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Six decades ago, Pedro Cuatrecasas, a fledgling resident at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, was studying the lives of impoverished residents of Baltimore when he noticed an unsettling trend. In interviews, a number of his Black patients would confess that they found milk repellent. The consistency of their laments alarmed Cuatrecasas. He suspected, after some digging, that they suffered from lactase deficiency, a condition that precludes one’s body from digesting fluid milk. Cuatrecasas corralled two of his colleagues to conduct a study that would measure the different responses Black and white subjects had to lactose, and the findings confirmed Cuatrecasas’s hunch: the majority of Black patients had trouble processing lactose, whereas the problem was far less pronounced within white test subjects. These Black patients even told Cuatrecasas that they often avoided milk altogether, for fear of the pain it would exact upon their bodies.

The findings of this study—published in the respected British medical journal The Lancet, in January, 1965—were monumental. Here was concrete evidence that the ability to digest lactose might be a genetic condition linked to one’s racial background. More studies over the following decades would draw similar conclusions about the difficulties that other communities of color—Native Americans, Asians—faced when trying to digest unfermented milk. A damning consensus began to form: the long-held belief that humans can drink fresh milk into adulthood applied almost exclusively to white patients with ancestral roots in northwest Europe. What this indicated, in plain terms, is that most people around the world probably couldn’t drink fresh milk without encountering some kind of physical anguish. One might naïvely imagine that this type of data would have prompted a wholesale reëvaluation of drinking milk’s supremacy in American diets. But this was not the case. Despite the consensus of these studies, little changed. Milk retained its pristine reputation as a bone-fortifying nutritional bulwark in the United States and beyond, thanks to such culprits as public-health officials, the dairy industry, and the American government.

The culinary historian Anne Mendelson relays this episode with slack-jawed befuddlement, and a dose of mild rage, in her latest book, “Spoiled: The Myth of Milk as Superfood” (Columbia University Press, 2023). As the subtitle intimates, this effort aims to question and dismantle the fallacy that what Mendelson refers to as “drinking-milk”—unfermented milk from an animal that does not undergo any alteration to become yogurt or cheese—is a nutritional necessity. She isn’t even convinced that those who are able to keep down milk really need it for their constitution, hazarding that medical authorities have overexaggerated its protein and calcium benefits. Humans certainly don’t require it to survive in the same way they do water, she reminds her readers. That fresh milk has been foisted upon so many Americans in the name of well-being strikes Mendelson as a grave injustice. To start, it has inconvenienced those in the country who, once they are weaned off their mothers’ breast milk, realize that their bodies aren’t wired to withstand unfermented milk; their experiences don’t correspond with prevailing societal logic about milk’s alleged magic.

Histories of this nature are Mendelson’s métier: her past output has included “Stand Facing the Stove” (Henry Holt, 1996), a joint biography of the mother-daughter duo behind the beloved American cooking tome “Joy of Cooking,” and “Chow Chop Suey” (Columbia University Press, 2016), which chronicles the proliferation of Chinese cooking in the United States. She has also fused her historical inquiry with recipe writing, most notably in “Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages” (Knopf, 2008), an encomium to the titular ingredient that cruises through its history before exploring its many possible forms, whether clotted cream or paneer.

The existence of “Milk” may make “Spoiled” seem like an abrupt reversal for Mendelson. But this latest book is not so much an excoriation of fresh milk as it is a provocation, one that urges readers to question fresh milk’s hegemonic grip over the American mind. Though Mendelson admits that she is not the first to tread this ground—she is openly working within the scholarly tradition of such predecessors as Andrea S. Wiley’s ​​“Re-imagining Milk” (Routledge, 2010), Deborah Valenze’s “Milk” (Yale University Press, 2011), and Mark Kurlansky’s “Milk!” (Bloomsbury, 2018)—she positions her book as sui generis. “No previous history of drinking-milk as a major modern industry has examined the ramifications of what is now known about lactase persistence or nonpersistence—often popularly called lactose tolerance or intolerance—in either the remote past or the present,” she writes.

