Sunday, August 14, 2011

Deborah Valenze's "Milk: A Local and Global History"

Deborah Valenze is professor of history at Barnard College. She is the author of three books and the recipient of numerous research awards, including a Fulbright Scholarship.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Milk: A Local and Global History, and reported the following:
When my editor and I discussed possible titles for Milk, she made one request: no puns, please. Since the publication of the book, reviews and interviews have smuggled them in: “Quart of Public Opinion” and “Breast Friends” are two examples. Page 99 happens to occur at the end of the only chapter that carries a pun in its title: “Cash Cows and Dutch Diligence.” I knew I had to make this chapter a little entertaining, given the grittiness of the subject matter and also the fact of seventeenth-century Holland as a critical turning point in the history of milk. The story of how the Dutch tapped into the bounty of the cow offers a key to the big picture of milk in food history.

When we think of diets of the past and staple foods, we usually focus on bread, meat, and beverages like ale and beer. But what about milk? Geography had much to do with where dairy products were consumed, and if we’re tracing the appearance of milk as an actual beverage (something rather uncommon outside of rural areas until this time), we must look to the Low Countries to see how city inhabitants came to depend on the cow as a source of provender. There, for the first time in modern history, a large urban region came into being that required inexpensive and nutritious food on a massive scale. The Dutch landscape provided just the right arrangements to tend cows, recycle their manure in fields of clover, and draw unprecedented quantities of milk from one of the most cooperative and productive mammals on earth. It’s no accident that major Dutch painters lavished attention on contented bovines, or that still life paintings were filled with cheeses stacked alongside bread. These images offer important evidence of how people of all classes in the Low Countries came to value milk and dairy products as centerpieces of their daily life.

Page 99 ends this story of agricultural improvement by pointing the way to how the English (and eventually, North American colonists) would adopt the same practices with success. “The next century would witness a phenomenal rise in the productive power of England, as the northern nation strove to outdo the Dutch miracle. Milk and the dairy, as food commodity and laboratory, were now permanently installed as participants in the race.”
Learn more about Milk: A Local and Global History at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue