Raw Milk Series, Part 1 (anecdotal)

So I’ve been working on this post about raw milk for over a week now, and it’s gotten to be sort of painful.  Somehow the length is already out of control but the details are scant and there’s still so much more that should be said.  My friend (and newly appointed Editor) saved my sanity and suggested I break it up into parts.  So here it is, the first in a multi-part series on raw milk.

For the entirely uninitiated, raw milk is simply milk that is totally unprocessed, unpasteurized, straight from the cow to you (well, not straight, precisely, more like by way of sanitized food-grade holding equipment and bottles that are sometimes glass and quaint).  My very first encounter with raw milk was uneducated and borderline traumatic.  An adventurous friend (hippie) had seen raw milk for sale at Whole Foods, wanted to try it, and bought a half-gallon of raw goat’s milk.  We took turns bravely swigging from the carton, only to realize mid-swallow that this milk had passed its prime, and though not rancid, it was intensely goat-y.  I have not been able to eat even the mildest goat-milk product since.  You can perhaps appreciate, then, how reluctant I was to give raw cow’s milk a try, a mere 7 months or so after the Goat Milk Incident.  But I had been gardening, and cooking, and working at the farmer’s market, and learning about nutrition, and learning about the many failings and dangers of the conventional food system.  I was working on a farm in Connecticut for the summer, and more than ever my diet consisted of whole, organic, unadulterated food.  My fellow apprentices were pretty serious about their raw milk consumption and it really became an inevitability that I would try it.  This time the milk was from a farm less than 45 minutes away aptly named Local Farm, and it was impeccably fresh.  Similar to previous experiences with truly fresh, wholesome carrots and tomatoes, it was like I was drinking milk for the first time.  It was what milk was clearly supposed to taste like, and all the milk I’d consumed until then was just a weak wannabe, failing utterly in its attempts to resemble milk.  It’s hard to remember precisely what it tasted like, but I remember being struck by the milk’s simultaneous purity and richness.  So much cream.  Simple and undeniably satisfying.

Later that summer we went to visit that farm as part of a series of field trips to expand our knowledge of small-scale organic food production.  This is the farm I remember most vividly.  It was that it is one of the few farms I’ve ever known to be run principally by a woman.  It was the closest I had ever been to a living cow (they are Huge and sort of terrifying), and I even got to milk one of the lucky ladies by hand.  We learned about the importance of healthy pastures for nutrient-rich milk, how the cows developed a symbiosis with the pastures, deriving most of their diets from the mix of plants, while keeping the fields well-maintained and fertilized.  We learned why raw milk makes sense for small-scale production.  The farmer’s partner told us how, when he started working on the farm many years previous, he thought he was lactose intolerant, but currently drinks at least half a gallon of whole raw milk daily and has never felt better.  Perhaps what affected me most is the obvious compassion, knowledge, and consideration with which this woman ran her farm.  All her cows had names and personalities.  She kept her herd small so she could care for them all personally.  When the cows had calves, the calves were nursed and raised on the farm, and if they weren’t going to become a family dairy cow, she insisted on slaughtering them herself.  This way, she could make absolutely sure that the animals experienced as little suffering as possible, but in listening to her I think there was an important note of closure and responsibility for her as a caretaker of those cows.  Maybe I’m projecting, here, but the idea has definitely stuck with me.  I happily lapped up raw milk for the rest of the summer.

Romanticized memories behind me, I returned to Florida and began to grasp, really, the political dynamics of food (especially the kind of food I had worked so hard to grow and learn about).  Connecticut is one of the few states in the nation, along with California, Maine, Vermont, and my new home State of Washington, where raw milk sales are fully legal.  To me, that means I can buy it at the grocery store or farmer’s market without dire warning labels indicating the dangerous nature of unpasteurized, unsanctioned food.  In most other states raw milk occupies some quasi-legal realm, with sales being legal if and only if they meet some combination of the following requirements: direct, on-farm sales; warning labels; certification; a physician’s prescription for raw goat’s milk only.  In a few states the sale and consumption of raw milk is entirely illegal.  You can check the status where you live here.

In Florida, you can buy raw milk at retail outlets as long as it has a label stating “For pet consumption only.”  This is a relatively minor inconvenience, and I was able to get raw milk at Whole Foods, though sometimes I had to ask someone to get it out of the back room for me because they didn’t want to put it on the shelves.  And more often than not, the milk was already started to sour when I brought it home because who knows how long it had been sitting in that back room.  Tiring seriously of paying over $8 a gallon for sour milk, I searched for a more direct sources and found a local buying club.  This club was run by a couple, real estate agents by day, raw food activists by afternoon (I don’t know what they did at night), who are some of the most enthusiastic raw milk supporters I’ve ever met.  Because of all the hours they spent weekly, organizing and ordering, myself and a number of other grateful renegades were able to order all manner of wholesome, humane, direct-from-the-farm food in bulk, and often at a discount.  Most of this kind of food simply isn’t available in stores, so unless you happen to live near such a farm, or can afford to have perishables overnighted to you from other parts of the country, it’s not always easy to find.  The buying club made it easy and enjoyable to buy real food, and more than that it engendered a little community in a place where individualism and capitalism are mostly unquestioned.

