Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Pail of Milk

A pail of milk slung inside the kitchen door at dusk, steaming a little if the air is cool, still a little frothy on top from zinging into the bottom of the pail; gotten from the doe-eyed, sweet-faced little Jersey cow eating her green grass all day, ambling along from sun to shade to sun again, and finally munching her way back to the barn, lugging her evening udder swinging heavy against her legs.

That particular pail of milk is a memory and, though it is a sweet, sweet memory, I had no desire, whatsoever, to drink a glass of milk icy from the refrigerator, poured out of a pail or a plastic carton, even if it was labeled organic or local, or unpasteurized and labeled not at all. A little cream in my coffee, a bit of yogurt here and there, some crème fraiche over a dessert – that was the extent of my dairy needs. That and crooning “aaaay bosssss” to any cow I encountered. Oh, and tossing down a few capsules of calcium everyday.

And when friends marveled over the unpasteurized whole milk they got from a neighbor farmer I was wont to say that in a real farmer’s life whole milk was an oxymoron: that pail of milk was poured off into jars and pitchers and put into the fridge and not until it was icy and the cream had risen and could be scraped back would I accept a glass of it. As I remembered. No icky clots of cream in MY glass of milk, thank you very much. Cream itself was much better used over berries or made into butter.

They looked at me pityingly, but didn’t say much after that.

...making butter while the sun shines...

But then I decided I wanted to make some butter. This is the time of year that animals are eating fast growing green grass and when you eat of their flesh or the products of their flesh – butter, cream, milk, eggs – you are getting a nice helping of all the omega-3s they are converting that grass into, as well as helpful amounts of vitamins, such as D and A. You can even buy an 8 ounce jar of especially potent clarified butter online for an especially potent amount of money. Why not, I first wondered, just stock up on butter made at this time of year and freeze it?

Omega-3s. They are the offspring of Alpha Linolenic Acid and gotten from the leaves and green parts of plants. They are the opposite arm from Omega-6s (linoleic acid), and a balance between the two is essential to the health of our bodies, from our brains to our bones to our organs to our very souls. But omega-3s oxidize quickly and so, to reduce spoilage and create a longer shelf life, food processors have worked hard to eliminate them from processed food. In addition, industrial food producers have unwittingly cut out the omega-3s in their products by keeping their animals indoors and feeding them grains and silage. Simplify, simplify. That’s the short of it.

The long of it is taken by Susan Allport, a science writer, in her rigorous little book, The Queen of Fats: Why omega-3s were removed from the western diet and what we can do to replace them. Allport’s thorough study asks the question, “...though cholesterol and saturated fat have been reduced in the American diet, heart disease continues to afflict just as many Americans – and we’re now facing epidemics of obesity and diabetes. Saturated fat and cholesterol were supposed to be the problem, so where did we go wrong?” She follows the studies done on fatty acids from before anyone knew the various and competitive components of fat up until the present, when there have been “...many thousands of studies linking deficiency in omega-3s to a long and growing list of illnesses,” but which have been swept under the rug by various political and industry entities who like things just the way they are; and, of course, a public that has as hard a time reading scientific reports as I do.

Which all means, of course, that we need to go out of our way to get our good omega-3s – by eating dark green leafy vegetables, as well as other bright vegetables and fruits; finding really free range meats and animal products; and finding a good source of non-scoured pharmaceutical grade cod liver oil. Little fishes are full of good omega-3s, fishes such as sardines and anchovies packed in olive oil, NOT cottonseed or soy oils. As a matter of fact, most seed oils are preponderantly omega-6s and therefore to be avoided. To do all of this we need to support our local farms, markets, and co ops so they can continue to support us.

Easier reads are two books I’ve mentioned before – Mary Enig’s and Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions and Eat Fat Lose Fat, both of which sing the praises of unpasteurized milk, cheeses, butters, creams, yogurts and kefirs. Like the egg, whole unpasteurized milk is designed to nourish the young. From a clean and healthy dairy, it is the perfect food.

...KISSing Dr. Strangelove...

Of course, various state and federal agencies wish the whole idea of unpasteurized milk would just disappear. It’s much easier to keep an eye on things if everything is uniform, and pasteurization just makes sure that, clean or dirty, a dairy’s milk is heated until any undesirable – as well as desirable, indeed, necessary – microbe or bacteria is dead. It’s a variation on the rather rude admonishment, KISS, which I’ve always read as “Keep it stupid, Simple.” Nevertheless, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture allows the sale of unpasteurized milk if all sales take place on the premises where the milk is produced and are limited to less than 25 quarts of milk per day. The sales must be to the final end user of the raw milk, and no advertising is permitted.

But I didn’t think it was necessary, or even possible, to find enough unpasteurized milk to make, say, ten pounds of fast-growing-green-grass butter to put away for the year; I thought I’d start with locally produced butter from a commercial source. Surely our cows were eating grass in this green season!

Not especially true, John Thomas of Thomas Dairy told me. What green grass they do get is in this season, until around the 4th of July, but many farmers don’t have enough pasture to graze their animals, and they need what land they do have to grow corn and hay. “When we still had cows,” he said, “we let them out at night to keep them out of the heat of the day. We had a lot of land that couldn’t be used for anything but grazing.”

In an email, Annamarie Clark, of Cabot Cheese, whose butter Thomas distributes, told me that their cows were pastured from April to December.

