Walk down a dairy aisle and you may start to notice how little we've done with the whole concept. Worldwide, there are about 6,000 mammal species, each with its own unique milk, but Americans get at least 97 percent of all our dairy products from one animal. (That would be the cow.) Even at my local Whole Foods, purveyors of exotica like shad roe and that kombucha stuff, there was only a single brand of goat’s milk. “EASY TO DIGEST!” read the desperate carton.
Over at the cheese counter, the situation was a little better. Sheep’s milk made a decent showing. But was that it?
“There's a buffalo-milk mozzarella over in the refrigerator section, but yeah,” the cheesemonger told me. “I know a chef who's trying to make a pig's-milk cheese. I'm not sure how that's going.”
Abroad, things are a little more diverse: Various foreigners drink the milk of the camel, the yak, the water buffalo, the reindeer, the elk, and a few other animals. With the exception of the horse, whose milk is fermented and drunk in central Asia as the lightly alcoholic kumis, all dairy animals of any importance are ruminants, a class of mammal whose four-chambered stomachs allow the production of terrific amounts of milk from high-fiber, low-nutrient pasturage. Their large, graspable teats make milking easy. (Inspect the belly of your cat or dog and you'll get an idea why we don't milk our pets: lots of itty-bitty nipples.)
The three dairy animals familiar to Westerners were domesticated between 10,000 B.C. and 8000 B.C. in the Fertile Crescent. Goats and sheep were probably first, followed by cows. All three have since been bred to improve temperament and output, but cows have responded the most profoundly.
The ancestor of the European milch cow was the ox-like wild aurochs, which finally went extinct in the 17th century. The aurochs could be fierce and stubborn, but a few centuries of breeding transformed it into an animal so docile it will actually line up to be milked and so prolific that a single cow produces around 100 pounds of milk a day. The cow's genome, for whatever reason, responded readily to human dabbling. In this, cows are like wolves, from which we've created dog breeds as different as Chihuahuas and Great Danes, and unlike cats, which all look and act pretty much the same despite having been domesticated back in the Neolithic era. Given its genetic pliability, it was probably inevitable that the cow would become a major dairy animal wherever it could survive.
In America, cows never had any real competition. The ice age had scoured the continent of all of its large ruminants, with the exception of the bison, and Native Americans had no dairy tradition for the colonists to adopt. So, as Deborah Valenze recounts in Milk, Europeans brought cows along with them when they set off for North America and then let these autonomous food factories graze on the continent’s unlimited vegetation until their milk or meat was needed. The cows thrived, to say the least: Between 1627 and 1629, while the colonists were fretting about other things, the number of cattle in Virginia grew from 2,000 to 5,000.
The iron fist of cow-milk hegemony isn’t just thanks to cows’ high output and doziness. Cow's milk has some real aesthetic and practical advantages: It separates itself into cream and milk, so it can be made into an easily drinkable beverage as well as all the luscious cream-based comestibles, such as ice cream and crème fraîche. Its fat content is similar to that of human milk, which makes it familiar to our palates, and its relative blandness makes it an attractive blank slate for the creation of cheeses with a range of flavor profiles and consistencies, from runny Camemberts to rock-hard Goudas.
But what are we missing out on by abstaining from other mammals’ milk? Take the goat: Its milk is tangier, richer, and, to reasonable persons, much tastier than cow’s milk. The superior flavor owes a great deal to the fact that goat's milk does not separate; the cream is knitted into the milk. Goats produce the most milk of any mammal relative to body size, which would make them attractive to industrial dairies if they weren’t so small. At best, dairy goats are the size of a Newfoundland; milk output averages only around a few gallons a day. A direr failing: Goat's milk cannot easily be made into butter.