A (somewhat) brief history of milk

A (somewhat) brief history of milk

Our church held communion over Zoom. Pastor Joe was on-screen reading the Lord’s Supper. I had the fridge open, looking for some grape juice.

I couldn’t go too Catholic with actual wine. And orange juice feels disappointing without pancakes. So I continued scanning the shelves. My eyes finally locked on a mason jar full of raw farm-fresh milk. I glanced at a container of Oreos nearby. “I’m about to do this, aren’t I?”

I made sure my video was turned off. Waited for the cue. This is my body, this is my blood. The fill-in bread was an Oreo, the wine a glass of milk. I dunked the Oreo and committed either the most innovative or most profane version of Covid-19 communion.

The Sacred and the Profane

A glass of milk has always straddled the line between sacred and profane. Especially here in America, we can’t seem to agree if milk is either the best thing or the worst thing for us.

Those in favor of milk point to its life-giving qualities. A baby is breastfed long before their first glass of ice water. Healthwise, milk is rich in calcium and vitamins. Makes us stronger by building our bones and our Midwestern character.

Milk is even motivational. How did Moses inspire the Israelites? I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into a land flowing with MILK and honey.’ Or remember how our English teacher passionately explained the ending scene of Grapes of Wrath? Rose of Sharon breastfed a stranger, saved him from starvation, and three classmates woke up by the chalkboard. “Wait, what happened at the end?”

Those opposed to milk go right to their bread and (non-dairy) butter argument: “It’s not natural. We are the only mammals who drink another mammal’s milk. Plus, lactose is terrible on the body. And don’t even get me started on raw, non-pasteurized milk.”

These anti-milkers flooded the market with milk alternatives. Started with lactose-free then expanded to things like oat milk, almond milk, coconut milk. How they found the udder on a cashew is beyond me. Nowadays, there are more types of milk in the grocery store than flavors of Oreos. And all of this has led, in part, to the recent bankruptcies of former dairy giants like Dean Foods and Borden Dairy.

What was surprising to me – as I began milking this research for all its worth – was just how long milk has been part of human society. The story of milk begins 10,000 years ago in what was then called The Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East. This land was south of the Black & Caspian seas containing parts of modern-day Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. This was the main setting for most of the Bible’s Old Testament.

The First Dairy Cow

The “OG” dairy cow was called the Auroch, a name that sounds right at home in a Lord of the Rings movie. Aurochs were the size of bison with two massive horns. They roamed the earth for two million years before we started the domestication process. The resulting breeds of domestic cattle from the Aurochs were the humped Zebu (Bos indicus) and the humpless European Highland cattle (Bos taurus). And I will end the cow genealogy right here because I can actually feel the yawns as I’m typing this sentence.

The first dairy cow may have been 8,000 – 10,000 years ago, but it wasn’t until 3,000 BC when dairy began playing a major role in human society. This gap in time is similar to when Al Gore first invented the internet in the mid-1970s vs. the high-speed internet today capable of Zoom communion.

Archaeological evidence shows that the Ancient Sumerians drank cow’s milk and also made cheeses and butters. Ancient Mesopotamia was essentially the first Wisconsin. Scientists point to a genetic mutation around this time called lactase persistence that allowed us to consume milk without getting sick.

But let’s go ahead and hit the fast forward button from 3,000 BC to the year 1,100. There weren’t many major milk moments until the arrival of the Guernsey cow, which can properly be described as the Michael Jordan of dairy.

Guernsey Milk


Mont-Saint-Michel is a tidal island off the Northwestern Coast of France. The land itself looks like a miniature version of Old Mission Peninsula up in Northern Michigan. It’s a tourist destination for the incredible views and this massive old cathedral pictured above, one that Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko walk around in Terrence Malick’s film, To the Wonder. 

Legend has it, around the year 1,000, a group of monks living on this island gathered up “the best bloodlines of French cattle, Normandy Brindles (also known as Alderneys) and the Froment du Leon breed from Brittany” and headed to sea, eventually settling on Guernsey Island in the English Channel. Over time, the Guernsey cow emerged from these French breeds.  


