Since early December, my seven-year-old daughter, E, has been asking, â€œIs Santa Claus real? The kids on the bus keep saying heâ€™s not.â€
Iâ€™ve always answered, â€œDo you want him to be real?â€ Every time sheâ€™s looked me in the eye with a resolute Yes, and for the holiday she threw herself into blissful Santa-and-Rudolph belief.
But last night, as I tucked her into bed, she grabbed my shoulders and stared me down. â€œMom. The kids are teasing me so bad. I need to ask you again. Is Santa real?â€
As I began my standard incantation, she burst into tears and wailed. â€œNO!! Iâ€™m tired getting teased! I need to know FOR REAL!â€
So I gave in and explained: my brother writes the Santa note every year. (â€œYouâ€™re tricky! I knew it wasnâ€™t your or Daddyâ€™s handwriting!â€) My parents and grandmother help eat the cookies left out for Santa. (â€œEven Grammie and Grampie and Emma are part of it?!â€) Our dog crunches half of the carrot left out for Rudolph. (â€œGus eats the carrot?! So thatâ€™s what gave him orange poo!â€)
Then her incredulity gave way to fury.
â€œYou lied to me? All these years, you lied to me?!?â€
I nodded, and shamed that I had indeed lied, decided to axe the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. Her eyes got wider and sadder with each revelation.
â€œSo â€¦ youâ€™re telling me thereâ€™s no magic?â€
I wanted to take it back as soon as I said it.
I wanted to say that the real magic is in the garden and the pastures. All of the things that grow and live to feed us. But I knew what she would say: â€œMom. Thatâ€™s just everyday stuff.â€ And to her, it is. Sheâ€™s grown up raising baby chicks, planting sugar snap peas and later eating them straight from the garden, gazing into glass-walled beehives and finding the queen.
So how could I show her something new?
Frustrated and sad, I sat down to Anne Mendelsonâ€™s Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk through the Ages (Knopf, 2008).
I had already read through Mendelsonâ€™s exquisite world history of milk, milk animals, and the milk industry. I also appreciated her even-tempered handling of two divisive dairy issues: organic vs. conventional, and raw vs pasteurized. Itâ€™s also no wonder this was a James Beard-nominated book; the prose is clear and entertaining, even in the most technical of sections, and I learned something new on every page.
Thus I was ready and willing to tackle the section on milk chemistry.
An hour later, I realized that Milk offered a possible antidote to Eâ€™s loss of magic. Clearly enchanted with dairy, Mendelson offers a primer on the molecular structure of milk, followed by six â€œWhite Magicâ€ kitchen exercises designed to help readers experience with their own hands how and why milk is an aqueous solution, suspension, and emulsion â€“ all at the same time.
The real trick to the exercises, she says, is to use unhomogenized milk â€“ also known as cream-line milk because of the way the cream rises to the top of the container. With this and a few simple tools, you can separate a gallon of milk into its parts â€“ thereby creating in your own kitchen hand-skimmed milk, cheese curd, butter, whipped cream, and whey.
Pretty amazing stuff â€“ at least to me, and probably to E, whose favorite subject is science.
Finding unhomogenized milk is not an easy feat, though, because itâ€™s not usually offered in the grocery store. And this is Mendelsonâ€™s thesis: that the most useful, productive milk isnâ€™t available to most consumers.
But just last week Iâ€™d been chatting with my neighbor about my local-yet-frugal grocery and cooking blog. She told me about Maplehofe Dairy Farm Store in Quarryville, PA â€“ which offers its own cream-line milk, in addition to homogenized milk (all of it hormone-free). The dairy also sells its own butter, to-die-for ice cream, â€œThe Worldâ€™s Best Chocolate Milk,â€ natural and grass-fed yogurt, and a wall full of bulk goods.
Nevermind Santa, little E. This weekend, weâ€™ll head to Maplehofe Dairy, get some cream-line milk, and try the â€œWhite Magicâ€ experiments in Mendelsonâ€™s book. Thereâ€™s still wonder in the world, my dear. And if I canâ€™t convince you of that, at least not today, I can still buy you an ice cream cone.
Cate Hennessey’s essays and book reviews have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Chester County Dwell, and Polish American Journal. You can find her online as she quests to eat locally, seasonally, and frugally at One Hundred a Week: Adventures in Restraint.