May 08, 2018

Mark Kurlansky

The stuff of life
Interview by
Mark Kurlansky dives into the surprising history of dairy in his latest book, Milk! Rich in facts, this book offers everything from recipes to the science behind the raw milk movement. Here, Kurlansky tells us about his favorite cheese, the wonders of milking machines and cow flatulence. 
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Mark Kurlansky dives into the surprising history of dairy in his latest book, Milk! Rich in facts, this book offers everything from recipes to the science behind the raw milk movement. Here, Kurlansky (PaperCod, Salt) tells us about his favorite cheese, the wonders of milking machines and cow flatulence. 

Milk! is your 20th published book of nonfiction, not to mention your novels and children’s books. What’s the secret sauce for being so prolific?
My father was a dentist. He walked to his office five days a week and sometimes more, first thing in the morning, and put in about 10-12 hours a day. That’s how he put us through school, and that is how I have put my daughter through school as well.

What surprised you most from your research about milk?
How many controversies there have always been, why it was the first food tested in a laboratory and the most regulated food in the world.

Aside from creamed potato leek soup, what are your favorite recipes in the book?
Coupe aux marrons, my favorite ice cream dessert. It is a simple recipe. I use that of Henri Charpentier, a popular chef back when coupe au marrons were. It takes some skill to candy chestnuts, but you can just boil them. Also Indian pudding, which reminds me of my childhood in New England; Pellegrino Artusi’s wonderful caffè latte gelato; Indian paneer Makhani; and Escoffier’s sole normande. Of course, nobody eats like that anymore, but maybe they should occasionally.

What’s your favorite cheese and why?
Nouveau Roquefort, made in the winter and sold in the spring, because it is both strong and subtle. Epoisses in the fall, because it is creamy and complex. And I love the real Basque sheep cheese, the strong ones made high on the mountaintop. You have to go there to get it. In the U.S. you get a sad imitation.

What’s the most unusual type of milk you’ve drunk? Have you tried donkey’s milk?
I have never tried donkey milk. I have tried camel milk in Dubai. It has a distinct flavor a bit like goat. But it makes fantastic ice cream in flavors such as date or saffron. Saffron camel milk ice cream is not only beautiful—that bright orange color with threads of red saffron—but one of the great taste thrills of the Arab world.

Where do you stand on the raw-versus-pasteurized milk argument?
This is a public health argument. It’s like salt. It is not true that large amounts of salt are harmful to everyone. It is to some people, and the complexity of the issue does not lend itself to public administration, so they just tell everyone to eat less salt. No harm in that.

Well-supervised raw milk is perfectly healthy. In fact it may be more healthy. It tastes better, also. But it is a logistical nightmare to supervise it. And a lot of people used to die from badly supervised raw milk. So the safest thing is to say that it should all be pasteurized. Too bad, really. If they at least wouldn't homogenize it, that would be good. There is absolutely no question that the best cheese is made from raw milk.

What farm visit was the most revelatory to you? Why?
Farms, like fisheries, have their own story to tell, and that story comes with many lessons. It’s hard to single one out. Certainly the most striking was the nomadic yak herdsmen of northern Tibet, still hand-milking in the field at altitudes almost too high to breathe, except for the yaks who like that thin air. The most fun I had was at my friend Brad Kessler’s Vermont goat farm. Young goats are just a lot of fun.

What was the most significant technological advance in the history of milk?
I think it was the milking machine. It did not come along until late in the Industrial Revolution because all cows are different, and even the teats on the same cow have significant differences. But once it was figured out, you could milk them by the thousands, and that was the end of the small family dairy farm.

Hmm. Cattle flatulence and green house gasses? Tell me more.
Well, it seems cows fart such gasses as methane. Not a big deal on the 100-cow farm. But when you have a few thousand farting together, that impacts the climate. The neighbors start complaining, also.

If you were to recommend one book from your extensive bibliography, what would that be?
They are all worth looking at, from the history of breastfeeding and ancient history to the many food books to mid-19th-century diatribes against raw milk. Check them out.

Author photo by Sylvia Plachy

Get the Book

Milk!

Milk!

By Mark Kurlansky
Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781632863829

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