Yale, £17.99 Order for £16.19 (free p&p)from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Milk: a local and global history, By Deborah Valenze
A study made of the white stuff
Wednesday 31 August 2011
Blessed are the cheesemakers." Not far into Deborah Valenze's 3,000-year history, it is apparent that instinct long anticipated wisdom. The Ancients' appreciation of milk was, around the time of the Great War, dignified with, or reduced to, the term "vitamin A". Governments urged its merits, but all educational drives pall beside the case of Bernard of Clairvaux.
The Life of Brian gag was more astute than Monty Python realised. In the 12th century, the Virgin Mary came to Bernard, unveiling a breast and squeezing three drops of milk into his mouth. This became a familiar image, spectacularly so in Alonso Cano's painting, where she directs it from some distance. As Valenze observes of this "miraculous arc of milk", its "startling literalness evokes amusement from modern viewers, separated as we are by several hundred years from the unmediated physicality of the Middle Ages. Yet the legend and its image speak volumes about the powerful hold of sacred milk on the western European imagination".
Valenze is attuned to all the eras that she traverses, back to that of Isis in Egypt, "a stately seated figure, her breasts exposed". Though her husband Osiris also possessed a vital organ, Isis outlived him, making copies of his phallus "which she then distributed for use in worship".
Adept in theology, history, sociology and more, Valenze delights in cheese. Whether deliberating upon biology or the fact that gustatory preferences brought cows rather than goats upon our fields, she is equally incisive at summarising such calamities as the use of spent distillery grain for animal feed in 19th-century New York.
Industrialisation and malnourishment form a substantial section of the book, from which Elmer McCollum emerges a hero. Born in 1879 to Tennessee farmers, he grew up in poverty alleviated by poetry and was saved from scurvy by strawberries (vitamin C). At university, he eked out income by lab work, after instinct had told him a cow's eating was crucial to its udders. What was more, he appreciated the Wisconsin dictum "speak to a cow as you would to a lady". In 1912, after feeding rats with fats, he hit upon vitamin A (the word being a conflation of "vita" and "amine").
The tragedy is that, a century on, many now speak to a cow as they would a robot, filling supermarket shelves with products which would do Bernard of Clairvaux no good at all.
Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated
tvAn expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle
artLee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist
‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The truth about 'girl things': Three cheers for Heather Watson's honesty
- 2 Man who held up 'hire me' sign at Waterloo station returns a year later with 'I'm hiring' sign
- 3 UK weather: Snow to fall during coming week with sub-zero temperatures to last until early February
- 4 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 5 Men behaving badly: Urinating while standing, 'manspreading' and the gendering of selfishness
Heavy metal producer's corpse to be mutilated by models as per his dying wish
Benedict Cumberbatch says Hollywood is better for black British actors: 'I think as far as coloured actors go it gets really difficult in the UK'
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction
Pixie Geldof signs recording deal with Stranger Records
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
Nigel Farage: NHS might have to be replaced by private health insurance
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
George Galloway condemns 'racist, Islamophobic, hypocritical rag' Charlie Hebdo at freedom of speech rally
Islamic history is full of free thinkers - but recent attempts to suppress critical thought are verging on the absurd