Have you noticed how young folks these days pepper their language with the phrase “kind of”? As in, “We kind of interviewed a bunch of young film directors to kind of get a feel for what they kind of believe in as film makers, and we think we found the kind of perfect person to work with for this project.”
“Kind of,” in this context, serves to distance the speaker from whatever is being described. Like long manicured fingernails, it advertises that the speaker “kind of” floats above the mundanity of working-class life, safely removed from the low-rent requirement to communicate, in clear binary language, exactly what he means. It’s essentially a form of mumbling, a withholding of commitment in the same way that quotation marks around some corporate slogan proclaiming—usually in italics—“We Care!” leave just enough room for plausible deniability.
It’s also an acknowledgement from the youth culture that they are painfully aware of the fact that the music and movies and food funneled down their gullets have been predigested. My generation got The Who. Richard Dreyfuss sculpting mashed potatoes in Close Encounters. Jimi Hendrix channeling arias through a Strat strung upside down. An “all you care to eat” cod buffet where the hollandaise was prepared in house. Today’s kids get none of it. We got Bowie. They get Kanye West. We had music and movies and food. They get “music” and “movies” and “food.”
All this prevaricating, all this hedging of bets, all these quotation marks piling up around us, framing our communications and our life experiences. It’s a slowly encroaching miasma against which a lot of chefs and farmers and market purveyors stand watch over a protective fire by providing, daily, something real to their customers. Not necessarily “authentic,” as that word can be reductive, with quotation marks affixed permanently to its sides. Most people growing, preparing and selling authentic food don’t think of themselves as making anything, per se, “authentic.” Is a pizza made with olive oil more authentic than one made with canola or soy oil? That depends on how you define “authentic.” But for me, the pie made with olive oil is a pizza; the one made with vegetable oil—as good as it may taste—is a “pizza.”
Lately, I’ve been trying to identify what might be considered a quintessentially real food, a food so resistant to being caged inside quotation marks that all questions of “authenticity” fall away. I realized right off the bat that this food would need to be a terrible liar, all its secrets conspicuous in its flavor. Think pinot noir or sushi or a fresh tomato. It would also need to be common to our experience, something everyone has had at some point in their life. Finally, it would need to be a food yoked to tradition and, by extension, to the custodians of that tradition.
Considering this, I submit that raw milk might just be the most real of all foods.
Start with the fact that milk is the only food created specifically to feed something. (Honey doesn’t count, as the pollen honey is made from has its own agenda.) Synonymous with nourishment, raw milk is the first food most human beings—all mammals—ingest. And raw milk, for it to be free of any off flavors and to be safe to drink, requires painstaking care to produce. Every little step in the process matters.
The subtle and intricate flavors in raw milk, the very opposite of the one-note flavor of pasteurized milk or, worse, the waxy cardboard taste vacuum of skim, come from the undenatured biocomplexity in unpasteurized milk. When I read chemists-for-hire claiming, on behalf of big commercial dairy, that there isn't that much nutritional difference between pasteurized and raw, I choose to trust my palate. Well, my palate and the biochemists who say that the difference is real and considerable.
A few weeks back, farmer Joe Gyurik of Cedar Valley Farm and Market gave me a sample of some of his fresh raw milk, followed with a consecration of cream. Rich and luscious with a hint of almost butterscotch sweetness, it was like ice cream, minus the ice cream headache—a completely different animal than the pasteurized variety.
“The reason there’s no barnyardy aftertaste is that the cows get to be outside where they can air out and they’re not overcrowded in the barn. In big milk operations, the cows are crowded together. They’re sweating and rubbing into each other. Think of a crowded locker room. Those odors are absorbed by the skin, and then it’s in their blood, and it all ultimately winds up in the milk.”
If these smaller things matter so much, imagine how the cows’ diet—fresh grass and hay as opposed to spoiling corn or soy silage—impacts the final product.
