My mother pulled her flame-orange Pinto into the cratered lot at the entrance to our neighborhood and silently handed me three dollars. The Uni-Mart was where my friends and I rode our bikes for 25-cent candy bars and something to do. Milk cost two bucks a gallon, and the bills in my hand were my cue to run in and grab some.
When my mother was a kid, she awoke to fresh milk in the family’s milk box every morning. The milkman was often the farmer as well, and had been up with the roosters to milk, bottle, and deliver. When my grandmother was a kid, milk was the subject of a contentious national debate about disease, technology, and taste. Despite all of that, farmers tended their herds, harvested milk, and drove it by carriage or car to waiting customers.
Swan Brothers Dairy, in Claremore, Oklahoma, is a family business that’s been in consistent operation since 1923. Back then, Harley Swan and his wife, Ruby, delivered milk—sourced from a single cow—to people in town. After 20 years—and after pasteurization went from being a trend to a mandate—the couple stopped delivering milk directly to customers. Instead, they sold milk to processors who pasteurized, bottled, and delivered their product. Swan Brothers evolved again in 1951 when the dairy began selling its current signature product: raw milk.
Raw milk comes fresh from the cow, unpasteurized and unhomogenized, stored at a steady 38 degrees. In some states, raw milk is either illegal or highly regulated. The Internet is rife with anecdotal evidence claiming that raw milk is healthier, especially for those who may be lactose intolerant, as well as pages that warn of the health hazards of raw milk, like listeria, typhoid fever, and tuberculosis. Diane Williamson, daughter of Harley Jr, shrugs her shoulders. “I like knowing where everything came from. I was raised on raw milk.”
Pasteurization began in the early 1800s to kill milk-borne pathogens, which were common at the time. During the process, milk is heated to above 150 degrees, and held there for up to 30 minutes to kill any pathogens. Bacteria appear in milk when cows are kept in unsanitary conditions that don’t allow for clean udders. Considering the poor sanitation and hygiene standards of the 1800s, pasteurizing milk kept the public safe. After industrialization and amid an expanding population, mass production meant that cows were kept in tight pens and fed a diet intended to increase production. As a result, milk from giant dairy farms required pasteurization.
Swan Brothers Dairy is unlike massive milk producers. Williamson and each of her nine employees know everything about their cows and their cleanliness. “Our cows are not penned, and they are exercised every day,” she says. “They are fed only grain. They are cleaned twice before milking. We don’t give them any steroids or hormones, and only when they’re sick do they get antibiotics.” She oversees the entire process.
Williamson, wearing a Swan Bros. t-shirt and denim shorts, sounds at once like a throwback to the days of small town craftsmen and someone who appreciates the exploding modern foodie culture in America. Her family has managed to stay in business so long because “everybody works hard. We are not making tons of milk, but it’s a very high quality that everyone can afford.” A gallon of Swan milk, of any fat content, will run you $4.50. Price is one of reason she’s fine with Oklahoma regulations that require raw milk to be purchased at the dairy farm, rather than in groceries.
Swan Brothers Dairy sits on roughly 160 acres, and the adjacent house is where the Swan brothers were born. Williamson’s daughter and son-in-law have veterinary and agriculture degrees and plan to work on the farm after their honeymoon. Williamson’s son and husband also pull their weight. They produce about 460 gallons of milk a day. “We take care of our liquid milk customers first,” she said, as she filled countless plastic bags with curd, waving her hand toward the retail space. “We’re here for our customers.”
In the storefront, customers arrive in a steady stream, choosing sharp cheddar, Colby, mozzarella, curd, milk, and cream. Chris Marler, a long-time employee, runs the register and answers questions about milk and cows all day. A couple buying heavy cream asked about some of their bigger milk orders. Chris explains, “Oh, we’ve got a group gets 135 gallons a week.”
The whole milk is a deep and thick white, opaque and creamy. A sample of the extra sharp cheddar is bitingly sharp with a tangy sweet finish, while the cream is like bottled butter, thick and rich and full of flavor.
Tulsa shoppers like Dulce Chale have formed loose collectives that take turns doing the milk run. Chale said that every week and a half or so, one of three mothers drives to Claremore for milk, cheese, and elderberry preserves. Chale didn’t drink raw milk until 2012, when her friends were praising its flavor. As a mom to four young children, she is cautious about her food sources. “I have more confidence in raw milk because they have to treat their animals better,” she says. “Also, Swan’s is a family business that has been there for years. If they were to start making their neighbors sick, the consequences would be far more personal than for a giant company that can hide the consequences.” It’s not just about quality, though, for Chale.
“Seeing that thick layer of cream on top and pouring it into my coffee? Yum. Gives me that nostalgic feeling that my grandparents would approve.” As for budgeting, Chale said that Swan’s prices are comparable to regular milk and that to purchase pastured, pesticide-free cows from a grocer would cost double, and that organic milk is more expensive than Swan’s.
A mother and her young son choose some cheddar, a pint of cream, and a gallon or two of milk, and the boy tells me he doesn’t want to try curd. “The name is weird.” I tell him I had the same problem, but that I had managed to overcome it just that day.
Cheese curds have to be one of the most mysterious of edibles. Everyone knows the nursery rhyme, but few know what in the world Miss Muffet is eating. Truth is, the creamy blobs are nothing more than curdled milk at the beginning of the cheddaring process. When milk is heated and treated with live cultures and rennet, chunks of curd and liquid whey form as a result. Cheese-makers stir the curds and whey until the curds reach the right acidity, then strain off the whey.
The Swan Brothers farmers use the whey on their fields, since it is high in natural protein. What remains are salty and smooth and mild curds. Diane says that in Wisconsin, curds are called “squeaky cheese,” because they make a squeak against the teeth. The curds can be eaten or used to complete the cheddaring process. To make cheddar, the curds are stacked and cut into loafs, and stacked again. This forms dense blocks, from which whey continues to strain. Eventually, the curds are pressed into molds and allowed to age for months in cool, dry places, being turned daily to allow for uniform mold growth.
Foodies, health nuts, and food-production advocates keep the raw milk debate at a quiet roar. We’re concerned with the same things that mattered in 1924: flavor, safety, and economy. Now I stuff more bills into my own kid’s hands and would be panicked to find a man riffling through my fridge in the dark of morning. And, sometimes, I make the drive to Claremore for whole milk and heavy cream, right from the farm.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 6, Issue 2, January 15, 2015.