AN ODE TO THE COW AND THE MILK
Years ago, when I went out to my new chicken house and found the very first
freshly laid egg, I stared at it in awe. "How did that hen DO that?" I
wondered. She takes in grain and bugs and kitchen scraps and turns them
EGG! Shell on the outside, white and yolk on the inside, all proper and
perfect. Under the right conditions (or hen) that egg could even become a
CHICK! Just amazing!
I still think every egg is a miracle, though they appear on our farm by the
dozen every day. Our leading-edge chemists are miles from being able to conver
cracked corn and cabbage leaves into an egg, much less a chick. The
can't make grass into wool and lambs either, though my sheep, which were
all smart, used to do it with great reliability.
All these years the one farm miracle I never got to witness firsthand
transformation of hay into calves and milk. I never got a cow. I was daunted
by their size and by the prospect of never-fail, twice-daily milkings. "The
only difference between being in jail and having a cow," my then-husband
recite, "is that in jail you don't have to milk the cow."
So I stuck with chickens and sheep, until two years ago, when one of my
farm-mates drove in one day with a tiny Jersey calf in the back of the
We named her Maple. Maple has just had her own first calf, and we are
I shouldn't have been surprised at how GOOD fresh, sweet, organic milk
After all, once I tasted fresh organic eggs I never went back to supermarket
ones. The same goes for vegetables and fruits out of the garden. But
thought milk was milk was milk. So I have just learned one more time
give up in taste and quality for the dubious privilege of living far
the sources of our increasingly industrialized food.
I was also surprised at the quantity. Jerseys are not big producers,
is still working up to her peak, but she's already milking five gallons
That's nothing to a big farm with Holsteins and vacuum lines and bulk
But when you're operating out of your kitchen, five gallons a day is a
a river of possibilities. You can do so many great things with milk!
Most of ours goes into cheese. Up to a month ago I had only the vaguest idea
how milk becomes cheese -- though this age-old art was once practiced in most
Here's how it works. You heat milk gently in a stainless steel vat and
a magical lactobacillus that turns the milk sugar lactose into lactic
monitor the acidity of the mix to follow the bugs' working. At just the right
moment you add rennet, which congeals the curds. Then, depending on
of cheese you're making, you cut, heat, stir, salt the curds, scoop them into
cheesecloth-lined forms and press them (with bricks or a bucket of
next morning you have a wheel of cheese. You soak it in brine, then age it,
ideally in a cave with constant temperature and humidity. Lacking a
built a walk-in cooler.
We just tasted our first cheese, now 45 days old. It's bland, because
halfway through its minimal aging period. But it's nutty, elastic,
cheese. In my totally biased opinion, it's on its way to glory. As
first egg, I'm in awe.
I am not good at delayed gratification, so I take some milk to
products that can be eaten immediately. So far my favorite trick is
start with two gallons of milk and scoop off the top layer of wonderful, thick
cream. The cream goes into a hand-cranked churn. After 20 minutes of
lackadaisical cranking (I read a book while I do it), the paddles hang
up on a
half pound of golden butter. I pour off three cups of surrounding liquid,
which, kids, is called buttermilk. Great for biscuits or pancakes.
Taking off the cream leaves a gallon and a half of skim milk. That I
warm to 90
degrees and stir in a little commercial buttermilk (which contains live
lactobacillus). After sitting overnight, it separates into white jelly-like
curds and watery yellow whey. (Along came a spider and sat down beside
now I know where those nursery rhymes come from.) I cut the curds into pieces,
warm them a little, scoop them out, add a bit of salt, and voila! A
quart and a
half of low-fat cottage cheese! I feel very clever, though it was the bacillus
and the cow and the housemate who milked the cow who did the real work.
One more transformation could turn the whey into ricotta. But we make
the whey from the other cheesemaking, so our refrigerator is well
(Lasagna, blintzes, cheesecake!) I take the whey out to the chickens,
it up contentedly. It's full of nutrients that flow into the eggs. The
composted chicken and cow manure go to the garden to flow into the vegetables.
Simple miracles. Satisfying work, like baking bread or building a
Fresh, delicious food. Nutrient cycles closed right at hand. Health
and people. Sometimes I wonder, with all our supposed progress, what we're
rushing toward and what we're leaving behind.
(Donella Meadows is an adjunct professor at Dartmouth College and
the Sustainability Institute in Hartland, Vermont. See www.sustainer.org)