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Your mother made you drink three glasses each day. There’s probably a carton in your fridge right now. And, as Anne Mendelson likes to remind us, it was every mammal's first food.

But even though milk is a staple of Americans’ everyday lives, most of us know virtually nothing about it—where it originated, how it’s being produced, or how unique our milk-guzzling tendencies are. In her James Beard-nominated book, Milk: The Surprising History Of Milk Through The Ages, Anne Mendelson sets out to educate us. Sweeping through the human history of dairy and the advent of modern milk production, before diving into recipes for everything from New England clam chowder to Indian panir cheese, Mendelson pens “the culinary guidebook, dairy-chemistry-for-cooks primer, and eclectic recipe collection” that she “always vainly wished somebody had written.”

Milk

The Surprising History Of Milk Through The Ages
Author: Anne Mendelson
Get It: Hardcover on Amazon.com

The result is a somewhat scattered, if thematically coherent look at milk in all its culinary and cultural incarnations. While most Americans think of milk primarily as a beverage or cereal topping, Mendelson wants to show us how unusual our reliance on unsoured milk is. Humans are the only creatures to extract and drink another animal’s milk. Northwestern Europeans, and, through colonial extension, Americans are among the few to drink great quantities of fresh milk, rather than naturally soured; fresh milk is far more difficult to preserve (and, with its unbroken lactose, digest). And twentieth-century Americans, spurred by industrial advancements and widespread demand, were the first to transform milk into the vitamin-enriched, de-fatted, texturally uniform drink we know today.

What’s wrong with this picture? According to Mendelson, our grocery stores keep Americans from appreciating the beauty of truly fresh milk or the variety of milk products in the rest of the world—the curdled cheeses of India, Polish buttermilk soups, or the yogurts of “Yogurtistan” (her favored shorthand for much of India and the Middle East).

Her three-pronged thesis: Dairy is diverse. Twentieth-century Americans have simplified, modified, and techonologized milk beyond recognition. But our twenty-first century openness to other culinary traditions may yet show us the way.

Her recipes and kitchen experiments aim to acquaint Americans with other forms of dairy. They rely, however, almost exclusively on unhomogenized milk. Most supermarket milk is pasteurized and homogenized, and Mendelson clearly sees the latter as the greater of the two evils. The process pulverizes fat particles so that they distribute uniformly, and can be extracted and mixed back into the liquid in any amount. Homogenized milk no longer naturally separates, rendering our skim, 2%, and “whole” milk less fit for experimentation. As a result, many of her recipes are hard to recreate, without an often frustrating search for unhomogenized dairy. But that, I suppose, is part of her point.

At times, Mendelson slips too easily into the role of the wide-eyed anthropologist, full of love and admiration, it seems, for everything but the American present—rhapsodizing about the farmstead dairy of yore, praising the “lovely” culinary delights of Lebanon and India, and hailing recent immigrants as the saviors of American dairy. Her laments about the plight of unenlightened American milk drinkers can grow a bit wearisome. As anyone who gave up watery Yogplait for thick, creamy Fage can attest, however, she has a point.

Though many of her recipes look excellent—a Gujarati corn pudding, Turkish poached eggs in yogurt sauce—they seem a rather loosely chosen collection, unified only by their incorporation of dairy. Mendelson is at her best with the most basic recipes: homemade buttermilk, cream cheese, yogurt, butter, crème fraiche. Rather than intimidate, her jarringly simple instructions make one want to rush out, bring home a few gallons of fresh milk, and play like a third-grader with a chemistry set. And watching milk set into yogurt, using little more than one’s own stovetop, drives home the latent possibilities of dairy better than anything else could.

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