The thing I liked most about working on a dairy farm was fresh milk every morning. The thing I liked the least was the sound of the male calves at night.
I was a city kid spending a summer of my junior year on a northern California farm, and it was hard to reconcile these opposites. At breakfast, I sat down to a pitcher of milk that tasted of the sweet fresh grasses carpeting the Marin hills and the sea mist off Tomales Bay.
At night I went to sleep to the bellows of male calves taken from their mothers too early and locked in pens and fattened for slaughter as veal. The cries of the calves were answered by the pained lowings of their mothers, and the pleas echoed across the rolling hills and even drowned out the sound of the cars on Highway 1.
The people who ran the dairy farm were progressive and wonderful—and Jewish!— and explained to me that there was no way a dairy farm can be financially viable without selling the male calves as meat. They understood the physical and psychological pain mother cow and child endured, and they did their best to mitigate it, but they weren’t in the business of raising pet cows.
I never saw a glass of milk the same way since. On the one hand, no milk ever tasted as good as what I drank on the farm, not even close. But also I couldn’t un-see and un-hear the pain and cruelty that was now an indelible ingredient of every sip of milk and bite of cheese I enjoyed. It’s been many years since I slept in that farmhouse, and I still can’t separate my love of all things dairy from the cruelty that’s inherent in it.
Now comes Shavuot, the holiday we traditionally celebrate by eating dairy foods: cheesecake, blintzes, borekas, rice and cheese pies. There are two reasons commonly given for this tradition. One reason is that Shavuot falls in the seasonal cycle just as nature provides a surplus of milk and grain. Cows, goats and sheep have just given birth and the spring rains have brought forth carpets of grass. The rabbis long ago fashioned this natural cycle into a metaphorical second reason: Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, and Torah, the rabbis say, is like mother’s milk to the Jews.
It’s all very sweet, except we know that the Torah, like dairy, has its malignancies as well. There are dark passages we can’t unread—genocide, stoning, incest, mass rape—and that’s just Genesis. Last March, a Utah father sued to have the Bible banned from the local school library for its violent and pornagraphic content. I oppose book banning, but the dad does get points for consistency.
Then there’s the way people over the centuries have used the holy book’s words to justify all sorts of hate and atrocity. In America it’s the prooftext for the anti-gay movement. In Israel it’s the final authority on a land dispute over the West Bank which is slowly draining the country’s democracy away. No joy comes unalloyed.
That, maybe, is a third reason that we eat dairy on Shavuot: to remind us that the world is complicated, that cruelty and sadness are mixed up with joy and pleasure. Our task, I guess, is to work to lessen the cruelty, as much as we can, from the systems and traditions we inherit.
I don’t know of any commercial dairies that don’t sell calves for veal, but after decades of activism the industry adopted far more humane standards for their care. So I also still eat dairy, if not with a completely clean conscience, then at least with an informed one.
Homemade labne cheese and za’atar
For this Shavuot, I decided to turn homemade yogurt into labne cheese, serving some rolled in zaatar, chili flakes or mint, and others baked inside sourdough pita dough, a kind of Levantine Hot Pocket. If you’ve never made your own cheese before, this Middle Eastern staple is a perfect gateway recipe. No special cultures or equipment are needed, not even a thermometer. Plan on a few minutes of work and a couple days of waiting, then you can store the cheese submerged in olive oil in a cool cupboard.
1 gallon whole milk
2 cups whole milk yogurt or labne
½ teaspoon salt
In a large pot, heat milk over medium heat until it begins to simmer. Let cool until you can insert your very clean finger into the milk and hold it there for several seconds without any pain. In a small bowl, combine a cup of the warm milk and the yogurt, stir well, then add to pot and stir to combine. Cover with a towel and set in a warm place overnight. The yogurt will set up and be relatively firm.
Place a large colander into a large bowl. Line the colander with cheesecloth and dump in the yogurt. Cover the top with more cheesecloth and allow to drain overnight. You’ll have to periodically spill out or use the whey that accumulates. You can also place a plate or heavy flat object on the yogurt to press out more liquid.
When the cheese is firm it will holds together easily when you squeeze some in your hand. Sprinkle on about ½ teaspoon of salt and mix in well.
To make the balls, line a baking sheet with parchment. Roll two tablespoons of cheese into a ball and place on the sheet. When finished, cover loosely with parchment and refrigerate several hours or overnight.
Prepare three small dishes with zaatar, dried mint and Aleppo or Korean red chile flakes. Roll each ball in one of these.
Add the balls to a very clean jar. Cover with six cups olive oil. You can refrigerate or leave at room temperature for several weeks. Serve balls as appetizers, stuffed in pita, with warm vegetables or as a filling for the pockets below.
‘Hot Pockets’ with labne and zaatar
1 recipe pita or pizza dough, or premade dough
10 labneh balls rolled in za’atar
Sumac or za’atar
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Divide dough into pieces just larger than a golf ball. Roll into balls, then flatten each ball with your hands. Use a rolling pin to roll out a six inch circle.
Put 2 labneh balls in the center of the circle. Fold over to make a half-moon shape and press edges to seal. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle top with salt and sumac or za’atar.
Bake until golden, about 10 minutes.