Wednesday, May 9, 2018


By Mark Kurlansky

Bloomsbury     2018
366 pages     Nonfiction
The Shortlist

Remember the advertising campaign, “Milk. It does a body good.” from the 80s and 90s? Or the campaign “Got Milk” where celebrities had milk mustaches? Everything milk is covered in Kurlansky’s newest study of a single food topic and its place in the cultures around the world.

Wow! Who knew that so much fascinating information could be written about such a commonplace topic as milk. Of course, I have navigated the topic in many settings over my last 75 years—from my own birth and childhood, to the birth and childhoods of my children, and on and on. I had a boyfriend once whose father had a dairy farm; a niece whose in-laws have a large organic dairy farm, and I have a lactose intolerant grandson. That was the extent of my knowledge until a review copy of Milk! arrived at my doorstep.

Here is a brief synopsis of the book. “Before the industrial revolution, it was common for families to keep dairy cows and produce their own milk. But during the 19th century, mass production and urbanization made milk safety a leading issue of the day, with milk-borne illnesses a common cause of death. Pasteurization slowly became a legislative matter. And today milk is a test case in the most pressing issues in food politics, from industrial farming and animal rights to GMOs, the locavore movement, and advocates for raw milk, who controversially reject pasteurization. Tracing the liquid's diverse history from antiquity to the present, historian Mark Kurlansky details its curious and crucial role in cultural evolution, religion, nutrition, politics and economics.

One of the most interesting set of facts to me was the biological and cultural aspect of using milk. Kurlansky says that just like most mammals, humans are not genetically engineered to drink milk after the age of two. Also milk consumption tends to be cultural among tribes and peoples. I didn’t know that.

Kurlansky is a prolific author on many topics, and his research skills are in full evidence in Milk! A mind-blowing number of issues regarding milk are presented along with a 10,000 year history of the product and all the politics connected with production and distribution. Also ice cream and cheese! Numerous recipes (most of them traditional) intersperse the text adding to the delight in the reading.

I am absolutely entranced with Kurlansky’s choice of topics and his research. It’s like he is eaten up by curiosity about paper, or cod, or salt, or Havana, Gloucester, or 1968, and he goes on a research spree leading to a marvelous book. What amazing literary freedom!

The reviewer in the Wall Street Journal calls Milk! “a complex and rich survey” and “a book well-worth nursing.” By the way, the book was released yesterday, May 8. Great summer reading!

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