Thought for Food Books

Nixon’s paneer mashup: The history of milk

Like railway timetables, which I like to read even if I am not travelling, I enjoy going through recipe books — whether or not I actually try them out. For, as historian Mark Kurlansky tells us, recipes are invaluable artefacts: “They teach us about societies and the social order in which they were created.”

He encourages readers to try out some of the 126 recipes that he mentions in his book, Milk: A 10,000-Year History. But he is conscientious: “That said, I would avoid Richard Nixon’s cottage cheese recipe.”

That, of course, piqued my interest. So even before I’d read the book — recommended and conditionally lent by a physicist friend who clearly devotes as much time to the thought of food as he does to physics — I went through Nixon’s recipe.

Milky way

Cottage cheese, Kurlansky writes, came to be known as a diet food in the U.S. and most people ate it without really liking it. In 1968, Richard Nixon’s campaign managers decided that he needed to be made more “endearing”, for he was “one of the least cuddly of all politicians”. So there were television interviews where he, I suppose, tried to appear ‘cuddly’. Once he was asked by an interviewer how he kept his weight down. By eating cottage cheese, he replied.

“I eat cottage cheese till it runs out of my ears,” he said. “But I have learnt a way to eat it that makes it not too bad. I put ketchup on it. At least that way it does not taste like cottage cheese.”

Most Indians would baulk at that. There would be a loud argument over how to eat cottage cheese or paneer, one of the most popular milk products in India. And that wouldn’t surprise Kurlansky, for he tells us that milk is the most argued-over food in human history.

“Here is a food fight that gourmets, chefs, agronomists, parents, feminists, chemists, epidemiologists, nutritionists, biologists, economists, and animal lovers can all weigh in on,” he comments.

His book tells you everything that you wanted to know about milk but were afraid to ask. The old debate over which animal’s milk is the best continues. Most vouch for cow’s milk, but the buffalo has its legion of fans too. Ibn Battuta praises a porridge prepared with buffalo milk that he’d had during his India sojourn in the 14th century. Then there are people who are passionate about goat’s milk (which, incidentally, has triple the amount of protein found in human milk).

Monkey’s milk, Kurlansky tells us, is in its composition most similar to human milk, while camel’s milk is akin to cow’s milk. Then there is donkey’s milk, which has far less fat than human milk: “Donkey’s milk has also retained a following, especially since it has been determined that people who are allergic to other milks have no problem with donkey’s milk.”

Bubbling saucepan

When Francis I of early 16th century France fell ill, a physician prescribed donkey’s milk. “He recovered and thereafter drank donkey’s milk whenever he was feeling ill,” Kurlanksy writes.

The book is full of little-known gems such as this. He mentions that the halwa came to India with the Mughals, but it was in India that it became a dairy dish. The gajar ka halwa was invented sometime in the 16th or 17th century, he says.

“It was also in the sixteenth century that the Dutch, through the use of carotene, developed the first orange carrot. Previously, carrots were either pale yellow or purple, varieties that still exist. But the orange carrot was sweeter. According to popular folk mythology, the orange carrot was developed in the mid- to late-1600s to honour King William of Orange, but, in actuality, it already existed before he was born. When the orange carrot appeared in Mogul India, there was great excitement. Vegetable halwas had started to become popular, and if there is one thing Indians truly loved, it’s bright deep colours. Carrot halwa became, and remained, a popular dessert.”

The book is an encyclopedia of milk as well as a bubbling saucepan of trivia. Did you know, for instance, that Nixon learnt the trick of adding ketchup to cottage cheese from his grandmother, who lived till 91? One lives and learns, drop by drop.

The writer likes reading and writing about food as much as he does cooking and eating it. Well, almost.

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Printable version | Mar 9, 2021 10:46:11 AM |

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