Milkshake—The egalitarian drink that made milk lovable

Here’s how the milkshake spelled renaissance for milk, became a cultural cult—and the cornerstone of some of the most outlandish innovations.  

Early April this year when Chef Sumanta Chakrabarti decided to rework the milkshake offering at Loafer’s Café in Raajkutir, Swabhumi, the first stop was to research about a drink that had occupied the imagination of both drinkers and creators alike and was believed to be a drink as old as milk itself. After all, many believe lassi, a drink that dates to the early years of civilisation, to be one of the oldest smoothies/shakes of the beverage world.  

Over the years, milkshakes have become the most versatile and appealing form of consuming milk
Over the years, milkshakes have become the most versatile and appealing form of consuming milk. Image: Loafer’s Café

Incidentally it wasn’t. Much to Chef Chakrabarti’s amazement, his search led him to an unlikely beginning of not just the milkshake but milk too. Turns out, he says, “for a large segment of our close to 300,000-year history, forget milkshake, milk too wasn’t one of the drinks. In fact, for most of history, it was a drink that was hardly had in any regions aside by the pastoralists in Western Europe, and in South Asia, especially India where it was one of the five life-giving elements that came out of the Samudra Manthan, and an essential part of Charak Samhita treatment in one format or the other. For the rest of the world, however, especially Rome and its ilk, milk was a drink of the barbarians and thus was best avoided.” 

This is perhaps because, the rest of the populi, as per anthropological research into the food habits of yore, “suffered from a chronic case of lactose intolerance that made drinking milk an unpleasant affair that would have led to cramps, discomfort, a sense of bloating and farting—things that the civilised communities of Rome, Egypt and other dynasties found unacceptable.”  

Chef sumanta chakrabarti has been researching the history of milkshakes
Chef Sumanta Chakrabarti has been researching the history of milkshakes

Interestingly, even in regions where milk was accepted, like Africa and Southeast Asia, milk was hardly a drink of the adults. They preferred the sura or soma instead of animal milk, which they reserved for babies who could digest it better thanks to a special enzyme called lactase. The same also helped them absorb the goodness of mother’s milk. However, milk’s by-products like ghee, curd and cheese gained popularity because of the lack of lactose in them.  

Such was the reputation of milk that 3,000 years ago, when evolution caused humans to develop lactase persistence allele, little changed for the now-popular drink. Milk continued to remain in the realms of rejected foods with a few exceptions made on medical grounds. Pliny, for instance, would have milk only as rice pudding which was prescribed to seafarers to recuperate especially mentally.  

Another reason for the lack of endorsement for milk was its shelf life. Compared to curd and cheese, milk’s shelf life of a day made it an extremely unviable proposition for people back in the day. Says Chef Shantanu Mehrotra (Executive Chef, Indian Accent), “who found better usage for cheese and curd that appeared to be a sustainable practice. One of the reasons that even today it’s cream, curd and cheese that is consumed more in the milkmen community than milk.” 

Chef shantanu mehrotra, executive chef, indian accent
Chef Shantanu Mehrotra, Executive Chef, Indian Accent

Interestingly, thanks to a study into its properties, while milk made an easy debut in India both as a medicine (haldi doodh that inspired the turmeric latte) and as an occasional beverage in the form of masala doodhkesar doodh and such; in Egypt, it was the privy of the rich and famous.

Among the early adopters were also the nomadic tribes who relied on their stock for sustenance—and had already developed the genes for milk by consuming it from the goat and camel. Milk, continues Chef Mehrotra, “while acceptable in the region was always consumed in its fortified version that was believed to elevate milk’s nourishing properties. Thus, leading to versions where milk was sweetened with honey and a handful of nuts. Said to be a popular indulgence among the foraging tribes of Mongolia and that of the Aryans who were said to take on animal breeding 10,000 years ago, it was a drink that gained popularity for its satiating and nourishing nature.” 

Milkshake at loafer’s café in raajkutir, swabhumi
A sinful milkshake at Loafer’s Café in Raajkutir, Swabhumi

Milk’s acceptance in the western world according to Deborah Valenze, who wrote Milk: A Local and Global History, came in the early 19th century. It was looked upon once again as a potential nourishing food that could stem the rising infant mortality rate. Milk that was still below water in the safe-for-drinking parameters was first pasteurised in 1862. This led to the culture of pasteurised milk and eventually the glass bottle delivery of safe-to-drink milk.  

Curiously, what led to the study of milk as a nutritious ingredient and its rise in fame wasn’t just the need to find cheaper, readily available, and natural options to tackle infant mortality, but a process that was a result of the rise of Empires. As the West gained power and colonies, there was a cultural exchange where the new conquerors were introduced to milk as a nourishing food and not just a low shelf life, unsafe drink. There is a likelihood that the initial curiosity about milk as a digestible, nourishing food having the potential to find space next to bread in the pantry came from the colonies where milk was an acceptable drink on par with the rest.

