Milk. Our first food. If mother nature were a bartender (and if babies went to bars) she’d be serving up a specialty cocktail for each and every one of us mammals on the planet. Fun milk fact: cow, goat, and human milk all have about 4% fat, whereas that of a fin whale has up to 42% fat! Milk is an inexhaustible subject; even the science community has only gotten to the tip of the iceberg. But in quick Monday morning fashion, I’m going to try to give you the five minute version of milk and crazy humanity’s history with it.
All of us humans are reared on milk. It’s not only our first food, but it’s the way we get our first immunity, as well as countless other nutrients when we’re just little helpless things. Harold McGee, in his fantastic book, ‘On Food and Cooking’ also points out that milk gives our brains a chance to develop to a size that wouldn’t be possible inside the womb, one of our most unique traits as humans.
Nobody knows quite when man first decided to try and get in on the act and use the milk of other animals. But some enterprising guy or gal got it into their over-sized cranium that they could harvest the milk of other animals and use it for food. Dairying was invented in the arid plains where modern day Iran is located, a place where semi-nomadic people thrived back around 10,000 BC. It all began with goats and sheep, as cows were too huge and scary to try and subdue into having humans manhandle their nether regions.
Dairying turned out to be pretty dang practical, as a dairy goat or sheep provided a family with sustenance for the better part of a year, whereas an animal killed for meat was obviously a one time deal. Dairy animals are also ruminants, meaning that through their fancy, fermenting, four-chambered stomachs, they could convert grass (something not digestible by humans) into milk, a tasty and multifaceted end product!
For most of human history, foods made from milk were mostly fermented. This was due to the fact that in the hot desert, it was nigh impossible to keep the milk cool and fresh, and also that most humans lose their ability to digest fluid milk after being weaned themselves. It was a genetic mutation in northern European peoples that allowed them to consume fresh fluid milk into adulthood, a legacy that many of us share to this day!
From Scandanavia to India, milk has played a vital role in countless rites, rituals, and religions throughout the ages. Kosher law prohibits the consumption of meat and dairy in the same meal. Not only was this a good precautionary health measure in ancient times, it also rationed the amount of rich foods being consumed in the same meal. In a Hindu creation myth, it is stated that the world began as a primoridial sea of milk, from which a great many gifts of the world were churned. When Job speaks to God in the Bible, he asks, ‘Hast thou not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese?’ At the risk of being called too dairy-centric, I’d venture to say that milk seems to be the balm that unites us all.
Tune in to this week’s episode of Cutting the Curd for more tantalizing dairy facts and history!
‘Till next week, drink your milk, eat cheese, and be merry!