During the short time I live in Brooklyn, I was also the member of a much larger, but also more illegal, buying club.  The laws in New York are a little more strict: you can only buy raw milk on a certified farm, and there must be a sign at the point of sale that states “Notice: raw milk sold here.  Raw milk does not provide the protection of pasteurization.”  (HA!  But more on that later…)  The club, which as far as I can tell had at least a few hundred members, ordered raw milk and raw milk products (cheese, sour cream, kefir, etc.) directly from various cow and goat farmers in New York and Pennsylvania.  The farmers would deliver the goods to rotating locations around the city, and we would collectively pay them directly, so even though we weren’t precisely getting the milk on the farm, there were at least no intermediaries.  The whole thing was orchestrated by the members (volunteering was a membership requirement), with no storefront, no mark-up, and no profit margin.  In true New York City fashion, most of the members didn’t pretend to make it a social event, but everyone was at least polite, considerate, and cooperative.  Which is more than can be said for the rest of the city, even if the spirit was mostly conspiratorial.  I can get into conspiratorial bonding.

Here are some great resources if you want to learn more about raw milk, but simply can’t wait for me to write the next installment (I understand your excitement entirely):

Katz, Sandor Ellix.”The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements.” The Raw Underground. Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2006.  161-181.

A Campaign for Real Milk

Weston A. Price Foundation (Notice the quote on the left side of the homepage: “They’re happy because they eat butter!”  Amen.)

Satiation

I have spent the last few days on a mission: to clear my head and chest of some of the most persistent congestion I’ve ever experienced.  I’ll spare you the gory details, but my tactics have thus been: blowing my nose offensively as often as possible, acupuncture treatment, gross-nasty herbal cough drops, as many cups of lavender/mint/licorice root tea as I can handle, avoiding dairy and sugar, and seeking out brothy, spicy foods.  The only tactic up until now that has not been successful is the last.  I went for Indian food but the medium-hot curry was not enough to really get things burning, and you see, I wanted pain.  Today I sat down for some miso soup and a sushi roll, and while tasty enough and filling, it was distinctly unsatisfying.  I came home feeling rather lazy and had already decided against making dinner, but what started as a quick midnight snack turned out to be just the meal I’ve been craving most.

I think there can be a lot of value in tuning in to your food cravings.  They can help point to the imbalances and needs of our bodies.  My lifelong, unwavering passion for peppermint is probably indicative of the fact that I’ve never had an easy stomach.  My synonymous feelings for red meat might likewise be the offset of a suspected slightly anemic condition.  So I try to listen to my body and satisfy cravings in the most healthy way possible.  Some cravings, like those for sugar or intoxicants, I recognize as being generally unhealthy and try to indulge moderately.  Mostly I just think about what I would most like to eat, and go with that.

Last night I wandered into the kitchen, not sure of what I would find, but knowing that there wasn’t a whole lot to work with.  I discovered, and began to assemble: a medium-sized sweet onion (thinly sliced), butter, one spicy italian sausage (from your local grass-fed ranch, of course), chicken broth leftover from another recipe (about a cup, enough to come halfway up the sausage in a small pan), brut cava leftover from the mimosas I poured for brunch a week ago (two or three tablespoons), a little salt, and a good amount of cracked pepper.  The sausage was frozen solid and I didn’t feel like waiting, so I decided to braise it with some chicken broth and cava, while I slowly browned the onion in another pan.  After about 20 minutes I took the sausage out of the braising liquid, and turned the heat to medium-high, to get it to a simmer.  Another 15 minutes, the braising liquid has reduced quite a bit, the onions are getting pretty brown, and the sausage goes into the pan with the onions to brown.  When that’s done, put it all aside, strain the braising liquid into the onion pan, making sure to scrape up all the delicious brown bits on the bottom of the pan.  Let it reduce a few minutes more before pouring it over the onions and sausage.

It was just what I needed: the sausage actually packed a punch, the reduced broth was rich and savory, with enough tartness from the cava to cut through any dullness on the tongue, and sweetness in the caramelized onions to balance it all.  I ate voraciously.  I plan to try to recreate it for lunch today.  I made ginger rose tea to go with it, and enjoyed that so thoroughly that I’ve resolved to buy fresh ginger tomorrow and make super-hot ginger rose tea all day long.  In case you didn’t know, ginger is intensely curative, with antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-oxidant properties, and is one of the best known medicines for relieving all sort of gastrointestinal distress.  I was definitely breathing easier after my meal.

