Flash in the Pan 

Got mail

Following my recent column on milk, I received some letters worthy of note.

The column in question mentioned a commercial that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) attempted, unsuccessfully, to air during the last Super Bowl. The ad depicted a club scene full of frenzied partyers drunk on milk. When the writhing women flashed the crowd, cow udders tumbled from their lifted tank tops. Viewers were then directed to www.milkgonewild.com for more bizarre footage and an explanation of PETA’s point: Drinking milk is abusive to cows, it’s gross, and it’s weird.

It’s abusive, PETA claims, because of the way large dairy operations—which produce most of our milk—treat their cows. It’s gross because such cows are often pumped full of antibiotics, growth hormones and other goodies that end up in the milk along with blood, pus and feces. It’s weird, they say, because humans are the only species that drinks milk beyond infancy—the milk of another species, no less. PETA also cites evidence that milk is not as good for your health as the dairy industry claims.

Milkgonewild made me question my dairy-consumption habits, and I found it particularly odd, now that they’ve mentioned it, that we drink another creature’s milk well beyond infancy, unlike any other animal. In my column, I wondered aloud if we humans are stuck in a state of prolonged, breast-fixated infancy.

I’m less concerned with how my dairy consumption is linked with treatment of animals, because I’m careful to purchase my milk products from small, organic, local dairies. In most cases I know the farmers, have seen their operations, and am confident that the animals are treated well. A key flaw in the PETA video, I believe, is that it failed to point out important differences between large and small dairy operations.

Local milkmaid Jen—who makes my butter and cheese curds—sent a letter thanking me for noting this difference. She further noted that “…the beautiful heifer calf that was born yesterday morning will one day be as appreciated for her milk as all of the old girls that tromp into the parlor every morning and night with their frozen whiskers to give of themselves for good organic hay, grain and a scratch on the butt now and then.”

I had barely finished patting myself on the back for being so supportive of local dairy when there came a knock on my door. A goat farmer named Dinah was there to hand-deliver a letter. Normally when Dinah shows up it’s to bring me goat cheese.

“I didn’t want to send this to the editor,” she said, “because you’re my friend and I don’t want to get you in trouble. But I disagree with parts of your last column.”

Dinah left me with her letter and a promise to return when she has cheese.

“…the only reason that other animals don’t drink milk is that they are unable to attain it,” she wrote. “On my farm pigs, chickens, ducks, and turkeys all feast on milk. If I leave my milk bucket unattended for even a few seconds the geese will get into it. Even the gelding has drunk an entire bucketful in seconds. Some goats are called “self-suckers” (for obvious reasons), and even my 6-year-old cow will still come to a bottle.”

Dinah also pointed out that in the case of lactating mammalian prey, “…predators frequently go for the udder first after a kill.”

Self-suckers? Wow. Not even the milkgonewild spot went there. But there you go: perhaps milk is so good it drives us animals to perversion.

I remember many sessions as a young lad, many years after my weaning, standing in front of the open fridge with a gallon jug raised to my lips, gulping, gulping, gulping down milk as if it was Gatorade and I had just crawled across the desert. It seemed obvious at the time that my body was craving it.

And then there’s “neoteny,” a complicated word that might help explain our protracted relationship with the secretions of mammary glands in evolutionary terms.

Neoteny is a term used by evolutionary biologists to describe, alternatively, the retention of juvenile characteristics in the adults of a species or the attainment of sexual maturity by an organism still in its infancy. Both definitions, arguably, describe the behavior alluded to in the milkgonewild commercial. It may come as a surprise that most evolutionary theorists consider neoteny to mark a doorway for rapid species evolution, providing a mechanism for adapting to changing environmental conditions.

So here is my four-part conclusion to this milk business: 1) Our species’ love of milk and milk-related body parts might be, in some obscure and esoteric way, connected with our evolutionary capabilities. 2) Goats are lucky, ’cause they can self-suck. 3) Big dairies, bad. Small dairies, good. 4) Keep those letters coming!


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