relationship to food in the present, as well as in the past. It reveals that although milk is a product of nature, it has always been an artifact of culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17539-4
    Subjects: Technology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    Cows that have names give more milk than cows without names. This discovery won recognition at the 2009 Ig Nobel awards, an annual event in Cambridge, Massachusetts, organized to “first make people laugh and then make them think.” I didn’t laugh, though, because the question of naming cows had come up in conversations with dairy farmers I had sought out in Vermont, Switzerland, and England. A note of condescension might have crept into one or two responses, but managers of milk production know what’s at stake in the question. Cows respond to sensitive, personalized handling; they’re acutely aware of environmental...


    • CHAPTER ONE Great Mothers and Cows of Plenty
      (pp. 13-33)

      According to the great Hindu story of the Churning of the Ocean, milk assumes a pure and simple guise as a limitless source of bounty. The tale begins with the quest for an elixir of immortality, when Hindu gods took charge of a still chaotic world and decided to stir things up, literally. Using a snake as a rope and a mountaintop as a churning stick, they pulled and writhed as the sap from plants from the mountain mixed with water from the sea. As the swirling progressed, the ocean water turned to milk and then—following laws of an...

    • CHAPTER TWO Virtuous White Liquor in the Middle Ages
      (pp. 34-57)

      What would an English gentlewoman summon up in the way of special fare for her New Year’s Day celebration in 1413? The answer would not lie in the brewery. Alcoholic beverages, more reliable than water, were required but not special to such an occasion. On an ordinary day, a person might quaff an average of three and a half pints of ale simply to quench thirst. A wide assortment of meats and game might signal a certain expected extravagance in a holiday menu. But for Alice de Bryene, such offerings were not all that unusual. This prosperous widow of Suffolk...

    • CHAPTER THREE The Renaissance of Milk
      (pp. 58-80)

      Sometime around 1465, a feisty scholar named Bartolomeo Sacchi (known to posterity as Platina) penned one of the earliest self-help books to appear in print.De honesta voluptate et valetudine(On Right Pleasure and Good Health) offered much more in the way of enjoyment than advice: it consisted of a mere dozen sections on how to maintain good health, followed by a lengthy catalogue of foods and recipes, some of them apparently well tested. In draft form, the manuscript had circulated so much that it became “filthy and besmeared,” looking as though it had “crawled through ointment shops and taverns.”...


    • CHAPTER FOUR Cash Cows and Dutch Diligence
      (pp. 83-99)

      The achievements of the Dutch during their Golden Age were fair game for an elevated form of gossip in the seventeenth century. “The Old Hollanders were formerly despised by their neighbors,” an English statesman remarked on a visit to the Low Countries, “for the grossness of their temper, and the simplicity of their life. They were us’d to be call’dBlockheads, and eaters of Cheese and Milk:but [just] as they formerly had the reputation of silly, so now they are esteemed as subtil and understanding a Nation as any in Europe.” In this insult aimed at dairy products, it’s...

    • CHAPTER FIVE A Taste for Milk and How It Grew
      (pp. 100-117)

      A melancholy Samuel Pepys took stock of his office in Seething Lane on the third day of the horrific Great Fire of London in 1666. Earlier, he had laid his papers in a hole in the garden, and that evening, with the help of Sir William Penn, he decided to make a second excavation. Here, Pepys solemnly recorded that night, they placed their wine stores “and I my parmazan cheese.” In their haste, the servants must have viewed the commodities as inessential, but the two men obviously felt otherwise. An emblem of merry nights of good food and company, the...

    • CHAPTER SIX Milk Comes of Age as Cheese
      (pp. 118-137)

      A twentieth-century writer once quipped that cheese is “milk’s leap toward immortality,” but the idea has been around for much longer than a half century. The ancients also understood the point, but more important, so did the British Navy. Most of milk’s perishable qualities derive from its fat content: remove the cream, and cheese made from milk becomes ever more resilient—and less expensive. So it is not surprising that the British Navy, during its glory days of the eighteenth century, made a practice of buying “three-times-skimmed sky-blue,” a local nickname for Suffolk cheese. More commonly known as “bang,” the...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN An Interlude of Livestock History
      (pp. 138-150)

      “Whycow’smilk?” is a persistent question in the path of liquid history. If goats were ubiquitous and cheaper to keep, offering a milk that was more easily digestible by humans, why did they not triumph over their bovine competitors as providers of human sustenance? Certainly many areas of the world favored goat’s milk for alimentary purposes, and it may well be that in terms of household consumption, especially in rural areas, Europeans and North Americans drank and processed more of it than we can detect in recorded food history. Yet even before the nineteenth century, when scientific deliberations over...