​The moment feels ripe for an undertaking as ambitious as Mendelson’s. For Americans of a certain age, “Got Milk?” advertisements, featuring celebrities whose upper lips bore pasty milk mustaches, were abiding presences on television or in magazines, propagating the belief that milk was a nonpareil elixir of calcium. Even still, Americans were routinely assailed with a dizzying catalogue of fresh-milk variants in coffee shops and grocery stores: whole, reduced fat, low fat, skim. The very definition of “milk” has only recently become a site of semantic litigation, as plant-based alternatives to dairy—made from almonds or oats, pistachios or potatoes—sprout on supermarket shelves, offering accommodations to lactose-intolerant consumers. The past few years have likewise brought increasing cultural awareness that the American dairy industry, in its current formulation, is sustainable for few: farmers struggle to turn a profit, increasingly contending with depression, even suicide. Cows themselves suffer maltreatment, pressured to bear the highest possible yield. Americans who drink milk may receive a product that scarcely resembles what emerged from the animal; those who can’t tolerate milk might be left to tend to their own discomfort, resorting to Lactaid pills to ease their irritations. This makes a project like Mendelson’s unquestionably well timed, the premise she teases in her opening pages intriguing: How did a practice as absurd as drinking milk become such a sworn article of faith in the United States and beyond?

What follows are three hundred pages dense with scrupulous research, amounting to a largely persuasive attempt on Mendelson’s part to engage the layperson in sharing her anger at this state of affairs. Mendelson whizzes through centuries of history as she charts the gradual spread of “dairying,” from its origins in the prehistoric Near East and Western Asia, where milk carried associations with goddesses, to its prevalence in northern Europe. Settlers to that area developed a genetic attribute that allowed them to digest fresh milk as adults somewhere along their journey from the Fertile Crescent. (Mendelson triangulates that this may have happened between 5,500 B.C. and 2,300 B.C.) That very trait spread through the population of northern Europe. Thousands of years later, Britain, one of the stations where this genetic quirk was especially prominent, would become a dominant global power, colonizing diffuse corners of the world while it, along with the United States later on, developed the influence to govern scientific dogma internationally.

This set of conditions thus made it easier for milk drinking to become the worldwide phenomenon it is today. It was around the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that medical authorities codified the misguided principle that all humans, regardless of racial provenance, could digest unfermented drinking milk without issue. After the Second World War, medical experts from former imperial countries sought to “modernize” the diets of once colonized territories, whose people trustingly accepted myopic medical advice about milk’s palliative qualities.

Mendelson’s avalanche of facts may make one’s head spin in these early chapters, but the scope of her research is impressive. What lightens the mood is the cast of characters she assembles as she approaches modern times, when fresh milk becomes a mark of status and an often unquestioned beacon of health. As she traces the rise of fresh milk in northern Europe from the sixteenth century onward, her account begins to sparkle, with milk acquiring the cachet of an aspirational social symbol in England and France: “ornamental dairies” and “pleasure dairies” became common in the English countryside for well-off families to enjoy the spoils of a herd and its laborers; Marie Antoinette was among the royals who established dairies, replete with maids and palatial furnishing, during her reign in the eighteenth century.

It was in this period, Mendelson observes, that the mistaken and unceasing faith in a particular maxim—that drinking milk was the way for both children and adults to lead healthy lives—found greater momentum. What helped it gain such sway was the presence of personalities who evangelized fresh milk for its supposedly curative properties. Among the more vivid of Mendelson’s character sketches is Dr. George Cheyne, an architect of what some might today refer to as a celebrity diet in eighteenth-century England. Cheyne touted, to use present-day parlance, a lacto-vegetarian regimen of drinking copious amounts of milk along with eating seeds and vegetables to allay psychological or physical distress. He goaded patients to purify their bodies with milk as if it possessed the restorative features of water. In fact, this milk-heavy diet made some of his patients sicker, saddling them with stomach cramps, colicky pain, and other unmentionables. This particular celebrity diet would fall out of vogue following Cheyne’s death, but its popularity spoke to the prejudices of the times. Cheyne’s proselytizing of fresh milk depended on a perception so many around him had of milk’s lightness—lightness of color, of texture, of taste—and, by extension, its desirability.

