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Nature's Perfect Food

Nature's Perfect Food: How Milk Became America's Drink

Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 310
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  • Book Info
    Nature's Perfect Food
    Book Description:

    For over a century, America's nutrition authorities have heralded milk as "nature's perfect food," as "indispensable" and "the most complete food." These milk "boosters" have ranged from consumer activists, to government nutritionists, to the American Dairy Council and its ubiquitous milk moustache ads. The image of milk as wholesome and body-building has a long history, but is it accurate? Recently, within the newest social movements around food, milk has lost favor. Vegan anti-milk rhetoric portrays the dairy industry as cruel to animals and milk as bad for humans. Recently, books with titles like, "Milk: The Deadly Poison," and "Don't Drink Your Milk" have portrayed milk as toxic and unhealthy. Controversies over genetically-engineered cows and questions about antibiotic residue have also prompted consumers to question whether the milk they drink each day is truly good for them. In Nature's Perfect Food Melanie Dupuis illuminates these questions by telling the story of how Americans came to drink milk. We learn how cow's milk, which was associated with bacteria and disease became a staple of the American diet. Along the way we encounter 19th century evangelists who were convinced that cow's milk was the perfect food with divine properties, brewers whose tainted cow feed poisoned the milk supply, and informal wetnursing networks that were destroyed with the onset of urbanization and industrialization. Informative and entertaining, Nature's Perfect Food will be the standard work on the history of milk.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-8542-3
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Part I Consumption

    • 1 Why Milk?
      (pp. 3-16)

      DO WE NEED to drink milk? Could we do without it? Should we? For over a century, American nutrition authorities have heralded milk as “nature’s perfect food,” as “indispensable,” as “the most complete food.” These milk boosters have ranged from consumer activists, to government nutritionists, to the American Dairy Council and its ubiquitous milk mustache ads. This pro-milk ideology has a long history, but is it true?

      Recently, in the newest social movements around food, milk has lost favor. Vegan anti-milk rhetoric, for example, portrays the dairy industry as cruel to animals and milk as bad for humans. Recently, books...

    • 2 The Perfect Food Story
      (pp. 17-45)

      THE VAST MAJORITY of people in the United States today consider milk an indispensable food. For the average American family, a refrigerator without milk is a compelling reason to run right out to the store. Milk remains, despite concerns over fat and cholesterol, a daily centerpiece of American nutrition. The USDA’s food guide pyramid recommends two to three servings of dairy products a day, with the support of such professional groups as the American Dietetic Association. Public personalities—from Bill Clinton to Spike Lee—pose with “milk mustaches” in ubiquitous magazine advertisements.

      The dairy boosterism of the milk mustache ads...

    • 3 Why Not Mother? The Rise of Cow’s Milk as Infant Food in Nineteenth-Century America
      (pp. 46-66)

      GIVEN THE UNHEALTHINESS of the product in the mid-1800s, why did anyone at all, much less vulnerable infants and children, drink cow’s milk? Accounts that celebrate the perfection of “country” milk and the poisonous nature of swill milk tend to ignore another widely available and widely used source of pure milk at that time: the human mother. Hartley’s hundreds of pages linking humanity to milk drinking and animal herding ignore the basic historical fact that the milk drunk most commonly by humans across history and geography has been, in fact, breast milk. Mullaly’s book on the milk trade extols the...

    • 4 The Milk Question: Perfecting Food as Urban Reform
      (pp. 67-89)

      AFTER HARTLEY’S ESSAY, it took four more decades for New York City to develop a country milk system. Even with the opening of new rail lines, 70 percent of New York City’s milk continued to be from swill barns into the 1850s. State and municipal legislation in the 1860s and 1870s sought to prohibit milk adulteration and swill milk production, but with mixed success. In 1856 the Brooklyn Common Council passed the first law regulating the production of milk: an ordinance to restrict the number of cows on city lots. The large distillers quickly subverted the law by having their...

