Breast-Feeding, Donald Trump, Ice Cream and the Politics of Milk

“Where would a society be without good ice cream?”

– Mark Kurlansky, 2018

The prodigious, versatile author, Mark Kurlansky—who has written fiction and non-fiction, as well books for children, young adults and adults, too— has a formula, or rather formulae. He has to in order to turn out the books that he has turned out ever since 1992 when he published his first book, A Continent of Islands: Searching for the Caribbean Destiny.

He hit his stride five-years later, in 1997 with Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the Worldand, though that particular fish didn’t really change the world, Kurlanksy offered an impassioned argument that it had indeed altered the course of human history.

Editors and publishers love books with subtitles like “A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World,” and “How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America.” True, Ramparts helped foment dissent in the era that was shaped by the Vietnam War and by Nixon, the Black Panthers, Women liberation and millions of unruly protesters who rarely if ever read a magazine or a newspaper, unless it was an underground publication like The SeedThe RatThe Berkeley Barb and The Great Speckled Bird that came out of Atlanta, Georgia from 1968 to 1976, when most countercultural papers folded.

No, Ramparts did not change the world. If it had, would we be where we are right now?

Kurlanksy published Salt: A World History in 2002, The Big Oyster in 2006, and Havana in 2017. His latest book, Milk!: a 10,000 Year Food Fracas, adheres to the author’s formula for books about foods, diets and culinary culture, and, while it  reads well, it feels formulaic. That’s not necessarily bad, though after writing and publishing 29 books, Kurlanky has lost some of his pizzazz.

Milk! is well-reached and well-organized both chronologically and thematically, but it does not live up to the subtitle, “A 10,00-Year Food Fracas.” Granted, the author explores some of the milk controversies that have engulfed the world, including milk with strontium-90, which is radioactive, and, as Kurlansky points out,  “can cause cancer, leukemia, or premature aging.” He adds a long list of chemicals found in milk, including PBBm, rBGH, BST, BSE, better known as “mad cow disease,” and GMOs, which aren’t good for humans.

Kurlansky has said that his favorite author is the French writer, Emily Zola of “J’accuse” fame, who rushed to the defense of a Jewish artillery officer in the French army named Alfred Dreyfus who was accused of treason. Zola helped make Dreyfus a cause célèbre that did indeed change the course of history in the 1890s and at the start of the twentieth-century. Kurlanksy translated Zola’s novel The Belly of Paris (1873), which explores and unmasks the world of food at Les Halles, the mammoth market for vegetables, meats and more, and where the battle between the fat and the thin is waged between the stuffed members of the bourgeoisie and the famished members of the proletariat, as well as those beneath them on the food chain.

Unfortunately, Les Halles no longer exists. With its passing went much of Parisian history and culture. I visited only once, in the summer of 1961, when I was nineteenth-years old, and broke bread and shared cheese and sausages with the men who rose early, worked hard, went to bed at sundown and came back and did the same the next day.

Kurlansky might have borrowed some of Zola’s “J’accuse” passion and then dished it out to the milk industry and to the U.S. government, which has all-too often covered up fracases at diaries and in pastures. Milk! came out just before the story broke that revealed that the Trump administration had worked assiduously to block a United Nations’ resolution that called on governments around the world to “protect, promote and support breast-feeding.” Mr. Trump, who may or may not have been breast-fed, showed a basic ignorance about breast-feeding, and the marketing by global corporations of powdered formula to poor women in developing countries. Shame on you Mr. Trump!

“Let them eat, formula,” he seemed to say.

Kurlanksy covers a lot of ground in his newest book. He points out that Marie Antoinette staged a play in which she took the part of a milkmaid and entertained the fantasy that she might actually milk cows. “A revolution,” Kurlansky writes, “would end” her fantasy. Then, too, he point out that after the Cuban Revolution, the Cubans built the largest ice cream parlor in the world that offer twenty-six flavors. Then came the break-up of the Soviet Union and the end of Russian financial support. Now, Coppelia only serves three flavors: chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.

Milk! offers much of the history of ice cream and other dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt which are enjoyed all around the world and increasingly by cultures, like China that weren’t dependent on cow’s milk and cheeses made from cow’s milk. Kurlansky offers sections about cheese making in England, France, the United States and elsewhere, but there is nothing about dairies and dairy products in California, which is the largest milk-producing state in the U.S. He does get in a dig at California that he calls, “the heartland for industrialized food.”

But California is also far more than that. It’s also a state where small, independent dairies and creameries are making milk and milk-products without GMOs, and from cows that graze only on organic pastures. Albert Straus in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, is the CEO at Straus Family Dairy and Straus Family Creamer that uses milk from its own healthy cows and from healthy cows on neighboring farms. Marin and Sonoma farmers have joined together in a kind of co-op to ride out the volatile milk market and survive the onslaughts of the corporate milk industry.

The son of European immigrants who came to the U.S. to escape Hitler, Straus grew-up in Marin, went away to college, came back home and recreated the farm that his father started. It’s too bad that Kurlanksy never visited Straus’s dairy and creamery, and never tasted Straus ice cream that comes in eleven different flavors. That’s eight more than are available at Coppelia in Havana.

As Kurlansky writes, “where would a society be without good ice cream?”

Albert Straus has big dreams. Indeed, he wants to revitalize the kinds of rural communities that were once the lifeblood of northern California, but which have slowly withered.

“For us,” Straus says, “money is secondary to the quality of life for our family, for the surrounding community and for our employees.” He has his work cut-out for him, and so do his fellow dairymen and dairywomen.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.