Milk! A 10,000-Year Food Fracas

Mark Kurlansky’s first global food history since the bestselling Cod and Salt; the fascinating cultural, economic, and culinary story of milk and all things dairy–with recipes throughout.

Guest post by Mr B!

I think it would be tough to be a book!

To sit on a shelf in a shop…….or in a warehouse……or (these days) in cyberspace……and wait. Wait until I captured someone’s attention. I would hope for a good home where I would be loved and read from cover-to-cover. But then I would probably be put somewhere until I was rediscovered and my next life began.

It would be best if I had no feelings because there could be some sad times in my life. Someone might pick me up, flick through a few of my pages, and then fob me off. Someone else might be disappointed by me or disagree with me completely. I would also have to compete with all sorts of other entertainment for some human attention.

I recently went on a long haul flight and Duffy very kindly gave me this book to review – “Milk! A 10,000 – Year Food Fracas” by Mark Kurlansky. The same author has also written books entitled “Cod” and “Salt”.  In this book, the author tracks the history of milk – from breast milk to modern commercial dairy and organic farming.

I started reading after we boarded the plane. I read how much of the ancient world was lactose intolerant. Which animal milk is most similar to human milk? That animal milk was probably not produced for drinking, but cured, hardened, soured or fermented into food like yoghurt, butter and cheese. I even read about curds and whey.

I found it fascinating, but the lure of the Qantas in-flight entertainment system proved too great. The latest movies. Movie classics. Aussie classics. Then there were TV shows and my personal favourite, documentaries. Generally Qantas has something bizarre from Louis Theroux, but I settled on a two hour doco on the life of Robin Williams, then a John Eales documentary on the “haka” (for my John Eales connection, see here:-  followed by the story of Fiat (no connection, but my aunty is Italian)……then I started watching movies.

I won’t say I would have watched anything rather than read more about milk, but close.

I guess that is the difficulty these books face. They take a day-to-day subject and open it up in tremendous detail. The research which goes into these books is staggering and putting the details together so that readers can read them is an art form. The Milk bibliography is extensive and Kurlansky travelled to dairy farms around the world gathering information to write this book.

But reading and absorbing all of these deets for more than a short period of time can be draining and I don’t know about you, but I get distracted……. particularly on long-haul flights…….. when I can “binge” in entertainment heaven.

In a similar vein, I am also reading Bill Bryson’s book: “At Home – A Short History of Private Life”. The book details the history of each room in the house. There are chapters not just about the kitchen and the bedroom, but also the cellar, the stairs and even the fuse box. Bryson is always engaging, and I adore him, but………I have been reading this book for about 3 years now!

So where do these books fit in in our busy world?

Well, I reckon everyone should have a coffee table – a big one. And books like these should be on it! No more glossy picture books, please! No more random photo collections! No more trashy magazines! Put some non-fiction on your coffee table and learn something!  

Next time you sit down for 10 minutes, grab a book like Milk and just read a bit of it. Milk has short chapters and you can even tell what each chapter is about from its heading. You don’t have to read the whole book. You can just pick the chapters you want to read. They are like books within books.

One chestnut that piqued my interest in Milk was in a chapter called: “The Days of Milk and Beer”. In America recently….after my long haul flight…..I discovered something the yanks called milk stout. I had never heard the term before, even though I have liked a good stout since my student days in London. Turns out the term comes from the days of mixing milk with ale. But the term was banned in the UK in 1946 because eventually the only milk used in milk stout was lactose and the government didn’t want people believing they were getting the full benefits of drinking milk in stout.

That is the great things about books like this – there is something for everyone.

Milk even has some recipes in it; not because it is a cookbook, but because the author believes them to be “invaluable artefacts”. There is a helpful recipe index at the back of the book. Here is the recipe for banana ice cream from Caroline Sullivan’s 1893 The Jamaican Cookery Book:

“Two bananas

Three eggs

One and a half pints of milk


Make a custard of the eggs, milk and sugar to taste. When cold, add the two bananas mashed fine and smooth. Stir, mix thoroughly, and freeze.”

So, learn more about milk today! And put some non-fiction books on your coffee table, in the WC or anywhere you like to sit at home or at work. You’ll learn heaps!

If you want to read more of Mr B’s book reviews, you can find them here.

Want to get your milk on?  Buy your copy here, a unique book gift for the non-fiction fan in your life. Published by Bloomsbury Books and available in all good bookshops.

Milk! A 10,000 – Year Food Fracas
A unique Christmas book gift for foodies and non-fiction fans

Thanks, Mr B! Can’t wait to read your next review.