In the dairy aisle of the supermarket, one milk carton features cows grazing on a verdant pasture, backed by a forest and undulating hillside. On another, a cow's wide-eyed face beckons the thirsty drinker. To the casual shopper, such pastoral images proclaim milk's wholesomeness and natural purity. However, the same labels in the dairy case that flaunt meadow flowers and red barns betray a different history, one of human manipulation of milk between farmstead and supermarket. Words on the carton indicate that milk is "Grade A", "pasteurized", "homogenized", and "vitamin fortified". The cartons carry expiration dates and advise that the product be refrigerated.
Such adjectives and directives convey a different reality than the pastoral scenes – that harnessing cows' lactation processes requires an extraordinary amount of human effort. On behalf of pure and plentiful milk, Americans have become as reliant on inspectors to monitor cows for diseases and suppliers to keep milk cool as on idyllic agricultural landscapes. Though often conceived of as a pure product of nature, milk's nature had to be perfected for it to become a healthful human food.
Milk is not the only food lauded for its natural origins. Nor is it the only food that reaches the marketplace in an altogether different state from that in which it originated. But no other food has so stolidly symbolized natural purity, while simultaneously undergoing dramatic transformations to its material form. How and why has milk been conceptualized as wholly natural, even as it has been churned into manufactured foods like butter and ice cream, and incorporated into products as artificial as Cheez Whiz and wood glue? What ideas and values drove the modification of milk? How have consumers' changing expectations for milk affected the farm people, cows, and rural landscapes central to milk production?
Pure and Modern Milk explores these questions, connecting the development of dairy farming to changing practices of buying milk products. It traces the processes of milk production and consumption through the stories of four different dairy goods: fluid milk, butter, ice cream, and the detritus of dairy processing (whey, skim milk, and milk proteins).
1. Reforming a Perilous Product: Milk in the Progressive Era
2. Balancing the Goods of Nature: Butter in the Interwar Period
3. Purer Streams, Predictable Pairings, Fatter Pocketbooks: Dairy Waste at Mid-Century
4. From the Ice Cream Aisle to the Bulk Tank: The Postwar Landscape of Mass Production
5. Reassessing the Risks of Nature
Kendra Smith-Howard is Assistant Professor of History at the University at Albany, State University of New York.
"Smith-Howard's archival research for this book, truly prodigious, brings forth fascinating new evidence, particularly from dairy farm organizations and individuals from across diverse regions, revealing complex strategies in response to commands from the state, agricultural science, and modernizing trends in the industry, including refreshingly candid personal recollections regarding methods of work and managing livestock [...] Pure and Modern Milk is an exciting, groundbreaking scholarly achievement, full of important revelations and nuanced insights. By attending to the environment, Smith-Howard has put the farm back at the center of food history."
– Deborah Valenze, Environmental History
"Smith-Howard gives us the best examination yet of why people in rural environments, particularly farmers, willingly embraced industrial agriculture. [...] Smith-Howard's meticulous attention to evidence and nuance in her case studies should be applauded [...] "
– Journal of American History
"STARRED REVIEW. Smith-Howard succeeds as both historian and storyteller in developing an essential narrative about American industrialization and how both nature and technology have been romanticized. Her coherent and complex view of the 20th century is both informative and enjoyable."
– Publishers Weekly
"From cream and cheese to milk bottled, dried and lurking in everything from cake to glue, 'dairy' is ubiquitous. Yet getting the highly perishable, machine-pumped product of lactating cows to consumers has been a hugely complex technological, cultural and political saga. Kendra Smith-Howard deftly traces that trajectory in the United States since 1900."
"As a former dairy technologist in three countries and after spending 30 years in university teaching and research in dairy science, this reviewer thought he had read all of the dozens of books that frame the edifice of dairy science. But in Pure and Modern Milk, historian Smith-Howard opens a wider window into the past [...] All segments of the food industry would benefit from a similar illumination by such a scholarly investigator [...] A fascinating, comprehensive look at the dairy industry. Highly recommended. All levels/libraries."
"Got milk? If so, then you've got a whole lot else in your fridge as well: a hope, a duty, a highly regulated product, a carton of controversy, and a hand in industrializing America's farms. And you've also got a paradox: a food that is so quintessentially natural that it's become artificial, as Kendra Smith-Howard reveals in this fascinating history of how we have transformed cows, landscapes and ideas of purity in order to make milk keep pace with us as we become ever more modern consumers. With Pure and Modern Milk, you get the whole, surprising story."
– Douglas C. Sackman, author of Orange Empire: California and the Fruits of Eden
"Kendra Smith-Howard is one of the freshest and most intriguing new voices in rural and environmental history today. In Pure and Modern Milk, she demonstrates a keen command of mountains of previously untapped materials, showing the intimate but often invisible links among rural environments, urban supermarkets, and human health. In stories of milk 'byproducts; (think butter and ice cream, but also whey) and technologies (refrigerators and freezers), Smith-Howard lays out the surprising ways in which the changing formulas for good health and good farm incomes shaped and were shaped by industrialization and regulation of modern life in the late twentieth century. This is an astute and brilliant book, a must-read for anyone interested in food, rural industrialization, or the environment."
– Deborah Fitzgerald, author of Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture
"Milk has not always been the purest of foods, and it is certainly not a natural one. But in Kendra Smith-Howard's excellent book, it proves a rich medium for a uniquely American environmental history."
– Susanne Freidberg, author of Fresh: A Perishable History
"Smith-Howard's Pure and Modern Milk is a more thorough, focused, and appropriate text for students of American food studies and popular culture."
– The Journal of American Culture