Serious Reads: Milk, by Deborah Valenze

20110811-milkcover.jpgSingle-commodity histories are pretty commonplace these days. From salt to tomatoes to honey, it seems that every food item in the grocery store has a special story. In my time, I've read quite a few histories of milk—okay, maybe just two or three, but that still feels like a lot of pages dedicated to an everyday cereal enhancer. But historian Deborah Valenze makes a good case for yet another milk history with her new book Milk: A Local and Global History.

Valenze is a true historian, spending much of the book telling engaging stories about how milk came to play such a large role in Western society. She takes the reader back to the Middle Ages, when milk was first becoming a popular beverage and cheese was entering the trade market. She uses popular artwork of the 1700s and 1800s to demonstrate changing opinions and tastes related to cow products. And she references letters and diaries of everyone from nobles to farmers who had opinions about the nutritional value of milk.

She focuses on where and why populations gained a taste for milk, even though it was often unsanitary and caused serious illness. The practice of feeding babies cow milk rather than mothers' milk was adopted long before the safety of this method was confirmed—and indeed, many children lost their lives to the lower nutritional quality and higher bacterial growth of cow milk.

Yet despite the health dangers, cows remained a popular livestock choice, particularly in North America when new settlers used the hearty animals as currency and a long-term source of calories. By the 1800s, new technology allowed for powdered and evaporated milk, creating even more demand for farmers to produce milk year-round. At the turn of the century, science began demonstrating to reluctant populations the importance of milk consumption (though without much in the way of convincing evidence). Even chocolate gained traction as a tasty treat largely because of its high milk content.

Valenze doesn't spend much time discussing issues of modern milk consumption, such as raw milk politics, bovine growth hormone, or the environmental impact of industrial dairies. She notes in her introduction that her perspective is strictly as a historian, and that she values telling the story of milk's rise to success more than engaging in the debates of today. For this, I was perfectly glad; she does a lovely job exploring the cultural and social forces that propelled milk to the forefront of Western diets. I may think of milk as just an everyday drink, but Valenze details the centuries of history that had to happen so that milk could become a fridge staple.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly magazine.