Saturday, March 7, 2009
This is a picture of me with some of the happiest cows in the whole wide world. These, you see, are Swiss dairy cows just outside the village of Murren, Switzerland. They wear big, friendly bells around their necks and spend their days munching on the alpine clover while watching the weary, sunburned hikers go by. They do all this, of course, on perilously steep mountain slopes at an altitude of 5,577 feet. But they don’t mind the heights a bit. And my smile is so big in this picture because I’m about to have a glass of the very best milk I’ve ever tasted in my life.
I have a lot to say about milk.
In fact, if I detect even the slightest hint of interest on your face, I will positively talk your ear off.
Homogenization. Pasteurization. Raw. Grass Fed. Whole Milk. Skim. Conjugated Linoleic Acids. Local. Organic. Industrial Organic. Oooooh, I’m getting breathless just thinking about it.
My obsession with milk began with my very first sip of raw, whole, straight-from-the-cow-that’s-standing-just-to-my-left-fresh milk on July 14, 2008. In case you are wondering, it was a Monday. The med-student and I were in the process of backpacking our way through Europe, had made our way to Switzerland, and had found ourselves hiking for two hours one morning in order to arrive at a tiny dairy farm on the top of a mountain in time for the 7 AM milking. Although I’m a bit ashamed to say it, I don’t think I had ever, in all my 22 years leading up to this event, really understood that the milk I poured on my cereal and drank with my cookies had, at one time, actually come out of a cow. Of course I knew it, but I had never really known it before the moment I was handed a glass of real milk from a real cow on a real big mountain. And hooo boy, that milk was something else.
Something else? Why would my first taste of alpine milk be so unlike any of the previous thousands of times I had sipped a white beverage by that name? Well, I’ve given it some thought since then. I’ve read things by scientists, philosophers, farmers, nutritionists, federal agencies, and academics. I’ve scoured the farm bill, scrutinized the school lunch program, and waded through other food-related legislation. All in pursuit of the answer to a simple question. Where has all the real milk gone? Because it sure as heck ain’t easy to find.
The vast majority of milk in our grocery stores and schools bears virtually no resemblance to what I had on that mountain in Switzerland. American commercial milk has been extracted from cows packed into unsanitary conditions and pumped full of hormones and antibiotics. This is so they both produce more milk than is natural and don’t die from the infections caused by their unsanitary conditions. And that’s just the first step. After the milk has been gathered into huge tanks, it’s pasteurized with high heat and pressure in order to kill all the bacteria that inevitably end up in the supply before the liquid’s separated into its respective components of skim milk and pure cream. At this point, the two components are then recombined in the proper proportions to ensure a consistent final product. But no, the milk is not yet ready for consumption. In order to make sure that pesky cream doesn’t separate and float up to the top of the container - as would happen in real milk from a real cow – the milk is forced through extremely high pressure spigots so that the fat molecules are permanently dispursed throughout the liquid, a process called homogenization. Finally, as the milk is carted across the country, and an average of 12 days go by before that milk even hits a supermarket shelf. I could talk for hours about how each and every one of these steps leads to a nutritionally inferior, hardy recognizable, reorganized, finalized, industrialized milk product, but my guess is that you know this already.
The saddest part about this whole system is that it’s extremely difficult to find the simple, wholesome, and un-tampered with alternative. Dairy lobbies have done their best to limit the abilities of organic dairy farmers, industrial organic dairy farms have done their best to muscle out small, local farms, and the government has played its part by making raw milk from small farms illegal to sell in most states. Illegal. A brilliantly healthy, unquestionably wholesome food that used to be available to any and everyone within walking distance of a cow has now become a rare and, in my mind, precious commodity.
Ah see, I did just what I was worried I would do. I got myself going on a rant. But that’s not what this blog post is supposed to be about. This is meant to have a happy ending. And it does, because this morning, at my farmer’s market, I came one giant step closer to finding real milk again. In fact, it was being sold in refillable glass bottles by a friendly, balding gentleman that yammered away about how his cows happily wandered around his fields and munched on grass and alfalfa all year long. How the cows had never been touched by a hypodermic needle full of hormones or corn-feed full of antibiotics. How he had milked them just yesterday in preparation for the farmers market, but that I should try and drink the milk within the week for the freshest taste.
In fact, he positively talked my ear off.
Yes, the milk I bought was more expensive than the plastic gallon containers at my local grocery store. And yes, I did have to schlep down to a farmers market on this rainy Saturday morning to find what I was looking for. But for something this good - good for the environment, good for my body, good for the world – there’s nothing I wouldn’t do.