    • 5 Perfect Food, Perfect Bodies
      (pp. 90-122)

      IN THE 1880s, a pictured advertisement began to appear in women’s magazines (fig. 5.1). It was one of the first magazine advertisements to include an image of any sort. The ad shows a small nest of baby birds being fed by their mother. Under the heading “Nestle’s Food” came a number of testimonials and citations from medical books celebrating the product’s ability to successfully feed children, especially those suffering from cholera infantum, the most prevalent, and mortal, commonly milk-borne disease of infants at the time. Though the ad focuses on the treatment of ill children, toward the end it recommends...

  5. Part II Production

    • 6 Perfect Farming: The Industrial Vision of Dairying
      (pp. 125-143)

      IN 1903 THE Rockefeller Foundation carried out a study of dairy sanitation with the New York City Department of Health. The result was a book calledClean Milk.¹ This book laid out a system for the production of milk free of harmful bacterial contamination. The illustrated frontispiece foretold the nature of the system described within. The picture is of a man in a clean white uniform, his head covered with a clean white cap, milking cows in a pristine environment (fig 6.1).

      In contrast, Milton Rosenau’sMilk Questionpresents a graphic illustration of the undesirable “cheap labor” that needed to...

    • 7 The Less Perfect Story: Diversity and Farming Strategies
      (pp. 144-164)

      LOOKING AT CONSUMPTION, part 1 has shown that milk drinking is as much a product of cultural ideas as it is of material needs. It became the perfect food for the creation of perfect bodies. By questioning the idea of perfection, especially the representation of certain forms of food and certain bodies as perfect—that is, universal and complete—we found that the consumption of milk was a creation of social and political relationships. It is only natural, then, when we turn to the rise of the fluid milk production system, to question concepts of perfection here as well.


    • 8 Crisis: The “Border-Line” Problem
      (pp. 165-182)

      ON A JULY MORNING in 1939, a crowd of dairy farmers gathered near the gate of the Sheffield Farms plant in Heuvelton, New York, at that time the largest milk receiving plant in the world.¹ As members of the Dairy Farmers Union, these farmers had voted the night before not to deliver their milk to the plant. They formed a picket line at the plant gate as they tried to convince other farmers arriving with their loads of morning milk not to deliver as well. The strike closed the Heuvelton plant for over a hundred days.

      The Heuvelton plant was...

    • 9 Alternative Visions of Dairying: Productivism and Producerism in New York, Wisconsin, and California
      (pp. 183-209)

      THE “SOCIAL” IN the social embeddedness of markets becomes particularly clear if we focus on the setting of market boundaries—in particular how certain participants are included or excluded from “entry” into particular markets. Comparing New York’s milkshed governance to a very different form of boundary politics in Wisconsin and California will show that these states operated in significantly different political cultures. New York’s policies, based on the consumerist political culture of the industrial bargain, emphasized “productivist” solutions: raising farmer income by raising agricultural productivity. Because the political culture of Wisconsin and California included more powerful agricultural interests and weaker...

    • 10 The End of Perfection
      (pp. 210-240)

      AMERICANS LIVE IN a world filled with milk. Producing 153 billion pounds a year, the United States is “the largest milk-producing country on the planet.”¹ Many of our most popular entertainment, sports, and political figures have appeared wearing the telling milk mustache. Milk promotion money, deducted from farmers’ paychecks and flowing to the dairy councils, saturates us with advertisements. Everywhere we hear the ominous question: Got Milk?

      Yet milk fills our world in another way as well. Once again, this food is at the forefront of an intensive debate about American forms of eating. In part, this is due to...

  6. Afterword
    (pp. 241-244)

    Today, many Americans mourn the loss of life’s diversity and fear the creeping specter of sameness that modern life can bring. In the ultimate downfall story, our future society will be a place where successive generations of designer babies look more and more alike; where we sit in exactly the same position as we work in front of the computer screen; where soybeans, corn, cotton, and other agricultural crops each come from genetically identical seeds and all those genetic varieties now rotting in public seed banks will be gone forever. The only variety will be the vast number of ways...

  7. Notes
    (pp. 245-270)
  8. Bibliography
    (pp. 271-296)
  9. Index
    (pp. 297-309)
  10. About the Author
    (pp. 310-310)