Milk—it's our first food. But that's about as exciting as it gets. A gallon of supermarket milk is bland and faceless. What's on the shelf in Duluth is no different than what's on one in Dallas.
That could be changing. As a new emphasis on locally produced food gains ground across the country, consumers are considering where their milk comes from, the environmental impact of transporting it, and its intrinsic health benefits. U.S. News asked food historian Anne Mendelson, author of Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages (Knopf, $29.95), to share her thoughts on the milk's emerging role in the local food movement. Edited excerpts:
How does milk from supermarket differ from milk straight from the cow?
It's night and day. Supermarket milk is highly manipulated and engineered. It's pasteurized, or heated to about 161 degrees for about 15 seconds, which destroys the bacteria that cause foodborne illness, along with some of the flavor of milk. Pasteurization by this method gives it a fairly long shelf life. [Milk is also] homogenized to smash all the fat globules and make it uniform and smooth, while wiping out all the thick, lovely cream that floats to the top. Then that milk travels a long way, often thousands of miles, to get to us.
The milk that is closest to the real thing, straight from the cow, comes from small artisanal dairies. Unlike large dairies, these farmers use simpler processing methods that don't alter milk as drastically. It's pasteurized, but in small batches at a lower temperature—145 degrees, for 30 minutes—which preserves the flavor. It's very fresh and usually not homogenized. It's often sold as "creamline milk" and is distributed locally at farmer's markets and specialty stores. You can shake it up and blend it into the milk. When you drink it, you can taste the contrast of the cream with the leanness of the milk. The milk is not going to be as uniform as supermarket milk. The flavor and color will vary. It varies with the seasons and what the cows are eating, but you can really taste the freshness, which is hard to describe. The milk is less featureless, but the price is going to be higher.
How and why is demand growing for local ly produced milk?
Statistics are hard to come by. But there has been a definite increase in small dairies. They are springing up in many parts of the country from the Northeast to the Midwest and Pacific Coast—little Davids going after Goliath. At the same time, more people are becoming aware that there is something weird about getting such a super-perishable food as milk from dairies 1,000 and 3,000 miles away from their own kitchen. If it's ridiculous to buy tomatoes from more than 3,000 miles away, it's even more ridiculous to buy milk—something that demands freshness and is naturally perishable—from dairies so far away. There's also a yearning to get back the connection to the animal that has been lost.
For those concerned about conserving energy, buying milk from small local dairies makes environmental sense. It cuts back on the energy needed for refrigerated transport over those miles, for making the aseptic packaging, and for the manipulation that milk undergoes at the processing plant, where it is basically centrifuged and homogenized. Finally, the ultra-pasteurization process demands tremendous amounts of energy.
Is the raw milk movement, which opposes pasteurizing milk, attracting the same amount of consumer interest?
Hard to know. The raw milk sales very often are underground or off the books. There are reasons for that. Every state essentially has its own laws. You have a terrible jumble of different laws. These laws seriously restrict or prohibit sales of raw milk for human consumption. In New York, it is sold only on the farm. The federal pasteurized milk ordinance prohibits transporting raw milk across state lines for purposes of retail sale. In some states, there are hush-hush cow-sharing programs. The cow-sharing idea is meant to sidestep state and federal laws. They create a fiction that this transaction is not a retail sale. It's an arrangement among partners with a share in an enterprise. These dodges are legal, but they come under great suspicion by enforcement authorities.
Why does organic milk in the supermarket have a longer shelf-life?
Most of the organic milk on the store shelves is ultra-pasteurized. Keep in mind, organic doesn't imply milk came from a contented cow in a pasture or was treated with tender loving care. It just relates to what the animal was fed. That's not necessarily grass and hay. Probably it includes organic soybeans and corn.
What surprises you about milk?
It always amazes me that this one substance that looks so simple is so miraculously designed for many transformations into different things: butter, yogurt, cheese. As other cultures from India to the Middle East bring their dairy traditions here, it's exciting to see milk from animals other than cows—goats, sheep, even water buffalo—increasingly becoming part of our culinary traditions.
Pass the milk and cookies, please.