Theo’s cries for “milk, millllk” from his bedroom just across the hall awaken us nearly every morning. How he’d love to swim in a giant bottle of his favorite beverage, as Mickey does (“I’m in the milk, and the milk’s in me”) in “In the Night Kitchen.” Milk – and the green smoothies I described last week – are the nutritious, calorie-and-fat-rich mainstays of my 3-year-old’s liquid-centric diet. We’ve tried every kind of milk under the sun, since thankfully we have abundant local options to choose among (though they may be diminishing, with the demise of Maine’s Own Organic (MOO) Milk).
As with childbirth and breastfeeding, the politics and passions that inform personal milk choices are particularly charged. Conflicting science creates uncertainty about which milk is most healthful. Reared on the happy medium of 2 percent in the 1980s and ’90s, I cringed at the rich whole milk my late grandparents stirred into their coffee (and I rejected skim milk as watery and blue). Now, whole milk, like those other great-grandmother foods, is back, as a growing number of families, including ours, embrace it exclusively. We’re encouraged by recent studies on the “full-fat paradox,” counter-intuitively linking the consumption of whole milk dairy to leaner waistlines. Is it the satiety factor – the rich milk fills us up faster? Or elements in whole milk that speed up the metabolism, so fat is burned instead of stored?
The local food movement has us craving milk in its least processed, most nostalgic state: non-homogenized and full-fat, from pastured cows consuming their natural diet of grass, increasingly from Jerseys and other less common, non-Holstein breeds with higher butterfat and potentially more digestible, less allergenic proteins. Then there’s the primal pleasure and potential beneficial enzymes of fresh raw milk, tempered by those buzz-killing pathogens it’s prone to harbor that make us particularly nervous about serving it to children and pregnant mothers.
Yet in Maine, which enjoys some of the country’s most lax raw milk laws, it’s easy to forget this pure nectar was once a problematic conduit of disease and bacteria. At farmers markets and natural foods stores like Morning Glory in Brunswick, we’re tempted by raw dairy from more than half a dozen reliable farms, especially delicious half-gallon glass jars from Misty Brook Farm in Albion. Raw milk was common, not contentious, when food writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins was growing up in Camden in the 1940s and ’50s. Milkmen from three or four dairies delivered it to the doorsteps of Camden families every morning. Come winter, the cream top often froze, she recalls, into a tower with its little cardboard cap. Even home delivery is slowly reviving. I got a thrill trying it from Noris Dairy in Oregon, and here, the esteemed Harris Farm in Dayton delivers along the southern coast, from Saco to Kittery.
Still, such talk of milk choice rings hollow for our many mothers who qualify for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) coupons and have their children in HeadStart. Federal guidelines allow these programs to provide whole milk only until the children are 2 years old. Maine’s WIC Director Lisa Hodgkins says older kids qualify for whole milk (or soy in the case of allergies/cultural preferences) only if their doctor has prescribed medical formula, justifying a need for extra calories. WIC affords the least expensive milk available (including from Maine favorite Oakhurst Dairy) but never organic. That’s why some low-income mothers, such as the eco-minded Samantha Ricker in Bath, didn’t feel WIC offered her family much benefit.
Maine’s many food-insecure residents also suffer a lack of fresh milk at the food pantries they often depend upon. Thankfully, the Good Shepherd Food-Bank and Oakhurst Dairy last week announced their local launch of The Great American Milk Drive, a national program distributing vouchers for free milk to food pantry patrons to spend at grocery stores. You can donate to the yearlong effort at www.milklife.com/give.
For us, promises of no growth hormones (the synthetic “rBST” has mostly been phased out nationally anyway) and non-GMO feed aren’t why we choose organic. It’s more about avoiding antibiotics and pesticide exposure, and especially because these organic herbivores have more access to the pasture they evolved to chew. You can taste a difference in spring and summer’s first milkings from contented cows back on grass. The fats are healthier, with a richer yellow color. This is why many people seek out milk (that often happens to be raw) from nearby small farms: they tend to have the higher land-to-cow ratios required to graze their herds. Recent studies show grass-fed milk is higher in naturally occurring conjugated linoic acids (CLAs) and omega 3 (ALA) good fats. Such evidence is making organic milk a “gateway” product, one of the first organic items families splurge on.
What about those Omega 3-enhanced milks from Oakhurst, Organic Valley, Stoneyfield and Horizon? They add tasteless fish oil for a complete dose of brain-healthy fatty acids, including EPA and DHA. My sister Elaine in Atlanta buys such milks for her son Thomas, a gourmand who has, in fact, slimmed down on the 2 percent his pediatrician prescribed just after his first birthday. I hadn’t bought these because Theo used to have a taste for sardines and enjoyed his morning smoothies enhanced with a splash of citrus-flavored cod liver oil.