Eggnog
Eggnog is one of many popular milk-based cocktails. Image: Shutterstock

The other, of course, is the tolerance that Europe had developed by the time that made digesting a limited amount of milk easy and effective. Another factor was the rise of malted drinks where milk was used as a base to create bar drinks. Remarkably, adds Chef Chakrabarti, “the first iterations of milkshake emerged around the 16th century—the posset and the syllabub. While the latter was a popular Cornish sweet dish made with sweet cream/milk and wine, the former was a British hot drink concocted with milk curdled with wine or ale, often spiced, which was often used as a remedy. Years later, it was drink that evolved into a cream, sugar and citrus-based confection and is still consumed as a cold set dessert. Another drink where milk found its space was the Eggnog.”

The success of these drinks, says beverage specialist Aman Dua, “led to a series of drinks that were served cold and used milk as their base ingredients. Two such popular milk drinks as per the 1862 bar book by Jerry Thomas was the Milk Punch and White Tiger’s Milk, both alcoholic rather than the milkshake that we know today. But it did lay the foundation to the milkshake that came around in 1866.” 

Till then a milkshake would stand for a cocktail drink, says Dua, “unless, of course, one mentioned the health drink invented by William Horlicks who created the first drink in Wisconsin made with evaporated milk, malted barley and wheat powder that was soon jazzed up with syrup—a mix today known as Horlicks.” 

Beverage specialist aman dua
Beverage specialist Aman Dua

By all accounts of history, the first milkshake or the mention of milkshake—and its semblance to the one we know today—was on May 17, 1886, in the Atlanta Constitution that decreed people to visit the soda fountain to try a “glass of sweet milk” topped with ice and syrup with a sprinkling of nutmeg, which looked something like a Tom and Jerry, for five cents. It was part of the soda machine revolution that had engulfed the whole of Europe between the 16th to the 19th century.  

History is a bit hazy on how milkshake—the non-alcoholic version—developed after this period till about 1911, when Hamilton Beach invented the mixer that made making milkshakes easier. And the wholesome drink made with syrup became a feature with mom-and-pop shop and neighbourhood diners.

The gamechanger came a decade later when Steven Poplawski invented the blender and Ivar “Pop” Coulson reinvented the milkshake wheel by incorporating vanilla ice cream to the malted drink and thus was born the iteration that, says Chef Mehrotra, “would not only conquer the world, but also launch the proverbial thousand ships [read: versions] for the drink that soon came to be associated with pop culture.” 

Chocolate, vanilla and strawberry are some of the most popular milkshake flavours.
Chocolate, vanilla and strawberry are some of the most popular milkshake flavours. Image: Shutterstock

Thanks to Coulson and the dairy revolutions, milkshake became a standard morning beverage that could be had by an entire family. And had become, says Chef Chakrabarti, “the burger/hot dog of the drink world thanks to the easy base recipe and the versatility.” 

The turning point for milkshake’s fortune was, of course, the evolution and rapid commercialisation of ice cream, chocolates, and the confectionary world as well as the invention of straws by Joseph Friedman. Milk, says Dua, “which once was frowned down upon was elevated into the magic potion that could be turned into a treat of absolute delight. An image bolstered by the movies and sitcoms of the time that turned milkshake into an essential part of the new age culture.” 

Suddenly milk was no more a drink that was frowned upon. By 1950, milkshake was part of the new pop culture that had already travelled to different parts of the world—to colonies as part of the Empire food habits and to the US and other regions as part of their food culture. Coulson’s innovation had thrown open the door to newer, more local variations of the milkshake that had in its place of origin taken different formats where cream replaced the milk, and the creation of frappe, which in Britain meant that the milkshake had ice cream and was shaken till it was light and frothy.  

Milkshakes in fact, says Chef Mehrotra, “became the first product of modern history to have nailed the ‘food bliss’ concept thanks to the interesting pairing of flavours. Still made with few ingredients, the milkshake replicated the changing mood with its different colours, though vanilla, strawberry and chocolate remained the classic choice across the world thanks to the Diner culture.” 

Freak shake varieties
Freak Shakes and social media are a marriage made in heaven. Image: Shutterstock

The benchmark of a good milkshake, he adds, “however, remained old fashioned, and was made with good-quality ‘pasteurised’ milk and cream or ice cream with one or two flavourings. This explains why the menu of milkshakes across the world remained a set of classics, with reasonable tweaks like the addition of sprinkles, wafers, and an occasional bar of chocolate and whipped cream. Care was taken to ensure that there was little contrast to break the harmony even in its garnishes. That was till 2016, when Anna Petridis at her Patissez Cafe in Canberra, Australia created the Freak Shake. This larger-than-life, over-the-top milkshake variation was built for social media and came loaded with not just ice creams but pastries, biscuits and the works.” 

Easily Instagram-able, these OTT creations took the milkshake market by storm until a few years later when drop freak shake was created. These monochromatic avatars became popular not only for their presentation but also the taste. And this includes the signature versions at the Loafer’s Café as well. What remained sacrosanct, says Chef Chakrabarti, “was the foundation of a good milkshake that needs its every ingredient to be in sync with the nature of milk. This means that you would never see an orange or kiwi as a milkshake but as a garnish.” 

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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