Quart of public opinion

A new book traces the strange cultural journey of milk

By Devra First
June 19, 2011

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Drink your milk. It does a body good. Ice cold milk and an Oreo cookie....In the American household, milk is a nutritious beverage, an indispensable accompaniment to cereal and coffee, a staple that’s always in the fridge. We take it for granted.

Deborah Valenze does not. A historian, Barnard College professor, and Cambridge resident, she is the author of a new book, “Milk: A Local and Global History,” out at the end of the month from Yale University Press. In it, she traces milk’s arc over nearly two millennia, and finds that our household staple has an impressively long and varied past.

Over time, she writes, milk has been viewed as a barbaric product and a magical substance, a food for the poor and a delicacy for the rich, a cause of disease and a cure. Egyptians surrounded the tomb of Osiris with jars of milk; Isis was often depicted nursing a baby pharaoh. In a painting from the 1600s, the Virgin Mary squirts breast milk directly into the mouth of Saint Bernard, endowing him with knowledge.

Milk was suitable for babies certainly, and invalids possibly, but until modern times it wasn’t really even considered a beverage. It wasn’t until after World War I — when deprivation was on everyone’s minds, along with new knowledge about vitamins and nutrition — that milk the beverage became a must, particularly for children.

Our feelings about milk in a larger sense have also changed with the times. Breast-feeding, for instance, has been alternately rejected and embraced for centuries — reminding the wealthy of their animal natures, but also symbolizing the romanticized bond between mother and child. Progressive women in Boston campaigned for milk reform in the early 1900s, aiming to clean up the contaminated supply. Last year, they must have rolled over in their graves when Bostonians rallied on the Common for the right to purchase raw milk, arguing that it offers health benefits and tastes better.

Milk has been a potent historical force, Valenze says. How people view it through time says as much about the viewers as about the substance itself. Valenze spoke with Ideas by phone from London, where she was researching her next project.

IDEAS: What surprised you the most in writing this book?

VALENZE: The product is just laden with what we see in it, rather than what it actually is. I gave up thinking I knew what milk was and approached it in every historical period as a question. How did this era see milk? In each case, milk was like a mirror for the culture’s preoccupations and wishes and dreams.

IDEAS: How was milk used as medicine?

VALENZE: It wasn’t uncommon for physicians to say, “What you need to do now is drink nothing but milk.” It was seen as a cooling substance for overheated bodies. If you’d been indulging in too much alcohol or high living, it was commonly assumed that eating a bland diet and drinking milk would bring you back down to normal.

IDEAS: And yet milk was also a potential cause of illness, due to contamination.

VALENZE: If you were one of the ailing, you would certainly have to pay extra to obtain a pure, wholesome supply from a reputable milk dealer. That’s the privilege that came with someone like Thomas Carlyle, who was reputed to live on milk.

IDEAS: Because he had terrible stomach trouble. But Samuel Pepys appears to have been a fan of milk products on their own merits.

VALENZE: During the Great Fire of London, there he was, digging a hole in his garden and burying a round of Parmesan cheese while London was burning. The servants rushed out of his house, but he took the time to seize this cheese and preserve it.

IDEAS: We think of lactose intolerance as being the exception, but it was once less common to be lactose tolerant.

VALENZE: Far back in time, a widespread tolerance for raw milk was more of a selected trait in the northwest of Europe. And that’s still where you see the tremendous per capita intake of milk. In the early 2000s, Finland was consuming 48 gallons a person annually. We’re pretty far down the list — below the top eight or nine countries [in consumption].

IDEAS: Why does cow’s milk dominate?

VALENZE: That’s modern milk as a commodity. It’s plentiful — the cow is a docile animal, much easier to milk than a goat. And it’s a huge producer of milk. The Holstein, which is nicknamed “the milk machine,” is a great source, if quantity is what you’re after. Many people would say it’s not the tastiest. The fat content is not as high as real milk lovers would like.

IDEAS: But goats were once used instead of wet nurses?

VALENZE: Catholic countries, Italy and France among them, had liberal policies in terms of abandoned children. Mothers had a way of leaving unwanted babies on doorsteps. Goats were lined up in the stalls behind hospitals, where nurses would lift the babies to the teats and enable the babies to suck. It was one way of avoiding what was the fear among populations in the 19th century, which was syphilitic wet nurses.

IDEAS: How did we go from viewing milk as something used mainly for nursing or to combat indigestion to the ubiquitous beverage of today?

VALENZE: Milk really was in the right place at the right time. The identification of vitamins happened right around World War I, when the Western world was in a state of shock and really concerned about the food supply and very concerned about mothers and children. The fact that butterfat played a role in the identification of vitamin A meant milk suddenly had this opportunity to come onstage as something everybody needed.

IDEAS: It sounds as though Massachusetts figured prominently in the fight for a safe milk supply.

VALENZE: It was on the forefront of the campaign to have state law enforce pasteurization. Elizabeth Lowell Putnam, a woman I initially knew nothing about, came to life because she figures in mustering a whole lot of Boston pediatricians, Massachusetts farmers, and really the who’s who in Massachusetts government, and she gets their attention and persuades them that mothers and babies need clean milk.

IDEAS: What do you think about the raw milk issue?

VALENZE: Now milk is often a product of industry and so much a product of advertising and the business interests. It’s hard to know what to believe about milk. I’m not at all critical of people who are seeking the natural product and want to drink raw milk direct from the farmer.

IDEAS: Do you seek it out yourself?

VALENZE: You’re talking to someone who’s never tasted raw milk. I’m lactose sensitive.

IDEAS: You’re kidding. Does the author of “Milk” drink Rice Dream?

VALENZE: Sometimes I buy Lactaid.

Devra First is the restaurant critic for the Globe. E-mail