The process of pasteurization can mask off flavors, as heat can neutralize the more temperature-sensitive flavor components in the milk, good and bad alike. The heat also reworks the milk’s nutritional profile. Milk is unique among foods in that, as a way of increasing the bioavailability of its nutrients, it is engineered with an intricate micro-architecture key to enhancing digestive function while preventing the nourishing compounds from reacting with one another. The healthy fatty acids, like the Omega 3 so plentiful in raw cream from pastured cows, are encased inside delicate phospholipid membranes very similar to those that surround the cells in your body. Raw milk, and the raw cheeses made from it, are truly living foods teaming with beneficial microbes. So although pasteurization kills dangerous bacteria, it kills the beneficial bacteria as well.
But here I am talking nutrition, which is necessarily reductive when it comes to talking food. Here’s the stuff that really matters: 1) Small-scale farming and ranching allows for a level of care that appears unscalable to massive commercial operations. This is especially true when it comes to milk production. 2) Farmers producing raw milk tend to be conscientious in the extreme. They know every animal on their property personally, as a shepherd comes to know every member of his or her flock. 3) Raw milk producers are instinctively resistant to oversimplifications of the farming process. Some producers place great value, for example, on whether or not their milking cows are A1 versus A2, a designation that refers to the fact that the two milks contain different types of a protein called beta-casein, which, some argue, matters, particularly to people who have a tough time digesting milk. Some place great value on the particular breed of the cow, a Holstein—known for its considerable milk production—versus, say, a Jersey cow which, generally speaking, produces fewer gallons of higher quality. Others choose to focus more keenly on soil health, sanitation and the flavor of the final product.
Then there’s a bunch of other stuff civilian non-farmers would never think to consider, things like “cheese merit,” which refers to how milk fat emulsifies in the milk in the same way that a fulgurite of fat marbles a high-end steak.
In the movie Napoleon Dynamite, the lead character dominates a FFA (Future Farmers of America) milk-tasting competition by declaring, about the second tasting of the flight, “This tastes like the cow got into an onion patch.” In raw milk production, every little thing matters; like all foods of subtle flavor, raw milk harbors no secrets.
“The quality of the milk is far better when the cows can be outside grazing. But you have to keep them off the wild onion.” This from veteran farmer and raw milk producer Susanne Sankow, who cares for, along with her chickens and award-winning cheese-producing lambs, ten cows. Every animal on her farm—except, of course, the newborn at risk of predation—have near round-the-clock access to the out-of-doors.
Susanne is 80. She’s been farming for 40 years. Her Lyme, Connecticut roughly 165-acre Beaver Brook Farm has been in her family for a century. Her cheeses, from her cows and sheep, win competitions. And when she tastes her dairy products her mind maps out the history of the lives of her animals, every square foot of the land on which they grazed, the changing seasons—the terroir. The Jersey cow that, out of habit, produced as much milk as a Holstein, nosing out other cows to get at the feed; the irresistible tufts of spring that brighten the quality of the milk; the errant cow that decided, just because she was bored and smelled something interesting, to Hoover up a few wild onions—all of this and more, the whole story, is inscribed within the droplets of fresh milk clinging to your lips. You can taste it, all of it, if you pay attention.
It’s why Susanne puts up with, welcomes even, the monthly tests the state of Connecticut conducts to ensure the safety of her milk. And the biyearly water tests. And the bimonthly farm inspections. It’s why, when I asked her why anyone would bother to produce raw milk when there’s so little financial reward for her efforts, she said, “Farming isn’t so much a thing you do as it is who you are.”
When it comes to raw dairy, some folks just can’t go there. They’ve heard about someone getting sick from raw milk and became, understandably, hesitant to take on the potential health risks of consuming a raw animal product; some people need their hamburger well done. I would be remiss to discount their concerns. But if there is such a thing as “doing God’s work,” I have to say that, from what I’ve gathered, raw milk producers are doing it. They’ve taken the path less traveled, and that makes all the difference.
Lloyd Allen of Double L Market in Westport got to the heart of it: “I’d trust a cow before I’d trust a chemist.”
And that kind of says it all.
Where To Buy Raw Milk In CT
Double L Market -Westport
Edge of the Woods - New Haven
Foodworks - Guilford & Old Saybrook
Four Seasons Market - Branford
Green Market - Lisbon
Highland Park Market - Coventry
Holbrook Farm Market -Bethel
Westport Farmers' Market - Sankow Beaver Brook Farm