What better subject for the first chapter than the food with which we all begin our lives? Humans are mammals, a word that means “creatures of the breast, ” and the first food that any mammal tastes is milk. Milk is food for the beginning eater, a gulpable essence distilled by the mother from her own more variable and challenging diet.
When our ancestors took up dairying, they adopted the cow, the ewe, and the goat as surrogate mothers. These creatures accomplish the miracle of turning meadow and straw into buckets of human nourishment. And their milk turned out to be an elemental fluid rich in possibility, just a step or two away from luxurious cream, fragrant golden butter, and a multitude of flavorful foods concocted by friendly microbes.
No wonder that milk captured the imaginations of many cultures. The ancient Indo-Europeans were cattle herders who moved out from the Caucasian steppes to settle vast areas of Eurasia around 3000 BCE; and milk and butter are prominent in the creation myths of their descendents, from India to Scandinavia.
Peoples of the Mediterranean and Middle East relied on the oil of their olive tree rather than butter, but milk and cheese still figure in the Old Testament as symbols of abundance and creation. The modern imagination holds a very different view of milk!
Mass production turned it and its products from precious, marvelous resources into ordinary commodities, and medical science stigmatized them for their fat content. Fortunately a more balanced view of dietary fat is developing; and traditional versions of dairy foods survive.