One warm evening last month I showed up at a cluttered Humboldt Park basement apartment with an empty Ball jar. There I was met by a 23-year-old musician and barista named Jon, who opened his refrigerator and filled my jar with cold, creamy, unpasteurized raw milk.
Jon is a member of a guerrilla art group called the Molecular Collective, which for the past three months has been giving away organic unpasteurized milk to folks who've obtained a designated password through word of mouth. That password leads to a protected blog that contains an e-mail address. Send a request and you might be included in the e-mail blast the group sends out each Saturday, listing pickup spots where you can get a free eight-ounce pour—or more if you ask—of untreated, BGH-free, butterfat-loaded moo juice.
The Milkmen, as the group has dubbed the enterprise, is part of a larger, overarching Molecular Collective project called the Phase, characterized by a combination of youthful exuberance and apocalyptic cynicism. Like the group itself, it was inspired in part by the revolutionary events of the Arab Spring, and incorporates public art and "radical giving" as a means to stimulate discussion and action.
The clandestine milk distribution "is about creating stronger communities and asking questions about where your food comes from and also knowing who's feeding you," says Alexis, the 22-year-old student and artist who conceived the plan. "Also about how it's time to take responsibility for each other and give to each other. That someone is going to come around and feed you is a pretty radical idea in today's food climate. It's a really good symbol to connect this larger thing that I'm talking about, which is that we have a food system which is very disempowering."
None of the seven Milkmen have cars, so most weeks a few of them ride the Metra out to the far suburbs, where they're met by a farmer who operates a small dairy farm. The group hands over the cash, at $9 a gallon, and the milk goes into the Collective's plastic containers. They return to the city, sometimes divvying up the haul on station platforms, to be delivered to one of four pickup points around the city.
The considerable controversies surrounding the sale of raw milk are pretty well documented, pitting people opposed to the deleterious effect of pasteurization on milk's natural beneficial bacteria, proteins, and enzymes against those that who fear that bottling and transporting raw milk exposes it to dangerous pathogens. It's illegal in 11 states, including Iowa and Wisconsin (though there's legislation under way to relax that), and in most others it's under some kind of onerous restriction. It's a federal offense to transport it across state lines.
It's legal for Illinois farmers to sell raw milk, provided that they don't advertise and their customers come to them and pour the milk themselves into their own containers. And there are a handful of legal share programs and farmers providing raw milk within easy reach of the city.
Still, many folks trafficking legally in raw milk are so leery of the controversy surrounding it and so spooked by arrests and penalties that have been levied against farmers in the past that they prefer to operate under the radar. And because the Illinois Grade A Pasteurized Milk and Milk Products Act expressly forbids the resale or distribution of raw milk—you can buy it but you can't give it away—I agreed to keep everybody's full names and certain identifying details out of this story.
About two weeks ago I drove out to the farm with Alexis. It was one of the most beautiful days of the spring so far, and the property was crawling with new life. There was a calf wobbling around on new legs, a handful of baby goats at the fence, and a litter of kittens dozing in the hay. Meanwhile 15 Guernsey milking cows who'd been feasting on new spring grass placidly awaited their evening milking.
About 250 families buy milk here regularly—90 percent of them first-generation immigrants from as far afield as subcontinental Asia, eastern Europe, and Central and South America. The farmer says some of them became lactose intolerant when they first came to the U.S. and began drinking pasteurized milk, a problem that was resolved when they took up untreated milk once again.
If you're used to drinking store-bought milk, you're probably habitually oblivious to its connection to secondary dairy products such as cheese and yogurt. And when you take your first gulp of warm, golden-toned, udder-fresh spring milk, you'll smack your head at how much it tastes like butter. Rich in beta carotene and loaded with globules of sweet butterfat, it's one of those revelatory taste experiences that will make wings burst from your back and cause you to question the very foundations of the industrial food system.
And that's what the Milkmen want. "I think that's what's so silly and so cool about this is that it makes people go, 'Look at us being criminals—sharing milk," says Alexis."
The Milkmen started small, with just one gallon, which they bottled and delivered personally, a nostalgic nod to home milk delivery of yore. They couldn't give it all away at first, so they made farmer's cheese and ricotta with the leftovers, then gave that away too. But as word spread, the undeniable psychological power of eating forbidden food attracted some 30 milk enthusiasts. The Milkmen had to increase their purchase to three gallons, and asked folks to pick it up themselves.
Here's how Alexis characterized the process in an e-mail: "We do not exchange any money in our transactions. We liken our network to the act of baking cookies for our friends. They are legally allowed to come over and enjoy the cookies we bake for them, and when we place our cookies on a plate and hand the plate to them, we are not operating a 'cookie plant,' we are acting like humans. We also bear the social incentive not to make a bad batch of cookies, because we respect our friends, and we respect cookies.
"Our participants take personal responsibility for that which they consume and have sought out our offerings because they have done their research. We liken this to the responsibility a squirrel takes when collecting a nut and consuming it. It is the responsibility of the individual squirrel to consume food that is sanctioned by his survival intelligence. The squirrel does not sue the tree for handing him a bad nut. (Note: None of our 'friends' has ever been sick. None of the farm's customers have ever reported illness.)"
The Milkman pay for the milk out of their own pockets and never intended to charge for it. But soon it became an experiment in direct trade. "A really interesting thing about giving things away is that people are very humble about it and usually suggest some time of exchange," says Alexis. When that started happening the Milkmen began to accept things like home-roasted coffee, rhubarb pie, and chocolate. I brought Jon a homemade soppressata.
Alexis says that as the project grows they've had to make adjustments in the distribution system from week to week. She can see it getting to a point where it's too big for the group to handle, and that's OK with her: "It just means that that they're gonna have to go out to the farm, or maybe a new CSA is made, or enough anger is generated to change things. The hope is it will at least get large enough that it won't just die—just as long as people still want the milk."
E-mail Mike Sula at email@example.com.