Monday, February 20, 2006

From health food to snack food.

Today, February 20th …

It took half a century for the milkshake to cross the Atlantic, if the newspapers are anything to go by. The first British mention of the American staple beverage appeared in the Daily Herald on this day in 1937, under the photograph of a newly opened mik bar in Tottenham Court Road.

The word first appeared in the late 1880’s in America, and apparently milkshakes then contained whisky. It has been downhill ever since then, as we will see. The gimmick was the “shake” of course, as the tradition of milk mixed with alcohol, especially for medicinal purposes, is very long. We met sack-whey in a previous Old Foodie, and then there are its cousins milk punch, posset, syllabub, and the eggy relatives such as egg nog. The social ingestion was not new either – whey-houses were the old milk bars and soda fountains.

Milk has always been a bit problematic for humans. It is undeniably a natural healthy food, but at the same time risky because it is very perishable, contaminable, and adulterable. Sir Thomas Elyot in his “Castel of Helth” (1539) includes it in his list of “Meates and drynkes makyng good iuyce [juice]”, especially if it is “mylke newe mylked dronke fastynge, wherein is sugar, or the leves of mintes”. It could also be “inflatynge or wyndy”, and laxative, as Sam Pepys found one day after drinking whey“which did by and by make my belly ake mightily”. Perhaps the alcohol reduced the risks? At some point however, it was dropped, and milkshakes became snack foods not remedies.

Milk drinks are still risky, but the danger is now toxicological (and perhaps calorific), not bacteriological. The milkshake has lost its alcohol and gained a vast number of “ingredients” with names like benzyl isobutyrate , hydroxyphenyl-2-butanone, and ethyl amyl ketone that sound more at home in a paint factory.

May I make a plea for the return of the simple, industrial chemical-free, alcohol-added milkshake, for health reasons? This recipe from the Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary (1724) will suffice. There is nothing to say you cant add ice-cream and shake it.

Milk Punch.
Take a Quart of good Brandy, a Quart of Water, nine good Lemons, and half a Pound of double refin’d Sugar, and a Pint and half of new Milk; mingle these well together, and strain them, over and over, until they are perfectly clear and fine.

Tomorrow: The great pancake mystery.

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