The centuries that followed brought growing awareness that raw milk could become a honeypot for pathogens under improper conditions, thus necessitating sterilization. Pasteurization gained more champions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The German-born Nathan Straus, an avatar of this era, cuts a memorably hubristic figure in Mendelson’s rendering. A co-owner of the lavish department store Macy’s, Straus became America’s chief cheerleader for pasteurized milk, advocating for its spread around the country in the hopes of preserving the health of children who’d been encumbered with illnesses brought on by spoiled raw milk. His solution was to encourage the consumption of pasteurized milk, which he often offered in milk depots he operated around New York City. He would make unabashed appeals to the sentiment during his crusades to provide American children (particularly poorer ones) with this miracle product. “I am asking for nothing for myself, but I do ask, for the defenseless babies, that they be shielded from the milk that kills,” he once proclaimed. In Mendelson’s etching, Straus emerges as a three-dimensional figure whose trust in his own benevolence may have had disastrous consequences for the diets of Americans, peddling a distorted belief that milk is a ticket to a child’s long-term health. His protective stance toward young Americans was the forerunner to later anxieties about the height and weight of the country’s schoolchildren, anxieties that eventually led to the National School Lunch Act of 1946 and made milk cartons omnipresent in public-school cafeterias.

Mendelson is at her best when she winnows her attention to focus on these charismatic personalities such as Cheyne and Straus; through these granular human portraits, the over-all thrust of her argument—that a series of human errors, rooted as often in sincere intentions as in arrogance, is partially what’s to blame for the dominance of drinking milk—becomes especially lucid. In both “Stand Facing the Stove” and “Chow Chop Suey,” Mendelson demonstrated an impressive ability to anchor any big-picture observations about food history in minute studies of such characters. “Spoiled” sometimes forces her into a different register, and there are stretches of this book in which colorful personalities can feel in short supply. Two successive chapters discussing technological developments—aimed at animals, like the kinds that turned cows into machines of secretion, and also those aimed at the product of milk itself, like homogenization or refrigeration—make for a tougher sit despite the rigorous research that buttresses them. Nor is Mendelson immune to the usual traps of academic writing. This book teems with the sort of throat-clearing that is endemic to the genre: “This chapter will examine,” she writes more than once, with buttoned-up seriousness (variations of this phrase, like “this chapter explores” and “this chapter will discuss,” appear as well), as if to forewarn her readers to brace themselves for the lecture lying in wait.

Early in “Spoiled,” Mendelson labels her book polemical, which may strike some as a false promise. She is too diplomatic, her writing tinged with too even-keeled a spirit of generosity as her argument develops, for her book to register as such. Mendelson does not propose knocking fresh milk from its lofty perch and discarding it in the years to come. Rather, she seeks to gently put it on a level playing field with its alternatives. She mentions in passing how plant-based milks have shifted the landscape for American consumers, but she is more interested in products that have yet to gain broad awareness in the United States. She gestures, with great hope, toward the changing demographics of this country, noting how the nation’s increasing diversity and the wealth of culinary traditions brought on by immigration might expose cooks and eaters to a vast array of dairy treatments beyond fresh milk. She extols, for example, the virtues of ititu, a smoked milk from southern Ethiopia, and the cheese gioddu, of Sardinia, derived from goats and sheep. She foresees that the United States will inch closer to becoming a multiracial nation in the years to come, thereby making the lactose intolerant among us a majority population rather than the sorry victims of genetic circumstance. It’s easier, Mendelson argues, to accept this reality by opening one’s mind to the culinary possibilities of dairy beyond American shores. Milk, the world has long understood, can be a source of gastronomic pleasure for many, not just a few. ♦

Source : The Newyorker April 19th 2023 by Mayukh Sen

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