Well that’s okay, I thought. Cabot spring and early summer butter should be a pretty good source of vitamins and omega-3s if you knew when it was made. I called Cabot and talked to another person, who told me that unsalted Cabot butter had a four month or 120 day sell-by date. In other words, if you wanted May or June grass-fed butter you would stock up on that which had a mid-August to Mid-October sell-by date. And you could probably begin looking for that butter now.

I asked him, too, why Cabot pasteurizes the milk they turn into cheese even though the law says that cheeses aged more than 60 days can be unpasteurized. He said that by law they needn’t be pasteurized, but to receive US Department of Agriculture certification they must.

I’m thinking Dr. Strangelove, here, but things were about to get stranger.

I had noticed that the Organic Valley milk carried by the Co-Op was ultra-pasteurized. Organic, granted, but heated to within an inch of its life. When I talked to the dairy person at the Co-Op, she told me that Organic Valley gets their milk from eighty Vermont farms (among others), but is sent to Wisconsin for processing. The milk of another producer, Organic Cow, is shipped all the way to Colorado for processing, so of course both companies have to ultra-pasteurize their milk or it would be sour by the time it got back to Vermont! The Co-Op is trying to bring in a smaller organic milk producer, from Vermont, whose milk will be pasteurized but not ultra-pasteurized, and won’t have been flown all over the country. They also carry Thomas’s (pasteurized but not ultra-so) milk which, even though not labeled organic, would seem, by far, the best bet to me.

“Big” seems to be the adjunct of going organic, which is another contradiction in terms. Thomas’ would like to be known as organic, but they are perfectly satisfied being a small company, and so will probably not seek certification. A farmer down the road from me said they’d considered going organic, but would have to be quite a bit bigger, and they’re already running short of pasture.

...in which I visit the farm...

But sitting at my desk and talking about cows had given me an itch to see one and to smooth its soft nose and rub its nubbly horns. I drove up to a farm that had been recommended to me by the “unpasteurized milk underground.” There I was given the tour by three small and well-behaved dogs. I worried over a small Jersey with an immense udder (hours from milking time) who was joyously wound around some long grass, chewing with abandon, her big brown eyes laughing up at me. She was not tethered or secured in any way at all. I hallooooed and yoo-hoooed to no avail and, just before I got back in my car, saw the little Jersey switch her bony rear into the barn.

That night I called and made an appointment with Mr. Farmer to get some milk the next morning. I told him about the unsecured cow. “Oh, that must’ve been Dumber,” he said. “She’s about to be disappeared. She’s driving me nuts, can’t keep her in.”

“Dumber?” I said.

Ayup,” he said, “Dumbest’s already gone. She’d walk right through a fence, know what I mean?”

I didn’t ask him about Dumb.

Next morning I arrived in the midst of much activity. The vet was there filing down the teeth of a horse. Ms Farmer told me that horses’ teeth grow in slanted and they need to be filed flat so they can get a grip on their food. “Go ahead, look around,” she said. I wandered around a bit with the dogs, had a good look at the horses in their stalls, and petted each and every one of the calves that were in their little plastic houses and tiny pens just outside the milk house, allowing my hands to be suckled in their eager mouths.

Ms Farmer showed me into the milk house with its big stainless steel tank, how to turn on its thrumbulator to mix the cream back into the milk, how to hook the spigot to the tank, how to turn it on. She filled some pails with milk for the calves. I took one of the buckets and, as I was fitting it through the window and into its bracket, she said, “Careful, she’ll head-butt it in her eagerness.” Splash. Once it was settled, the calf plunged her whole sleek golden head into the milk.

Finally, I took my jug of icy-cold milk and started home. On the road I met Mr. Farmer wheeling a large yellow plastic wheelbarrow and leading a cow. In the wheelbarrow was the latest calf, born just as I was filling my milk jug. On the winding, narrow road home I followed, with infinite patience, a farmer on a tractor with a baler on the back.

Granted, it was the best of days on the farm: a beautiful summer day, a new calf, some good milk. I could imagine it in mud-season, or on a frigid February morning, the deaths and accidents and disappointments. I could imagine all the pitfalls of farming, had grown up with them intimately. But when it was beautiful there was nothing that could beat it. Farming is a noble venture and the farmer a noble being – that’s all there is to it.

...a glass of milk...

At home I lugged my slippery jug of unpasteurized, fresh-from-the-cow, creamy milk into the house and slung it up on the counter. I looked at it, at the moisture forming on the glass, and thought, Now what am I going to do with a gallon of milk? Well, first of all, I thought I’d just have to have a glass of it. It might be the first glass of milk I’d drunk in thirty years, but the occasion seemed to demand it. I unscrewed the top, and plunged a dipper to the bottom and brought it back up.

When all is said and done, when all the pros and cons have been considered, telephone calls made, emails exchanged, books read, laws obeyed or disobeyed, memories proven faulty, it takes only one taste to tell you what’s real and what’s fake; what’s healthy and what’s not; how we need to live our lives.

I filled that glass. I took a sip. I paused. Was I really going to cry over a glass of milk? I stood at the counter and drank straight down to the bottom. It was the taste of my childhood. It was indescribably delicious!

This column was originally published in the Rutland (Vermont) Herald on June 19, 2007

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