Saturday, November 03, 2007

The hazards of milk and the glories of puddingtime

"My illness is due to my doctor's insistence that I drink milk, a whitish fluid they force down helpless babies"--W. C. Fields

Perhaps Fields's doctor had been reading Lord Chesterfield? Chesterfield wrote to his son on March 12, 1768:
In my opinion, you have no gout, but a very scorbutic and rheumatic habit of body, which should be treated in a very different matter from the gout; and, as I pretend to be a very good quack, at least, I would prescribe to you a strict milk diet, with the seeds, such as rice, sago, barley, millet, etc., for the three summer months at least, and without ever tasting wine.
Fields would not have been surprised to learn that Chesterfield's son died soon after.

Though Chesterfield's son may not have suffered from gout, one who did was Tobias Smollett's cranky country gent (and alter ego) Matt Bramble in The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771), whose lively rant about the horrors of London milk Emily Cockayne draws on in Hubbub: Filth, Noise, and Stench in England (2007):
[T]he produce of faded cabbage leaves and sour draff, lowered within hot water, frothed with bruised snails, carried through the streets in open pails, exposed to foul rinsings, discharged from doors and windows, spittle, snot, and tobacco-quids from foot passengers, overflowings from mud-carts, spatterings from coach-wheels, dirt and trash chucked into it by roguish boys for the joke's-sake, the spewings of infants . . . and, finally, the vermin that drops from the rags of the nasty drab that vends this precious mixture, under the respectable denomination of milk-maid.

Cockayne goes on to explain that London milk was thought to be particularly bad not just because of the contaminants that fire Smollett's powers of invective, but also because of the horrid conditions in which London cows were forced to live:
With a small and diminishing number of grazing opportunities and little space to store fodder, beasts were left to wallow in their own excrement, tied in dark hovels, where they fed on brewers' waste and rank hay. Their milk was known as "blue milk," and was only good for cooking.
The conditions described sound frighteningly similar to those found on contemporary factory farms; though I suppose pasteurization has cut down on the potential for contamination, the lives of the cows themselves don't seem to have improved much. And I'm sure I'll never be able to look at the blue tinge of a bowl of skim without thinking of horrid London blue milk.

In the right locations, however, Londoners could get the freshest of fresh milk:
[F]resh drinking milk was available in small quantities from cows that were walked along the streets, as mobile bovine vending machines. The Lactarian in London's St James's Park provided some fashionable milk, drunk warm, fresh from the udders of cows able to exercise.

{"The merry Milk Maid," from Marcellus Laroon's The Cryes of the City of London, Drawne after the Life (1688)}

Ah, but who would want milk, however fresh, from a cow rather than from a lovely milk maid--or, as Matt Bramble deems her, a "nasty drab"? In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the maids walked the streets of London, carrying pails and announcing their presence with, as Peter Ackroyd explains in London: The Biography (2000), a familiar--if incomprehensible--call:
It was certainly true that, as Addison wrote in 1711, "People know the Wares [tradesmen] deal in rather by their Tunes than by their Words." The words were often indistinct or indistinguishable: the mender of old chairs was recognised by his low and melancholy note, while the retailer of broken glass specialised in a sort of plaintive shriek quite appropriate to his goods. . . . There was also in the passage of years, or centuries, the steady clipping or abbreviation of jargon. "Will you buy any milk today, mistress" became "Milk maids below," then "Milk below," then "Milk-o" and, finally, "Mieu" or "Mee-o." . . . Pierce Egan, author of Life in London," recalled "one man from whom I could never make out more than happy happy happy now."

Before I milk this lazy little Saturday meander dry, I have to check in with Dr. Johnson. Though the definitions for milk in his Dictionary are relatively dull, he does define one of my favorite eighteenth-century terms, derived from a milk-based dish:
1. The time of dinner; the time at which pudding, anciently the first dish, is set upon the table.
2. Nick of time, critical minute.

Mars that still protects the stout,
puddingtime came to his aid.
It clearly being puddingtime, I'll close.

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