The Astonishing Story of Real Milk

Most modern dairy products are mere shadows of their rich, creamy, soul-satisfying predecessors. Come with us on a journey to discover how wonderfully delicious and nutritious milk can be.

| October/November 2011

Jersey Cow and Sheep

Around the world, people rely on the milk of many animals — not just cows and sheep, but also goats, water buffalo, yaks, and even reindeer.


Once upon a time, cows supplied us with delicious whole milk, wonderful fresh cream, skim milk fit to drink, refreshing soured skim milk, nutrient-rich curd and whey, truly lovely butter and real buttermilk. A single batch of fresh milk could have yielded still other transformations — yogurt, fresh cheese or clotted cream, for instance.

Like so many of today’s supermarket offerings, modern “milk” and dairy products have lost the rich flavors our ancestors enjoyed. Can we recapture the culinary magic that is ancient dairy chemistry? What’s going on with the small scale artisans who still practice this traditional magic? Could our collective voices move the American dairy industry to bring us real milk, in less manhandled and denatured form? We have reasons to be hopeful.

Dairy Foods in Today’s America

Thousands of years ago in the Near East, somebody saw an animal nursing her young and had the eccentric idea of getting in on the act. A strange custom, this, using another creature’s milk for food. But in regions where it took hold, milk became the object of prehistoric skills that we can still learn from.

In the late 1960s, before waves of immigration brought people from every corner of the globe to the United States, the American food scene had two goals: to get as many different products as possible before the buying public, and to weed out alternatives that would interfere with profits. Both aims merrily coexist today, with lunatic results exemplified by, let’s say, yogurt. You can now walk into a supermarket and take your pick of “amaretto cheesecake” nonfat yogurt, low-fat yogurt with Reese’s Pieces, or milk-free chocolate soy yogurt — without being able to find anything that people brought up on the real thing would recognize as real yogurt worth putting a spoon into.

But today, the tide of immigration is beginning to redraw the picture so that you may now have access to grocery stores with fresh, plain yogurt, or Indian restaurants with delicious buttermilk-based cold beverages. Where Russian immigrants have settled, wonderful sour cream, farmer cheese and butter with the taste of clotted cream have followed. The list can only grow as more foreign-born cooks find themselves able to introduce people to some “new” (though really old) dairy products.

These culinary introductions may help encourage the growing revolt against milk processed to a fare-thee-well before any of us get our hands on it. For all the continued prominence of horrible examples to the contrary, finding honest milk from small dairies run by people who care about well-tended animals and fresh flavor is more possible than ever. (To find one near you, search at Local Harvest or Eat Wild. For small-scale dairy equipment, visit Bob-White Systems.)

11/20/2011 2:14:57 AM

Checkout to hear the story of Dan Brown, owner of Gravelwood Farm in Blue Hill, Maine. He was served notice on November 9th that he is being sued by the State of Maine for selling food and milk without State licenses. Blue Hill is one of five Maine towns to have passed the Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance, a local law that permits the types of sales Brown was engaged in. By filing the lawsuit, the State of Maine and Walter Whitcomb, Maine Agricultural Commissioner, are disregarding the Local Food and Community Self-Governance passed nearly unanimously by the citizens of Blue Hill at their town meeting on April 4.

Lee Burdett
11/20/2011 1:51:01 AM

Bravo!!! Well said!!!! Back at the end of September I hosted a raw milk taste test event at a Nourishing Traditions Seminar in north Florida. The whole idea was to let people see firsthand how different and still delicious real milk from heritage breed cows eating lush pasture can be. We had Jersey, Guernsey and Brown Swiss milk to sample. Since then I have also had the opportunity to try Ayrshire milk too. Supermarket milk doesn't really have the right to the name milk when compared to the real thing! Here is the link to the blog about the raw milk taste testing.

11/18/2011 10:11:49 PM

I grew up on a farm in the 1950's-60's where my granddad milked his own cows everyday, morning and evening, starting at 4 AM each morning. We made our own buttermilk, butter and sour cream. The raw milk was great. We raised our own chickens and had fresh eggs. We grew our own vegetables and raised our stock for meat. I've shared all this knowledge with my city raised husband and he says, "if we ever have to be self-sustaining and have the resources to do so, at least we can survive". I still have some of the old tools, such as the pottery churns and wooden butter molds. Yes, those were the "good old days".

Virginia Thomas
10/7/2011 9:00:48 PM

I've ordered Anne Mendelson's book, but it hasn't arrived yet. However, I do agree with much of her view of the current dairy industry and dairy history. Two quick points: (1) the rBST hormone that is sometimes used can't be tested for since it mimics a naturally occurring hormone, so don't give into the hype that milk is labeled rBST free, that just means the milk comes from cows whose owners say aren't treated...(2) when milk is picked up a separate sample is taken from each farm that may all end up together in one big milk truck's tank, then the individual samples are very much tested at the processing facility for many things but also for antibiotics, if antibiotics are found, the milk is dumped and the offending farmer has to pay for the entire load, so I don't agree with the author's statement that antibiotics do end up in milk. There is also a larger issue of supply & demand, and food rights. Will local small dairy farms be able to produce enough milk everywhere in America? No, but those who can gain access to good, fresh milk should do so across all socio-economic borders. Consumers sometimes forget they have the buying power to change how their food is handled. Milk processing and distribution didn't magically occur this way because of some pre-ordained path, but because of consumer demand and also public health initiatives. The fact that more and more consumers are crying out for less-processed foods (including milk) is changing the industry. Just look at the coffee "creamers" section and you will see that once Le Creme came out touting it was 100% REAL DAIRY, others followed suit so that now even Coffee Mate (that cakey, powdery fake-milk goo) has NATURAL BLISS that is 'all natural.' Do you think they did that because they wanted real dairy? No, there was a market and they wanted to get a piece of it. People just need to become more aware of their access to real food and such pressure will positively encourage the food/grocery industry to fill those needs because at the end of the day, they want to give consumers what consumers will happily buy. One last thought, many pay up to $1.50 for a 20oz soda, $3 for a coffee and $5 for a gallon of gas...paying $4 to $10 for a gallon of real milk (a complete food) is a bargain in comparison.

9/30/2011 2:50:03 AM

Good article, by the way

9/30/2011 2:49:29 AM

If you want to know more about real milk I'd suggest you check out I'm a raw milk lover.

Erik Benthem
9/28/2011 10:44:44 PM

Cows go dry between calvings, not based on calendars. Some small scale farmers will only breed cows at certain times to ensure a nice milking vacation while most farmers will breed cows as they come in heat to ensure year-round production.

9/28/2011 10:10:28 PM

Shocked by "The Astonishing Story Of REAL MILK". But now understand why I can drink milk from the store, but get ill from all other milk products. Obiously the milk isn't milk!!!

WAL Wallis
9/28/2011 8:45:20 PM

Hmmm. how do they "MAKE" milk when the cows go dry in the winter months?

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