Somewhere along the way, maybe around 7,500 to 10,000 years ago, humans decided that they quite liked the taste of breast milk from certain other animals. Who knows why a person all-growed-up wanted to try breast milk from another animal in the first place? Maybe it was a desperate attempt to stave off hunger or starvation, so they expressed milk from their domesticated cow/goat/sheep/pig, and then thought “actually, that doesn’t taste too bad”. However, the whys and wherefores are still an ongoing discussion. Over time, though, cows’ milk seems to have won the taste test in many places.
Now, we humans are an enterprising lot. It wouldn’t have been too long before making a business out of selling cows’ milk, and the products made from it, occurred to someone, or someones. Gradually, enough of us acquired the mutation of lactase-persistence, and carried that into adulthood. This allowed us to continue drinking cows’ milk without side effects, like guts ache and farting an awful lot – those being amongst the lesser side effects. Lactase is the enzyme that allows us to digest lactose, a type of sugar found in milk. We used to lose that enzyme after infancy, and some still do.
So, now we’re cooking! We’ve got the taste and tolerance for cows’ milk – next stop is selling masses of it, and making it a damn good business to be in. As we got more technologically advanced, we were able to identify the composition of cows’ milk, and wouldn’t you know it, some of the nutrients that made up cow’s milk were nutrients that human animals need, too. We’ll just blow on past the fact that they were in the quantities needed to grow a calf hard and fast, and set them up for being a big, strong beast, should they be lucky enough to survive that long. The fact that these nutrients might be in quantities that not only don’t suit humans, but might actually be over-kill when consuming a lot of them, was nothing that a marketing and advertising department couldn’t sort out. Business boomed.
Then along came plant milks. Non-dairy milk and non-dairy cheese are not a modern-day invention, though. They’re just having a modern-day surge. However, that’s a bit of a threat to the lucrative business of supplying cows’ milk, which is making dairy industries around the world throw their toys out of the cot. They’re demanding that they get to bags the word ‘milk’. The meat industry is also doing the same with their toys and the words they want just for their use. According the Merriam-Webster dictionary, however, these words are not really theirs to bag. They’ve been used for a very long time for plant foods, as well. The link to the full reference is at the bottom, but here’s a snapshot of the words milk, cheese, and meat from that –
We have the ‘mammary secretion’ definition of milk as the oldest sense of the word, but it is by no means the only one which applies to liquid. We also define milk as “a food product produced from seeds or fruit that resembles and is used similarly to cow’s milk” and “a liquid resembling milk in appearance: such as the latex of a plant.” We have been referring to a liquid formed with ground almonds as almond milk since the 15th century, and milk has been used to describe the secretion of some plants well before that.
We have been making cheeses from things other than milk for a very long time, and referring to them as cheese since at least the 17th century.
Example: “To make an Almond Cheese. Take almonds being beaten as fine as marchpane paste, then make a sack posset with cream and sack, mingle the curd of the posset with almond paste, and set it on a chafing-dish of coals, put some double refined sugar to it, and some rose-water; then fashion it on a pie-plate like a fresh cheese, put it in a dish, put a little cream to it, scrape sugar on it, and being cold serve it up.”
— Robert May, The accomplisht cook, 1660
The earliest meaning of meat, dating back to Old English, was simply “food,” especially “solid food as distinguished from drink.” The word is today more commonly associated with the flesh of an animal, typically mammalian. Some people would prefer that the word be used only in the narrower sense.
However, meat been used for non-fleshy things for over a thousand years, and has numerous shades of meanings in this regard (such as referring to the edible portion of nuts), making it unlikely to be confined to the ‘edible flesh of a mammal’ sense anytime soon.
The brilliance of the dairy and meat industries’ marketing and advertising departments has made it seem like they have dibs on the words milk, cheese, and meat, by sheer association to their products via promotional saturation. It’s become a cultural norm to associate dairy and meat with animals only, because that’s mostly what we’ve been exposed to, but it’s not a historical right.
When humans were scrabbling around as hunter-gatherers, we ate whatever we could get our hands on in the easiest manner in the environment we lived in. If that was mostly plant food, that’s what we ate. If it was mostly animals, that’s what we ate. We adopted different ways of eating as we became more pastoral, and learned to domesticate plants and animals. However, cows’ milk has never been an obligate drink for humans. It was never a ‘go to’ drink before we developed agriculture and settled into communities.
We’ve been led to believe by the dairy industry that we need milk for strong bones, and that it has a nutritional bang for our buck that we’re hard pushed to get from other sources. I really don’t know how Asians managed to survive for all these centuries without it. Oh wait – maybe there are other foods, besides cows’ milk, that supply us with all the nutrients we need for strong bones and good health.
Cows’ milk is nutritionally heavy and dense, which is great for calves, and may be valuable as a human food supplement in some places and at certain times – but it can do more harm than good at other times. Clever business strategies have sold us the idea that more is better, though. It’s not. Cows’ milk is just a drink alternative that we acquired a taste for, and was made into a business – a shamefully brutal business, at that.
Historical references to the words milk, cheese, and meat in the Merriam-Webster dictionary
References to when humans started drinking cows’ milk