What’s so different or special about this cow? First, the coloring. These aren’t the traditional black and white cow you think of when picturing a dairy cow or a Chick-Fil-A commercial. They look more like the Texas Longhorns mascot. The color of the milk is different too, it’s more of a yellow. Health-wise, Guernsey milk contains 12% more protein, 30% more cream, 33% more vitamin D, 25% more vitamin A and 15% more calcium than average milk.

Also, 96% of Guernsey cows carry the protein Beta Casein A2 in their milk. There is some anecdotal evidence that this protein MAY be better for the health of some people than the Protein Beta Casein A1 that is found in most other glasses of milk. 

Coming to America

So we’ve got the Guernsey cows off on a remote island. The cows are training, fine-tuning their milk, being led by a group of monks. They’re kind of like Luke Skywalker training with Yoda. The Guernsey milk, arguably the best on the planet, won’t be shared with the rest of the world until the 1700s.

Let’s head back, then, to the main milk timeline. Picking things up in 1525. From here, we’ll kind of go rapid-fire through history taking us all the way to present day 2020.

1500s – Bring the Cows with You

Courtesy of the Britannica milk timeline:

“The first cattle to arrive in the New World landed in Vera Cruz, Mexico, in 1525. Soon afterword, some made their way across the Rio Grande to proliferate in the wild. They became known as ‘Texas Cattle.’

Some of the [Spanish] settlers transported cattle to South America from the Canary Islands and Europe. More followed, and cattle multiplied rapidly throughout New Spain, numbering in the thousands within a few years.” 

1600s – Death of the Auroch

In the early 1600s, the Aurochs, aka the OG Dairy Cow, officially went extinct. People all around the world poured out a glass of milk to the granddaddy of them all and the world’s cows observed a short mooment of silence.

I’m deeply ashamed of that pun, but not quite enough to delete it.

1700s – Milk as Medicine?

You ever hear someone say, “If you’re sick, just put an onion in your bedroom, it’ll help.” Or if you have a sore throat, gargle with saltwater. These types of wive’s tales/folk tale medicinal practices have always been around and whether it’s correlation vs. causation, placebo vs. science, I find myself still believing a lot of them. 

One of these observations back in 18th century Europe was that milkmaids (women who milked cows) seemed to be immune from the smallpox plagues sweeping through Europe. In 1796, English physician Edward Jenner developed a vaccine for smallpox based upon this folklore knowledge.

“Recognizing that dairymaids infected with cowpox were immune to small-pox, Jenner deliberately infected James Phipps, an eight-year-old boy, with cowpox in 1796. He then exposed Phipps to smallpox-which Phipps failed to contract. After repeating the experiment on other children, including his own son, Jenner concluded that vaccination provided immunity to smallpox.” 

In the United States, the first smallpox vaccination took place in 1799 from Valentine Seaman, who used a “serum acquired by Edward Jenner.” This was, perhaps, the biggest healthcare win for the pro-milk camp in all of history. 

1800s – Louis Pasteur: Some Say Hero, Others Say Villain


In the 19th century, the alcohol distillery business in the United States was starting to grow and several of the big ones are still around today (Anheuser Busch: 1852. Jack Daniels: 1866. Coors: 1873). During this time of rapid growth, large amounts of swill (spent-grains) were produced as a byproduct of whiskey and other alcohol production. Many distilleries opened dairies and began feeding their dairy cows with the waste swill. There wasn’t much nutrition in the swill which led to sickness in the cows and, in turn, to the people who drank this low-quality milk.

“Confined to filthy, manure-filled pens, the unfortunate cows gave a pale, bluish milk so poor in quality, it couldn’t even be used for making butter or cheese.” (Milk Pro Con – History of Milk)

This was the historical backdrop for the original health foods celebrity, Louis Pasteur, to begin his most famous work.

