Full o’ th’ Milk of Human Kindness?


I used to drink a lot of milk when I was a child. It was 1950ies Winnipeg and milk was still delivered to the house in those clear glass bottles with the little bulge on top to hold the supernatant cream. I never much cared for the cream, but my mother always found a use for it. Anyway, most of my fascination was with the delivery system. If I stretch my memory to the earliest days, I can still hear the clip-clop of the horses hooves, and the tinkling of the bottles as the milk wagon rolled slowly down the street, stopping every few hundred feet to make a delivery and carry away the empties we each left on the front steps.

Looking back, it seems a magical time. A time when parents were told that milk was needed for healthy bones, and felt obliged to insist on its consumption at every meal if they could afford it. I didn’t know there was any controversy then. I had no idea that not everybody felt that way -and there really wasn’t any reason to think otherwise, I suppose. Not then, at any rate…

But more recent advances in historical techniques, and evolutionary genetic studies able to find and interpret DNA from far away civilizations in varying times, are allowing us to understand the cultural differences I could never have suspected in my halcyon years.

I happened across an article in an NPR section called ‘the Salt’ which delved into the issue: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/12/27/168144785/an-evolutionary-whodunit-how-did-humans-develop-lactose-tolerance

‘Most babies can digest milk without getting an upset stomach thanks to an enzyme called lactase. Up until several thousand years ago, that enzyme turned off once a person grew into adulthood — meaning most adults were lactose intolerant (or “lactase nonpersistent,” as scientists call it).’ And, it would seem that ancient European farmers ‘[…] lacked a genetic mutation that would have allowed them to digest raw milk’s dominant sugar, lactose, after childhood. Today, however, 35 percent of the global population — mostly people with European ancestry — can digest lactose in adulthood without a hitch.’

Those groups who became lactose tolerant (over the last 20,000 years) seem to be mainly people of Northern and Central European descent and from certain African and Middle Eastern populations. Also, many other societies were able to tolerate at least some milk by processing it into cheese, butter, or yogurt which removes some of the lactose.

And as I discovered in another article discussing a new book Milk, by Mark Kurlansky (see below) ‘[…] milk was a vital symbol in the mythology of the Sumerians, Greeks and Egyptians. The Fulani of West Africa believed that the world started with a single drop of milk, and in Norse legend, a cow made from thawing frost sustained the world in its earliest days.’

There were some differences between cultures, however, perhaps related to much earlier experiences with lactose intolerance. ‘[…] even with these deep cultural connections, milk held a peculiar status among early civilizations. The Greeks castigated barbarians for their gluttonous desire for dairy, and in Rome, milk was widely regarded as low-status food because it was something only farmers drank. Northern Europeans would earn similar ridicule for their love of reindeer milk, and Japanese Buddhists later rebuked Europeans as “butter stinkers.”’

Much has been written about milk over the years, but perhaps the most worrisome recent chapter in its history concerned the fact that it ‘spoiled’ easily and rapidly. Reliable refrigeration was not available in the early days, nor -at least in the cities- were the cows often kept in hygienic conditions. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/surprisingly-intolerant-history-milk-180969056 Milk is an ideal medium for the growth of many types of bacteria, and so it was a huge risk for the population to whom it was fed -largely children.

In France, in the 1860ies, Louis Pasteur pioneered the heating of milk to high temperatures to kill pathogenic bacteria, but ‘pasteurization proved a tough sell in the United States […]. There was little doubt that the process improved milk safety by eliminating the diseases that led to so many deaths, but consumers complained that pasteurized milk was flavorless. Some officials, including Harvey Wiley, then the director of the U.S. Bureau of Chemicals also argued that pasteurized milk lost its nutritional qualities.’

These arguments persisted despite the invention of homogenization of milk in 1899 by Auguste Gaulin. It was a way of breaking down the fat molecules in milk so they wouldn’t separate out -so you didn’t need that little glass bulge on the top of the milk bottles in other words. It is an entirely separate and different procedure than pasteurization, of course -and added yet another cost.

Then, in 1908, the U.S. Surgeon General under president Theodore Roosevelt, ‘released a 600-page report that attributed most childhood deaths to impure milk and argued that pasteurization was the best way to address the ongoing public health crisis.’ But, in the face of continuing public suspicions about cost, flavour, and even attributions of other maladies such as rickets and scurvy to the process, a more or less universal adoption of pasteurization in the U.S.A. was slow. And, ‘The discussion around how to best prepare milk even continues today, evinced in the growth of the GMO-free products and the resurgence of artisanal industries and local dairies.’

Me? I miss the horses most. And the sound of the gently clinking bottles, as distinctive then as the melody of those little ice cream trucks that still drive around some neighbourhoods even now. It’s a shame that none of this exists in the memory banks of most people nowadays. Like the language of many of our indigenous predecessors, or the receding northern glaciers, it should be enshrined somewhere. Saved. Celebrated.

Yes, I know things keep moving forward -I suppose it’s what happens with Time- and yet am I alone in wishing that it could move sideways for a bit? Not forever, mind you -that’s a long, long time- but perhaps it could just slow down a little. Linger in a quieter space, when it was still possible to hear the snuffling of the horse’s breath, and the quiet hiss of the milkman’s curse as he tripped over the bike I’d left beside the sidewalk in my rush to wash my hands in time for breakfast…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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