    • CHAPTER EIGHT Milk in the Nursery, Chemistry in the Kitchen
      (pp. 153-177)

      Nature dictates that women, as good mammals, must nurse their young. But Western culture, accustomed to flouting the laws of nature, was busy challenging the practice of breast-feeding from very early on. This contradiction is one of the great dilemmas of history and justly deserves more attention than the brief treatment here. The subject certainly belongs in the larger history of food. As Marilyn Yalom aptly pointed out, the breast “offers a psychoanalytic paradigm for the Garden of Eden.” We might add that in the history of milk, the sort coming from the breast is the apple itself, an object...

    • CHAPTER NINE Beneficial Bovines and the Business of Milk
      (pp. 178-198)

      “An army marches on its stomach,” according to an old saying. And as one letter from the American Civil War reveals, food was the first line of treatment for injured soldiers. A volunteer nurse, Eliza Newton How-land, described her first two days on a hospital ship in 1862. Supplies were limited when the first one hundred and fifty wounded arrived. “With two spoons, and ten pounds of Indian meal (the only food on board) made into gruel, G. and I managed, however, to feed them all and got them to bed,” she wrote to her husband. Soon, however, the crew...

    • CHAPTER TEN Milk in an Age of Indigestion
      (pp. 199-209)

      Perhaps the most famous upset stomach of all time resided in the body of Thomas Carlyle, Victorian writer, “the sage of Chelsea” in the middle of the nineteenth century. Given his prolixity on the subject, it is safe to say that Carlyle put dyspepsia on the map of Victorian maladies. In distant New York City, a newspaper story about the peculiarly widespread ailment felt obliged to cite Carlyle as the quintessential sufferer. (The article then pinned the blame for his dyspepsia on his habit of eating oatmeal.) Dyspepsia spoke volumes about the age and its beliefs about the body and...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN Milk Gone Bad
      (pp. 210-232)

      Among the most celebrated wonders at the Paris Exposition of 1900 were two surprisingly humble entries: milk and cream imported from Illinois, New York, and New Jersey, “raw and in the natural state, without preservatives of any kind,” “as pure and sweet as milk freshly drawn from the cow.” On the road for over two weeks, the products even survived a time-consuming gauntlet of customs inspections between Paris and the dairy exhibition near Vincennes. Americans kept the samples coming at a daily rate—the only exposition participants to do so—to underscore the reliability of their bravura performance. Their achievement...


    • CHAPTER TWELVE The ABC’s of Milk
      (pp. 235-252)

      It is worth remembering that milk reformers were demanding pure milk for a minority population—namely, infants—when they laid siege to the Massachusetts legislature in 1910. The leading pediatric authority of the day, Milton Rosenau, described the liquid as “too perfect food for the adult,” meaning it lacked the necessary bulk that a healthy digestive tract required. Reformers had to bring in a second physician to advocate for a broader band of consumers. “Milk is the chief food of sick folks,” the doctor testified. “The importance of milk as a food for sick people—adult sick people—cannot be...

    • CHAPTER THIRTEEN Good for Everybody in the Twentieth Century
      (pp. 253-278)

      Milk won pride of place as a public necessity throughout Europe and America by the 1930s, but not without concerted effort on the part of reformers, many of them women. The new nutritional intelligence about milk became part of an international campaign to improve the health of the masses. McCollum’s teachings about milk as a protective food, equipped with all-important vitamins, resonated in a world preoccupied by worries about hunger and food. Like Pasteur’s identification of microbes, it wasn’t so much what was discovered as when the discovery became widely understood. The First World War had altered public awareness, limiting...

      (pp. 279-292)

      Look at any very old volume on dairy cows and you’ll find a section referring to something called the “escutcheon” or “milk mirror.” The second term originated with a maverick specialist in cow anatomy living in the countryside of Bordeaux in the 1820s. François Guenon, a gardener with little formal education, determined that the posterior of the cow’s udder foretold the animal’s potential as a producer of milk. “One day,” he recalled, “as I was whiling away the time in cleaning and scratching my poor old companion, I noticed that a sort of bran or dandruff detached itself in considerable...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 293-322)
    (pp. 323-336)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 337-351)