STARRED REVIEW
May 2018

The whole history of milk

By Mark Kurlansky

Have you ever tried donkey’s milk? Probably not. But according to Mark Kurlansky’s fact-rich Milk!, donkey’s milk is probably closest in consistency and composition to human breast milk. How cows came to predominate our consumption of milk is just one of the many thumbnail histories Kurlansky packs into his fascinating new book.

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Have you ever tried donkey’s milk? Probably not. But according to Mark Kurlansky’s fact-rich Milk!, donkey’s milk is probably closest in consistency and composition to human breast milk. How cows came to predominate our consumption of milk is just one of the many thumbnail histories Kurlansky packs into his fascinating new book.

India is now the world’s largest milk producer, not just because of the sacred cow but also because Indians process and consume milk from water buffalo. And would you believe that China, long thought to be a country of lactose-intolerant people, is the number three producer of milk?

Only about 40 percent of humans can digest milk as adults. For the rest, Kurlansky explains, after weaning, a gene shuts down the ability to process milk. “In truth, the aberrant condition is being able to drink milk,” he writes. But then there is cheese, which for most humans escapes genetic determinism. There is also butter, yogurt and “everyone’s favorite milk,” ice cream, all described vividly here.

Kurlansky divides his book into three parts. The first is a history of the domestication of milk and its byproducts. That narrative flows down many byways. Did you know that French butter makes better pastry than American butter because it contains more fat and less water? Part two is about health safety issues regarding milk—think pasteurization and refrigeration—as production moved from milkmaids to milk machines. And part three is a contemporary world tour of milk production and its unusual products—butter artists in Tibet, for example, or isolated cheese makers in Greece.

Every chapter of Milk! entrances with I-did-not-know-that facts and observations. The book also includes 126 milk-based recipes that Kurlansky thinks are tastiest. His own childhood favorite? Creamed potato leek soup, or vichyssoise.

Early in the book, Kurlansky says that milk is “the most argued-over food in human history.” A skeptical reader will wonder, but in the end, they will likely be convinced of this statement’s truth.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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Milk!

Milk!

By Mark Kurlansky
Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781632863829

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