Salon: Food, Drink, & Cultural Icon

Milk: A Local & Global History by Deborah Valenze, Professor of European HistoryPeople are passionate about a lot of things concerning food these days. And milk is a lightning rod for debate, whether people are talking about breast-feeding or dairy farms. Still, Professor of History Deborah Valenze says she became aware of the strong depth of feelings with which some regarded her topic after Yale University Press published her latest book, Milk: A Local and Global History. “I do keep sensing that some people think I wrote this for a reason,” she adds. Valenze is quick to say she didn’t have any particular agenda. She’s just a historian with a focus on British and European history, and she became fascinated by milk’s cultural history. “It comes in a complex cultural package,” she says. “The objective really was to bring milk’s history to a broader audience. This was my fourth book, so I thought, why not do something new here?”

Her book traces thousands of years of human history, showing how advances in technology, business, nutrition, and public health helped cow’s milk become a staple in refrigerators around the world. But she also shows that milk has been an ever-changing cultural artifact, starting her journey in ancient Mesopotamia, looking at Egypt —Cleopatra allegedly bathed in milk for youthful skin—and ultimately ending today. “Milk really was there throughout history,” notes Valenze. “The biggest surprise in doing my research was how it showed up everywhere. Historians are used to spending weeks, months, searching for the appearance of their subjects. I had none of that. Milk was always there.”

She notes how religious beliefs and practices enhanced the virtue of milk, making it a symbol of virtue and goodness, and how the Renaissance elite introduced consumers to the delights of specially crafted dairy products. Milk became a much more widely available commodity in response to urbanization, but there were long-standing tensions over the question of feeding children what was seen as “artificial” milk. It was an issue of infant mortality, since it was thought that infants might die from drinking this milk as opposed to breast milk. This unease was societal, the question being, shouldn’t a mother be feeding her child her own milk?

Prior to World War I, scientists had discovered that the fluid had a little something called vitamins. And after the war, milk became understood as a dietary necessity, one that governments would help provide with a law mandating that milk be pasteurized. Milk eventually became part of an international reform effort to improve the health of the masses.

Historians are typically a reclusive lot who enjoy spending hours a day in dusty archives. For this project, Valenze got to do that, and something different as well. She visited working dairy farms although she doesn’t really like drinking milk herself because she is lactose intolerant. “It’s thrilling to go to a farm and hear the history and what people say,” Valenze says. “In fact, dairy farmers in particular are very sensitive to history. They pride themselves on the special skills that have been handed down sometimes three or four or five generations, in one case back to the eighteenth century. It was great to see that today’s farmers are as appreciative of the past as I am.”

Still, she says there are others much more qualified to debate current issues surrounding milk, such as whether drinking raw milk is better than drinking pasteurized milk.

Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship this year, Valenze is ready to return to her historical niche: British and European history. Her next project will probably be about some aspect of rural life, just not milk. “I’m looking forward to being my old self again,” she says.

- by Amy Miller