The World in a Glass of Milk
Written onMarch 01 , 2010
My first memory of drinking milk was walking through the lunch line in my grade-school cafeteria, picking up a red-and-white half pint carton of low-fat milk from an ice-filled service container, and placing it on my plastic tray. After sitting down at a table, everyone would pick up their wet carton and shake it vigorously to blend the frozen crystals with the unfrozen milk. It tasted cold and refreshing, like an unsweetened ice milk slushy, and was a perfect match for a sticky-sweet peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a bag of salty chips.
I don’t recall many other times throughout my childhood when I would drink milk by itself, but I do remember the small grey metal box on our front porch that we kept out for the milk man. It felt a little bit like Christmas the one day each week when we put out the empty bottles the night before a delivery. I always enjoyed stepping out the front door the next morning to find bottles of milk and cream. In time, those bottles turned into cartons, and eventually we had to make the trip to the store for milk, when the deliveries ceased.
As an adult there have been a few times when I’ve enjoyed a glass of cold milk, usually with a few warm cookies or a slice of chocolate cake. But milk was never a consistent food of choice for me on its own.
Then I was blessed one evening last summer when a friend took me to a farm in Brookfield where she had been working to learn about livestock and dairy farming. She had grown quite fond of the cows and wanted to introduce me to the farmer and the animals.
We arrived in the early evening, soon after milking time, and the farmer stopped by the barn to say hello. When I mentioned that I had never tasted raw milk before, he immediately picked up a clean glass canning jar and held it under the spigot of the large, stainless-steel bulk tank, which had just been filled with fresh milk from his mixed breed herd. The creamy white liquid flowed quickly into the jar, which he then held out for us to sample. I smiled after I took my first tentative sip, then took a longer drink. In that brief moment of hesitation I realized that even though I understand where food comes from and how to transform it from a raw piece of fruit, vegetable, grain, or meat into a familiar looking dish, I still have a sense of wonderment about pulling something from the ground or taking it from an animal’s body and eating it. This milk was smooth, fresh, and cold and I quickly realized that there was something different about it.
My first sip of fresh, raw milk at that farm was vibrant, alive, and multidimensional. It was as if I had just tasted the universe. Just think about the difference between eating a strawberry or blueberry from the store, compared to a berry that you’ve just picked yourself and popped into your mouth, still warm from the sun. That fresh berry is still alive—the juices had been flowing through it just moments before you picked it. So much energy remains available in that piece of fruit, and you can taste it. After drinking the raw milk, I thought about how flat and empty most store-bought milk tastes in comparison, after its rawness has been removed. Later, when I subjected my partner to a blind taste test of a glass of store-bought organic pasteurized milk versus a glass of raw milk, she could tell the difference right away. She said of the processed milk, “It tastes like there’s a barrier between me and the cow.”
I thought about her statement and it made perfect sense. That barrier between the cow and our glass of store-bought milk consists of: the tank truck that collects milk from different farms and multiple herds of cows, the bumpy trip along the roads it takes from the holding tank to the processing facility, more tanks and processing equipment, heat and sterilization processes, homogenization, cooling in yet more tanks, packaging, more transportation along more roads, more storage, and finally, its place on the shelf at the store, where we pick it up, transport it one more time, and set it to rest in our own refrigerators. If you’ve ever bounced around in a pickup truck on dirt roads, or been lined up and subjected to X-ray, forced air jets, or any other mode of search and seizure at the airport, then shared the same small compartment of air on an airplane with many other people and finally arrived at your destination, remember how you felt at the end of your journey. Personally, I would feel pretty exhausted and my energy would be depleted after such an ordeal. That is what processed milk tastes like to me—exhausted and depleted.
Since that first fresh-milked taste at the farm, where the only barriers between the cow’s milk and my mouth were the farmer and his milking equipment, I have made it a point to seek out raw milk whenever I can. I have tasted the rich cream-on-top milk from a herd of Jersey cows and the leaner milk from a mixed variety of mutt herds. I have had milk from organically raised cows and non-organic cows, and milk from a micro-dairy that raises only two cows on pasture. At the micro-dairy I was told that the quality, color, and flavor of the milk changes with the seasons, when their cows are grazing on pasture, and when they have fresh flowers in the grass to munch on. I had never really thought about my ability to taste the terroir, or sense of place, or taste of a season, through the milk of a cow. I look forward to seeking out milk throughout the different seasons, to see how the flavors change with the different foods the cows eat.
What a wonderful way to explore the living world through our palates. Maybe the next time you pass a farm with a “raw milk for sale” sign out front, you will consider giving your mouth and body a treat by picking up some fresh, raw milk and experiencing for yourself how the world tastes in a glass.
Raw Milk Gets Legislative Boost
Raw milk is fresh milk that hasn’t been pasteurized or homogenized the way retail milk has. To some, that means a healthier and tastier milk, easier to digest and more tolerable for people with dairy allergies. To others, raw milk is a health risk, believed to be more likely to transfer harmful pathogens to humans because it has not been sterilized.
Until 2008 a farmer could only sell less than 25 quarts (6.25 gallons) of raw milk daily from the farm. That year, the state legislature raised the daily maximum to 50 quarts (12.5 gallons). Then in the spring of 2009, in response to consumer and farmer demand, the legislature passed a law that raised the maximum even more.
The law places raw milk sellers into two tiers: those in Tier 1 sell 50 quarts or fewer a day, while those in Tier 2 can sell up to 160 quarts (40 gallons) a day. Farmers in Tier 2 must adhere to testing and inspection requirements but can deliver raw milk to the homes of pre-paying customers. Farmers in Tier 1 aren’t subject to inspection and their milk doesn’t require testing, but they can only sell raw milk on their farm.
Since the new law took effect in July 2009, dairy farmers have been able to earn more income from the $5 to $10 per gallon that people pay for raw cow’s milk. (It’s between $6 and $14 for a gallon of raw goat’s milk.) Yet Vermont residents still cannot buy raw milk in retail stores and it can’t be sold across state lines. For a directory of Vermont raw milk producers, go to www.ruralvermont.org.