We feel at sea about which milk to buy now that our staple local, organic MOO is off the shelf. We stocked up at Hannaford and Shaws when the sad news broke about its closure, which a Maine Farm Bureau grant and investors can hopefully reverse. Sure, MOO had a short shelf life, expiring a week or so after its purchase. Only such regionally distributed milks seem to use traditional pasteurization methods anymore, heating milk to a minimum of 161°F. The national brands have widely rolled-out those plastic screw-topped, much longer-lasting cartons of ultra-pasteurized or ultra-high temperature (UHT) milk – remember that strangely shelf-stable European milk? – which is shocked at 280° F for two seconds. In Oregon, I preferred the taste and fresh quality of Organic Valley’s non-UHT “Northwest Pastures” cartons from local farms, but Organic Valley suppliers Sarah and Garin Smith of Grassland Farm in Skowhegan said the analogous “Northeast Pastures” here is only rarely produced when Stonyfield’s yogurt-making plant in New Hampshire, which has a contract for much of that milk, has an overflow.
We’re also unresolved about how good dairy really is for us. If not, is lactose or the protein casein the culprit? Allergies plague many. Theo’s chronic asthma-like congestion cleared up when pediatric nurse practitioner Kathryn Landon-Malone at True North in Falmouth recommended he temporarily go off dairy last winter. We substituted a range of alternative milks – almond, soy, oat, coconut, hemp and flax, rice, even hazelnut. I wish we’d thought to try goat milk, “the universal donor milk” says John Duncan of York Hill Farm in New Sharon. My friend Christine Selman in Boothbay Harbor found the health of her super-colicky daughter, Fina, a poor nurser who struggled to gain weight and had bad eczema, greatly improved when she switched to Alimentum, a Similac formula for babies with milk-protein sensitivities. The family has since had success switching to goat milk.
IMAGINE GOAT MILK
Now Fina drinks Meyenberg goat milk, which is organic, but expensive, ultra-pasteurized in California and shipped across the country. Her mother would love a local option but isn’t quite comfortable with raw milk, even from comparatively cleaner goats. And there aren’t many local goat milk options – much of it is made into more valuable chèvre.
That’s why cheesemaker Arlene Brokaw is launching The Imagine Dairy in Warren, a micro-farm she hopes will be certified to sell raw milk from her seven Nubian goats next spring. Brokaw’s plans represent a safer, more science-based future for raw milk. That’s what’s perplexing about the Blue Hill farmer’s push for unlicensed raw milk sales. Shouldn’t the en vogue milk come out of the shadows and be regulated? To get her license, Brokaw will have her milk tested for pathogens every month, and she plans to go far beyond that, holding her fresh milk for 24 hours to do daily fecal coliform counts. Too “barnyard” a flavor can indicate a problem, Brokaw says. Ask your raw milk producer for their testing data. Imagine an online clearinghouse ranking the cleanliness of our state’s dairies, as New York City does with restaurant inspections. Such transparent approaches, like that of Brokaw’s, give us the confidence to more freely indulge.
Laura McCandlish is a Brunswick-based food writer and radio producer. You can reach her through her blog baltimoregon.com, or follow her on Twitter at @baltimoregon.
GINGERED STRAWBERRY-RHUBARB-BANANA MILKSHAKE
The Maine Dairy Promotion Board’s Jami Badershall inspired this seasonal June shake. I would have thought to first stew rhubarb for a smoothie or shake, but Badershall encouraged me to throw it in raw. Use Maine milk if possible – I used the last of our MOO before Hannaford’s stopped stocking – and even local milk ice cream from Gifford’s, Maple’s Organic or Gelato Fiasco. Freeze cut-up rhubarb chunks now so you can keep enjoying this not-too-sweet shake when local strawberries are finally plentiful.
1 cup whole milk
1 cup vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt
2 tablespoons maple syrup, more to taste
1 banana, peeled (optional)
1 cup chopped rhubarb, fresh or frozen
1 cup strawberries, fresh or frozen
1-2 tablespoons chopped crystallized ginger (optional)
Ice, to taste (not necessary if you use frozen fruit)
Add the milk, ice cream, syrup, banana (if using), rhubarb, strawberries, ginger (if using) and ice (if necessary) to the blender. Blend, pulsing after ratcheting up to highest setting, until combined. Serve in glasses.