Snack for a Regenerative Day

Over the last 5 months, I have learned more about tea that I thought I would ever know.  As with most things, it has merely made me aware of how very little I know about tea.  Tea is truly fascinating, with complexities of type, flavor, and historical reach that are overwhelmingly vast.  Today I’m sipping on Emperor’s Pu-erh 1998, from  a fantastic, no-nonsense teahouse in San Francisco called Aroma.  Most people I talk to have never heard of pu-erh, or else have never tried it.  It is supposedly something of an acquired taste, but I fell in love with it at first sip.  My first pu-erh was purchased without thought at a large heath food chain, just because it looked interesting.  I added milk and maple syrup because it looked like black tea to me, and that’s what you do with black tea, right?  It was rich and fulfilling, and quickly became part of my morning routine.  Now that I am a little more informed, I take my pu-erh black, and rather like it that way.

Now, here’s what I can tell you about pu-erh:  It is produced in China, where it is referred to as “black” tea (what we refer to as black tea in the West is called “red” tea in China).  It is a fermented tea, and can be either raw/”green” or “cooked” depending on whether it was oxidized before fermentation.  Often it is pressed into cakes or bricks of various shapes and sizes (rectangles and bowl “tuo-cha” shapes are very common), but can also come loose leaf (like my pu-erh).  Unlike every other type of tea (and just like every other type of fermented food), pu-erh develops more flavor and becomes more valuable as it ages.  It can get surprisingly expensive–single cakes of pu-erh have been known to sell for thousands of dollars.  Here in the U.S., we’re not that serious about our tea, and it can actually be difficult to find good pu-erh.  I tried a sublime 20-year-old wild pu-erh in the aforementioned tea shop, but at approximately $22 per ounce, I couldn’t justify bringing some home.  The Emperor’s 1998 is a still a very good tea, and about half the price.

Pu-erh is also valued for its unique health benefits, which border on miraculous/all-encompassing.  It has been shown to simultaneously increase “good” (HDL) cholesterol and lower “bad” (LDL) cholesterol (I use quotes because I’m not clear on the difference between these types of cholesterol).  The fermentation process imparts digestive benefits.  It is good for detoxification, especially the liver, and has been used to treat hangovers.  It is full of anti-oxidants that fight disease, notably heart disease and cancer.  It can also apparently help keep you looking and feeling young (by nourishing your connective tissues) and perhaps even help those who want to lose weight (by increasing your metabolism and curbing your appetite).

Today I paired my pu-erh with a few pieces of 70% cacao dark chocolate from Theo Chocolate, my favorite local chocolate factory (what, don’t you have a chocolate factory where you live??).  Theo is a really well-rounded company that produces arguably the best chocolate I’ve ever had.  It probably helps that it’s always undeniably fresh and wholesome.  Yes, that’s right, wholesome chocolate.  Theo is the first chocolate producer in the country that is fair-trade and organic from bean to bar, and is intent on staying small enough to carefully guide the entire process with real human eyes and hands.  I’ve been on their factory tour twice so far, and have made many a giddiness-inducing trip to the attached retail store.  Most of what I know about chocolate I learned on this tour.  This is what I can remember: cacao is one of the most anti-oxidant rich foods on the planet; the fat in cacao (coco butter) is exceptionally good for your skin and body, and is usually extracted for sale to the cosmetics industry then replaced with cheap synthetic fats; there are like, special brain chemicals and shit that make us really really happy.  There has been plenty of media coverage about the health benefits of dark chocolate, but not nearly as much about how fair, quality chocolate is by far the healthiest.  Theo does it right.

Pu-erh and dark chocolate may be one of those ethereal, perfect pairs, in the leagues of bacon and maple syrup, or more popularly, peanut butter and jelly.  Some of my favorite pu-erhs have deep chocolately tones, so it was not a particularly difficult leap to make.  The grounded bright fruitiness of the chocolate (slightly cold, slightly sweet) was the perfect balance for the deep moist-earthiness of the tea (warm, unrelentingly savory).  It is yet another example of how foods with very few ingredients and careful, skilled processing can develop such intense complexity of flavor as to boggle the mind and palate.  A true luxury.

Southern-style Goodness

Tonight I hosted a little dinner thing with a Southern theme. The contributions were ribs, twice-baked potatoes, collard greens with ham hocks, and two types of cornbread. I also made (something that could loosely be referred to as) flan for dessert, but it would be a stretch to call it Southern. Overall, a really fantastic, satisfying, makes-you-wanna-take-a-nap meal.