In the early 1860s, Louis Pasteur was already riding high from his discovery of how yeast works. Before then, no one knew exactly how:

  • Yeast feeds on the starches in flour, producing carbon dioxide
  • Ccarbon dioxide expands the gluten proteins in the flour
  • Gluten proteins cause the dough (of which flour is a main ingredient) to expand and rise

This discovery led to modern yeast vs. the old school breads (like sourdough) that rely on a starter. In this way, modern yeast is kind of like the HGH/steroids of baking. The result was the rise of white bread creation and sales in the late 1800s and it’s why, for the pro-sourdough camp, Pasteur is a bit of a villain.

After taking on bread, Pasteur turned his attention to wine, beer, and milk. He wanted to study the fermentation process and its impact on our health. This led to Pasteur’s patented germ theory, the concept that “micro-organisms were responsible for spoiling beverages, such as beer, wine and milk. With this established, he invented a process in which liquids such as milk were heated to a temperature between 60 and 100 °C. This killed most bacteria and moulds already present within them.”

Pasteur patented the process and put his name right on it, calling it “Pasteurization.” The first use of pasteurization was for wine and then it was applied to beer and milk. By 1895, pasteurized milk was the standard, mainly to fight milk-borne illnesses. In 1899, there was the invention of the milk homogenizer. This process further altered the natural milk, preventing the cream from separating and rising to the top.

Illnesses did go down, but one detail that gets lost in the story was the terrible nutrition these cows were receiving. If a cow is eating nothing but swill and confined to a manure-filled pen, did it ever really have a chance to produce high-quality milk? And would pasteurization be needed if the cow had a better environment?

1900s – The Milk Battle Intensifies 

We’ll buzz through these headlines real quick, but the main narrative of the 20th century for milk was 1) Pasteurization was king, there should be no other alternative, and 2) Everybody loved milk. From glasses of milk with Oreos to bowls of cereal to school lunch cartons, milk was riding high and beloved by all.

  • 1913 – Typhoid epidemic in New York City. Attributed to contaminated milk
  • 1917 – Pasteurization required unless cows are proven to be without tubercluosis
  • 1946 – 1/2 to 2 pints of whole milk required with the newly passed National School Lunch Act
  • 1993-95 – Got Milk campaign launched. Milk mustache on famous athletes and celebrities. Might have been peak milk popularity
  • 1998 – The raw milk campaign began. Fighting back against the pasteurized attacks
  • 2007 – Sale of raw cow’s milk was illegal in 17 states

2000s – Back to the Basics 

Milk’s momentum carried over into the 21st century. In 2001, Dean Foods had 25,000 employees.

In 2005, the USDA suggested three cups a day of fat-free or low-fat milk products

But by 2015, dairy milk sales start to decline. We started to see the rise of milk alternatives.

And here in 2020, Borden and Dean Foods both filed for bankruptcy, signaling what might be the end of the mega-milk era. From the CNN article:

“The company said it also has been hurt by broader industry trends, including a 6% drop in overall US milk consumption since 2015. Borden noted that more than 2,700 family dairy farms went out of business last year, and 94,000 have stopped producing milk since 1992.”

So if the big guys can’t make it work, and the little family farms are struggling, what does the future of milk look like? Are we at the end of a several thousand-year story? Will we ever see the popularity of the 1990s?

In Part 2, I’d like to take you to a place in Dundee, Illinois called All Grass Farms. Our story will pick up on a Saturday morning with a line of people at least 10-15 strong. Looks like a line awaiting church communion. Almost everyone has an empty mason jar and a cooler. They’re about to fill up on the best Guernsey milk this side of Normandy.

Over the last several months, I’ve been using the Medium Rare blog in a different format, featuring local restaurants and businesses around Chicago. These can also drift into a little bit of philosophy and stories from my own life + a historical deep dive like what you got today. To catch up on some of the posts and read about great local spots, here they are below:

Inkling in Lakeview East and why we need the little shops

Chilam Balam: What it takes to keep a restaurant open during the pandemic

Taste of New York Bagels & Deli

Tango Sur

Black & Caspian

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