The Milking Stool


This is one of the family milking stools.  Yes, it’s as short as it looks, just about twleve inches high, just right to reach a cow’s udder.

By the time I was growing up, no one milked by hand any more.  The cows lined up for the rank of Alfa-Laval milking machines.  The dairy was like magic to me.  The dairyman washed under the tail and around the udder of the cow and put on the rubber cups: In a moment or so you could see the milk going up through glass tubes into the weighing vessel, and from there along more tubes running across the top of the milking parlour and into the storage room, rippling down the ridged cooler filled with running cold water, and into the waiting churns.  One man could handle as many cows as ten a generation earlier.

My uncle used to tease me with stories about the milking stool.  Often they had only two legs, he said, because the milkers fell asleep in dark fields before the sun rose.

Anyway, what is the point of this shaggy dog story?  Many, many years ago I took my university finals in England.  They were designed to test endurance, not intelligence or knowledge, with ten three hour exams in five days covering the work of three whole years. Nothing else counted, not lab work, not field work, not essays, not earlier exams.  That one week, if it didn’t determine your future, at least made a profound difference to it.

I returned home exhausted.  And for two sunny weeks in early June, unable to think, I sat in the garden on the stool, between the wall with grape vine and the espaliered apple trees, and picked the soft fruits that were coming in, the legs of the stool digging unequally into the soft soil, so that I always ended up at a tilt.  I bottled, jammed and jellied, and even my family, who depended on preserved fruits for the winter, took years to finish up the red currant jelly, the white currants suspended in jelly, the blackcurrant syrup, the blackcurrant and gooseberry jam, the bottled blackcurrants and gooseberries that I loaded up on the pantry shelves.

Then it was time to get a job and start a new life.

I’ve dragged that stool round the world with me.  And perhaps I will put it to use again.  In four weeks I deliver the manuscript of the book on food history I’ve been working on for years.  In five weeks, after fifteen years, longer than I have spent anywhere except the house I grew up in, we leave Mexico for good.  In six weeks we will be back in the United States.

Wish me luck.  And look for my next post in a couple of months.





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