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What's on Your Plate: The Real Rewards of Milk

By Deborah Valenze
Professor of History

Every June, hundreds of Vermonters will line the streets of Brattleboro and watch as an hour-long parade of cows saunter by, draped in flower wreaths and led by people who still know where their milk comes from. The Strolling of the Heifers, as the spectacle is known, is a homespun celebration of a bygone American era, when cattle and the people who tended them— often women— stood for hard work, independence, enterprise, and a mastery over the forces of nature, and dairy was etched into our national fabric as wholesome and nutritious.

Today, milk and its extended family no longer carry the mantel of pureness and good health. Instead, a maelstrom of debate surrounds dairy products, under scrutiny for growth hormones, antibiotics, even adulterations like melamine. But the Strolling of the Heifers is a helpful reminder of a simple truth: A longstanding love affair with milk lies beneath all the hope and worry associated with the modern product. With this in mind, it is well worth pausing to contemplate the real rewards that came from the relationship.

Throughout milk’s history, the liquid has carried an aura of miracle and wonder, conferred on mammals as a sign of nature’s benevolence. According to classical mythology, the Roman goddess Juno’s breast milk turned ordinary babies immortal. When Jupiter, king of the gods, stealthily held his illegitimate (and therefore mortal) son to Juno’s breast while she slept, he inadvertently brought about the creation of the Milky Way: drops of milk, sprayed in all directions when Juno awoke in surprise, remain fixed in the heavens as reminders of her provender. It is not such a bad thing to be reassured by goddess-given symbols.

In more modern history, milk is associated with cattle, and with cherished values often identified as peculiarly American. The milk cow kept households fed and accounts balanced. English and Dutch settlers crammed literally hundreds of cows into transatlantic ships. Bovines represented property incarnate, not only portable, but transferable: colonists used their cattle as ready cash, given that serious shortage of currency impeded their commercial transactions. More valuable than a pig and less prestigious than a horse, the cow stood for an American middle way of self-sufficiency and wholesome virtue. We still warm to the sight of them, and they respond in kind: as research has shown, cows with names produce more milk than their unnamed counterparts.

In the earlier days of tea parties, Abigail Adams testified to the goodness of milk as an alternative to the boycotted beverage. “Why should we wish to bring ruin upon ourselves?” she wrote to her husband in September of 1777. “I feel as contented when I have breakfasted upon milk as ever I did with Hyson or Souchong.” Milk is still most often consumed in the morning and its associations with warmth and comfort often triumph over inhibitions about the feared impact of its sugar and fat. Northern climates have always depended on comfort foods like puddings and porridges, seducing even the most elevated of society down a path of hearty dairy consumption. During the winter of 1784, Philadelphia socialite Ann Livingston reported enjoying a humble-style supper menu: “hominy & milk, & mince pies—the Evening was really delightful.” Rustic Americans needed celebratory foods, too, and milk was there to help. Witness the down-home directness inserted into directions for syllabub: “Sweeten a quart of cider with double refined sugar, grate nutmeg into it, then milk your cow into your liquor.” The only interruption between the pail and the cup was an optional topping of “the sweetest cream you can get.” American colonists ate like peasants of Scotland or burghers of Amsterdam, with fewer inhibitions. It was probably no coincidence that this dairy-wedded population was already taller than European counterparts by the eighteenth century.

We live in age much more skeptical of milk, for good reason. It’s true that today’s dairy industry, by necessity, is just that: industrial.  More than half of today’s supply ends up in forms that Abigail Adams would hardly recognize, including paint. But modern advances in production have made safe milk available to more people than ever before, a point that privileged consumers tend to forget. Sterile packaging alone has averted countless illnesses. And not all industrial products are so far from homespun; only a hard-hearted critic of dairy products would cast aspersions on chocolate and ice cream. Maybe those treats can help us set aside worries about milk and remember the magic linked to milky ways in the past.

On November 1 at 6:30 p.m., Prof. Valenze and other Barnard faculty will participate in a panel discussion entitled "What's on Your Plate? The History and Politics of Food." Read more about food politics from other faculty panelists in biological sciences and anthropology