Food News

Raw Milk: "Real" Milk? Or Real Bad?

Nowadays, everything is a polarizing issue from abortion to gun rights to fiscal cliffs. Next on the list is food. 

In a way, it seems crazy that something as basic as food should be so contentious, but then again what could be more personal than the food that keeps us alive? 

Once upon a time, there was food and we ate it. Somewhere along the way things got a bit more complicated. Instead of hunting and gathering we began herding and farming. Then we started trading the extras with each other. Then came money.

Now, food - one of the most basic building blocks of life itself - is big, BIG business. Naturally,  one of the most contentious is one of the oldest foods, perhaps the oldest food their is - milk. 

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Every Saturday at 9 a.m., Svetlana Simon, her mother, and maybe a couple helpful friends set up the Heritage Hen Farm's stand at the Delray Beach Greenmarket in Old School Square. For the rest of the day, until she closes up shop at 2 p.m., she will sell raw milk, raw yogurt, raw kefir, raw honey, and truly free range eggs. Everything is fresh from her farm is west Boynton Beach where she and her husband, farmer Marty, raise cows and chickens.

She spreads the good word about the health benefits of raw milk all while constantly reminding her patrons that, in Florida anyway, raw milk is an "animal supplement." Despite the legal designation, there is a "don't ask, don't tell" understanding regarding what you do with your "animal supplement" once you get it home.

"I give my dog raw milk," Simon says while demonstrating the art of raw butter making during a recent market. "I wouldn't feed my dog milk from the grocery store."

Once you wade into these milky waters you'll find people have very passionate emotions regarding raw milk. There are those who think it is dangerous and disgusting. They talk about disease and blood and pus. Food ideologues from vegans to paleos contend that no other mammal drinks milk after infancy and certainly not the milk of a different mammal. 

However, if you listen to raw milk advocates like Simon or slow foodists like author Nina Planck (Real Food: What To Eat And Why), it's the milk in the grocery store that's the problem, not raw milk.

Both Planck (in her book) and Simon (in her talks) tell the tale of the War of 1812 and how it interrupted the import of distilled spirits from Europe and launched the distilleries of the U.S. By the 1880s there was so much liquor production going on that the distillery owners had trouble disposing of all the used grain - or hash. Why not pen up a bunch of dairy cows and feed them the msh? Then they could sell the milk too and make an extra buck. Planck writes that these "whiskey dairies" were the genesis of all that critics contend is wrong with modern industrial dairies. 

The cows were fed grain in the form of hot whiskey mash, when they were meant to eat grass so their stomachs became too acidic. Conditions and workers were also unsanitary. It was a recipe for disease and disaster. The cows had tuberculosis and brucellosis. Infant mortality went up.

Pasteurization had just become science de rigueur in Europe thanks to Louis Pasteur. The last "whiskey dairy" was closed in 1930, but the practice of feeding grain to confined cows and then boiling the product was well established. So, instead of putting the cows back in the pasture, the milks was pasteurized. Problem solved. 

Or not, if you believe Simon.

"I wouldn't drink unpasteurized milk from big dairies either," says Simon as she switches on the Kitchen Aid mixer and begins to churn raw cream into butter.

Simon explains that pasteurization might kill off all the harmful bacterias, but it also destroys all the good bacteria and the digestive enzymes, "...The whole reason we drink milk."

"Raw milk does not go rancid. It simply clabbers or ferments and goes on to become other foods." 

Simon spoons out small samples of raw yogurt muttering the words "animal supplement" as she does so. The incantation does not stop any of the onlookers who toss back the tangy concoction and then look around at each other, mildly surprised.

What most people think of as yogurt is actually an extremely processed food, full of chemicals and preservatives. One that has been thoroughly sweetened. Raw yogurt is tangy and sharp. It tingles on your tongue and lingers long after you've swallowed mellowing into a kind of creamy after glow. 

This is all tripley true for raw kefir. If you're a novice, start with yogurt. Raw kefir is so tangy it practically sparks in your mouth like highly carbonated soda. (Of course, why would you be tasting any of this since it's an animal supplement? wink, wink, nudge nudge, don't ask, don't tell)

Standing off to the side and nodding vigorously as Simon waxes on about the magic of "white blood", is Lake Worth resident and raw milk devotee Suzanne Squire. 

"I've lost 40 pounds drinking raw milk," says Squire as she eagerly pulls to laminated "before" pictures of herself from her purse. "I'm 52," she says with an air that assumes you'll be properly impressed. "I kept my shape but lost the weight. I'm not even having hot flashes anymore."

She does look pretty good and she isn't the only one. As Simon continues occasionally someone will stroll up for a moment, smiling knowingly. Simon will introduce them as a long-time customer before they nod graciously and move on to the organic produce stand.

The crowd is clearly being converted and as the talk winds down, several move over to the stand to pick up their own carton of raw milk - not that there is much left. If you want yogurt or eggs you need to be there promptly at 9 a.m.

As to those who say that no one should be drinking milk of any kind, raw or pasteurized, Planck has this to say in Real Food:

"Is drinking milk unnatural? The critics say that cows milk was "designed" for newborn calves, not for humans. That's true. But this observation does not prove that the human digestive system cannot, or should not, handle milk. After all, the tomato was designed to make more tomato plants, not pasta sauce."

We're omnivores, they contend. Generalists. We can eat almost anything, which is probably the greatest adaptation any species can evolve. 

The debate - and the legal battle - rages on. In the spirit of our ancestors, however, the best answer is probably to try different foods for yourself and then decide for yourself.

Except in Florida, because raw milk is only an "animal supplement." 

The Heritage Hen Farm can be found at the Delray Beach Greenmarket from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday from October through May in Old School Square Park, 51 N. Swinton Ave. in Downtown Delray Beach. 

You can visit their farm front stand from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday at 8495 South Haverhill Road in Boynton Beach. 

Finally, you can have their dairy products, honey, and eggs delivered on Fridays by the Delray Delivery Dudes (orders must be placed by Thursdays) for a $15 fee.

Visit Heritage Hen Farm's Facebook page, call 561-767-9000, or email [email protected]

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Rebecca McBane is the arts and culture/food editor for New Times Broward-Palm Beach. She began her journalism career at the Sun Sentinel's community newspaper offshoot, Forum Publishing Group, where she worked as the editorial assistant and wrote monthly features as well as the weekly library and literature column, "Shelf Life." After a brief stint bumming around London's East End (for no conceivable reason, according to her poor mother), she returned to real life and South Florida to start at New Times as the editorial assistant in 2009. A native Floridian, Rebecca avoids the sun and beach at all costs and can most often be found in a well-air-conditioned space with the glow of a laptop on her face.
Contact: Rebecca McBane