The ribs were slow-cooked with care and lust by my favorite Seattle cooking buddy, to whom I will refer hereafter as the Teacher. Since he had never made ribs before, I suggested a recipe from Alton Brown (oh, how I love A.B.). The episode it was on is called “Who Loves Ya Baby-Back?” and is highly educational for anyone who is interested in slow-cooked meats. The ribs were, in a word, fan-fucking-tastic–succulent, tender, and dripping with explosively flavorful, saucy goodness. A.B. says that what makes ribs so especially delicious is all the collagen, which when cooked over a long period of time at a low temperature, turns into rich, melty gelatin. And lucky for us, gelatin is also really good for you. Keeping your joints and skin young and healthy are just a couple of the many benefits of gelatin in the diet.

The rest of the spread was also impressive, and very filling.  I love it when modest dinner plans turn into rich feasts, just because of the enthusiasm of great home cooks (and because the guest count was lower than expected).  It’s important to eat with people–it’s something we all have to do and is perhaps the most accessible gateway into an unfamiliar culture.  In my experience, people who cook together are or become good friends.  At the very least, you’ll have reliable dining partners. 

As for my dishes, they were both experimental and successful to varying degrees.  I’ve never made cornbread before and I switched up some ingredients in the flan that made it substantially different from custards past.  I was really pleased with the cornbread–I didn’t have the traditional cast iron skillet, and I used rapadura sugar in half the amount called for by the recipe, but it came out moist, crumbly and tasty.  Also, did you know it’s really easy to make?  I’m not much of a baker and I had no trouble at all.  Look out for a separate post on my adventures in flan.

Baked Sweet Potato with Maple-Cayenne Cultured Cream

This is a hearty snack I recently thought up that I think is quite tasty, very easy, and well, pretty nutritionally solid.  First things first: how to make it.  Scrub down a medium-sized sweet potato, give it a few good jabs with a fork, and put it directly on the rack of a 400 degree oven.  Let it bake until tender, about 45 minutes to an hour, or just about when you start to smell burnt sugar oozing from the skin.  Carefully (because the steam in this thing is Really hot) slice open the tuber and promptly apply about as much butter as you can stand.  Salt generously and crack a little pepper on top.  While your butter is melting into little rivers of delicious, mix in a small bowl about 2T sour cream, 2t maple syrup, and 1/2t ground cayenne.  I say about because I have never actually measured this, and you’ll want to adjust for your particular tastes (more or less sweet, spicy).  Apply to potato and eat.

Now many people may be skeptical of the nutritional soundness of this snack, what with all the calories and fat and sugar, but allow me to assuage the fearful.  Most people know that sweet potatoes are ridiculously good for you–they contain powerful anti-oxidants, with an especially high vitamin A and C content.  But butter also has a rather impressive array of health benefits, in particular butter that comes from organic and grass-fed cows.  Though you should read the attached article because it is interesting and relatively easy to read, I’ll summarize a few key points here.  Butter contains a number of potent anti-oxidants in very easily assimilated forms (vitamin A and E, selenium) that help prevent heart disease and cancer.  These nutrients are so readily available because the saturated fat in butter is easy for the body to turn into energy.  The “storage” fat on our bodies is mainly long-chain fatty acids which comes from polyunsaturated oils and refined carbohydrates.  Too much jargon?  Vegetable oils and simple carbs make you fat and tired, while butter tastes delicious and is truly nourishing.

With that whole fat thing out of the way, it’s easy to see why gobs of sour cream is also a good thing.  Sour cream is a cultured milk product, which means it’s been fermented by live organisms that do nice things for our digestive systems.  In general, traditionally fermented foods make nutrients more available for our bodies to absorb, while also adding delightful tanginess and flavor.  Convenient, eh?  Again, it is important to get dairy products from cows that are grass-fed if you want to get the most out of your butterfat.  If you can source said dairy products locally, even better.  The Cornucopia Institute has developed this rating system to help you figure out which common organic brands abide by the most wholesome practices.  I usually get Organic Valley (cultured) butter because it’s cheaper and though they’re a national brand they distribute regionally.  They’re also my go-to dairy brand at conventional grocery stores.  The sour cream I get out here is Nancy’s, which is wonderfully thick and tasty, unlike anything else I’ve had from a grocery store.  Both of these companies earned a 4 Cow rating with the Cornucopia Institute.

I’m worried that this may be information overload.  Should I go into the differences between refined and natural sweeteners?  Maybe I’ll save that for another time, but ponder this: The Corn Refiner’s Association wants you to believe that all sugars are molecularly the same and therefore nutritionally equal, but they are just lying.  (Thanks to my dear ex-roomie for posting that article on Facebook recently.)  Anyway, a little maple syrup is just fine, though natural sweeteners should still be consumed only occasionally.