Why Milk is not “Milk”

Three years ago I was charged with the task of sourcing the highest quality dairy in the Midwest (in terms of “good, clean, and fair”est – maybe you’ve heard that before). I was advised not to take on the task of managing a dairy section by some, but I was excited. I already was going to run the biggest and most badass retail cheese and cured meat counter in the region, and since that region included “America’s Dairy Land” why not add the best dairy to the mix??

Sourcing is an amazing process, and sourcing dairy in the midwest is definitely next level, but I am not writing to discuss the process of sourcing. That’s for another day. I want to talk about how we become ruined for certain foods. How a “food snob” is created, and why that is a good thing.

I am a “food snob”. Well, kind of. I am snobbish only in the sense that I can only appreciate food if it is delicious and/or good for me. Is that vague? Could that apply to anyone? Well, yeah. Anyone who aquires a taste for something they deem better, whether tastier, or healthier, or maybe just prettier than those items they once liked to eat, will gradually learn to dislike the things that came before. Simple syrup is attractive to the palette of a baby, Mrs Butterworth’s tastes more delicious to an adolescent, and grade B Vermont Maple Syrup is probably preferred by those who have been lucky enough to enjoy that. (Certainly, there are Vermonters who are discerning the merits of particular sugar houses at this point – I am looking at you Amanda Gonter!) But one thing is surely the case. No adult human, with any reasonable appreciation for waffles is going to choose to douse them in plain simple syrup, right?

On my first day of being a cheesemonger, my boss told me “You are forever more going to be ruined for cheese”. What he meant was that I was now going to cross a threshold of quality and deliciousness from where there would be no returning. I was taking the metaphorical “red pill” and would no longer be able to appreciate cheese as a normal person might appreciate those gummy cubes of pasteurized baby swiss and commodity cheddar which, for many Americans, lays the foundation of our snack based existence. (I am not going to reference those slices individually wrapped in plastic. The metaphor does not apply for me.  That stuff always sucked, even when I had no reference for taste. Sorry.) I understood exactly what he meant, when he said it. I was used to great ingredients and the taste of excellent food. After all, I had already worked in a couple two star michelin kitchens and had spent my life so far collecting culinary experiences to develop my palette. I didn’t know cheese, though. So I knew he was right, and cracker barrel was not going to cut it for me anymore. You can be “ruined” for “milk”, too. However, everyone who has ever drank wholesome quality milk is also ruined against that generic white liquid called “milk” in the supermarket and the reason is because the know that that is not what they call “milk”.

During the process of sourcing, I travelled around to farms, or had samples sent to me, tasting products from the most well bred, raised, practically coddled cows from the heart of dairy country. My eyes began to open. “Got milk?” meant nothing, and “who’s milk”, “what breeds”, “what feed”, and “what heat treatment” became everything. Or, most things. “How far?” and “what kind of milking?”, “What kind of pasteuring?”, even questions like “Menonite or Amish” somehow became relevant. I wanted to know how the animals lived, as we all should, but I also learned that 100% grass fed is not a fun way to live for a cow, and a little grain not only makes for tastier feed, but also tastier milk. Usually, I preferred to buy non-homogenized, but to drink a big glass of ready-mixed homogenized milk, sans shaking till your arm falls off (100% Jersey, non homogenized sounds good till you pour yourself a tall glass of butter!) is very convenient and if it’s still low temp vat pasteurized, tasted the best while in “chug-mode”. I prefer non-standardization because it gives you a picture of that day’s fat yeild, and overtime, gives you a better inderstanding of seasonal differences in fat vs protein vs water vs lactose changes. Low temp vat pasteurizing, and sometimes being blissfully ignorant to the idea that thermalization is DEFINITELY NOT pasteurization, results in a much tastier and obviously healthier product. Of course, I got my hands on a few gallons of raw milk from those who became friends. These were cheesemakers, though, and as most mongers know, acquiring raw milk from a producer means that you are now truly friends and that kind of gift, is some of the tastiest stuff of all. I should stress that it is not tasty simply because it is not heat treated. It is tasty because you know that this friend loves his animals, feeds them well, is a good steward of his land, operates clean, and appreciates the care that needs to go into the production of his milk. Because everyone worth a damn in the food industry (or any industry) knows that the quality of the raw materials dictates the potential quality for a marketable product.

And that is why “Milk” is not just “Milk” to me.  I found answers to the questions I posed to discern why some milk tasted so much better, and my body felt good, instead of bad after I drank it. I wasn’t alone, either. Customers came to our store to buy the best milk because it tasted better, and they felt better too. I don’t know if “milk” “does a body good” because milk, like any food, is a product that can come from a place (maybe great, maybe not), many places  (probably not great, but could be good), from well kept and fed animals (always great), or mistreated and poorly fed animals (always bad), from nearby (better), or far away (worse), and from one breed, another breed, or many breeds. These factors are the reason why when the news, or an advertisement refers to “milk” as a generic product being either good for you this week, or terrible for you the next, I don’t listen. If you want to know from the media if “Milk” is good for you, then it isn’t. It’s bad for you. First of all, the only two people qualified to tell you if the milk you drink is good for you are the person you buy it from and your doctor. If the person you buy it from doesn’t have an opinion, then that market sucks and the milk probably does, too. Go buy the milk from someone who cares, and they will get you awesome milk that tastes great and is good for your body. And when you see your doctor, mention that since you developed standards by which you started purchasing milk and drinking it, milk doesn’t make you wanna throw up or shit yourself anymore. If he is surprised, that doctor sucks. Go see a doctor that understands that you are what you eat and if you eat crappy milk, you will feel crappy. But if you drink milk that is produced from healthy happy animals, it will make you healthy and happy, too.

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