On swill dairies, the early role of Macy’s in pasteurization and why you should make yogurt in your apartment, but not butter.
Reading Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages is a little like taking Milk 101. In its over 300 pages, food historian Anne Mendelson takes us from the discovery of cheese to the modern industrial milk complex, complete with examinations of cultural symbolism and political conflict and, along the way, recipes and science experiments (explaining that “when you do these experiments you understand the connection between the chemistry of milk and the things you’re tasting”). Our city plays a starring role in the liquid’s history and future, so we asked the author about milk and Manhattan.
Q. Your book casts New York City as the place that launched the era of modern milk—commercially produced, homogenized and pasteurized in bulk, and shipped long distances. Why here?
A. This was where the population was, but keeping cows in cities didn’t prove to be a good idea. (People made an awful lot of money doing it in the early middle 19th century, stabling cows next to distilleries and breweries, feeding them waste—which created the scandal of “swill milk dairies” and made a lot of people sick.) There were also problems getting milk from the country to the city, so [milk's transportation] had to be highly regulated. Technology got in on the act in a major way with the pasteurization initiative, which started in the late 1880s, and [Macy's owner and philanthropist] Nathan Straus established the so-called “milk depots” where people could pick up pasteurized milk that had been drawn and bottled right on the premises. It was a tremendous success, and inaugurated the era of milk made safe through technology.
Q. Tell us more about the swill milk scandals.
A. It’s an amazing story, I would have loved to go on for chapters. There’s a very interesting account of swill milk in Bill Wilson’s book “Swindled,” which I highly recommend to anybody who wants to revisit one of the more awful chapters in American dairy history. Interesting to me is the role journalism played in ending this disgrace. One of the most famous exposés in the history of American magazines was the 1858 series Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper ran on swill milk dairies. The writers and illustrators were assaulted in the streets, as the swill dairies made a tremendous effort to hush up the story.
Q. What was the genesis of the book?
A. A few decades ago I thought, gee, you really can’t get very good milk here. Not that it was all that much better in Pennsylvania where I used to live, but here’s the greatest food city, how come everybody’s just drinking the same dullsville milk as everywhere else in the United States? I was interested in milk as sort of a political football which had not been very well served in the widespread modern industry and wanted to write a book on the politics of milk and the humongous, and, in many ways, very troubled industry. I didn’t have the investigative journalism skills that would have been required, but it was always in the back of my mind, and I realized I could approach the subject as a food and cookbook writer.
Q. What do you think of the milk available here today?
A. There are so many dairies supplying stores or selling at the Greenmarket, you can get really good pasteurized, unhomogenized milk. I found some interesting restaurants making wonderful yogurt—I don’t know if you know Djerdan, a little Bosnian restaurant in the West 30s. The same with Greek stores—there’s just an appetite for things that are more interesting, more flavorful, than what we’re used to in mainstream dairy products.
Q. Do you drink much milk?
A. No, hardly touch the stuff. I prefer yogurt or buttermilk. I just love the lactic acid taste. I must say that we are not well supplied with buttermilk in this city, and it’s amazing when you taste better versions—there’s a farmer at the Union Square Greenmarket, I think the name is Tonjes Farm Dairy [editor's note: It is, and they're there on Saturdays] They have wonderful cultured buttermilk, not cheap but quite delicious.
Q. You write that “Milk is tailor-made for fooling around with.” What’s the first recipe from your book a Manhattanite living in a small, overheated apartment with very little refrigerator space should make?
A. Yogurt’s perfect for an overheated apartment. If you’re making butter you need a cool kitchen. If you want a really simple experiment, make the kindergarten version of fresh cheese that was discovered by Russian immigrants who said “oh, we can’t get tvorog,” Russian pot cheese. Nowadays many companies supply tvorog to Russian clientele, but people used to take a carton of cultured buttermilk and put it in a pan of water—the whole carton, unopened—and slowly heat it to the boil. Turn off the stove, let it cool in the water, then dump out the contents, which have turned into something like pot cheese, and drain off the whey. It’s not the best, absolutely most delicious cottage cheese or pot cheese you can make at home, but it’s easy, something that could lead people to venture into making more complicated, better-tasting versions.
Q. Is there anything important about Manhattan’s milk history that didn’t make it into the book?
A. New Yorkers became very divorced from their food over a period of generations and it’s just a wonderful development that New York has to an extent led the country in bringing back farmers markets. The Greenmarket experiment was an inspiration to other cities and has made it possible to get milk directly from farmers for the first time in generations. That’s a revelation.
Rachel Wharton is a Brooklyn-based food writer and a firm believer that if heaven exists, it is probably in some kind of dumpling form.