Minnesota's camel milk black market

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Via 4Cheungs on Flickr
It felt like a drug deal.

"Stay in the car. I'll be right back." We were sitting in the back of a limousine, our fingers crossed that this would be our last stop. It had been three days, and we hadn't seen a trace of the elusive substance. "Turn the music up. What CD is he playing?" We nodded our heads to calm our nerves. Ten minutes later, the limo driver waltzed out of the restaurant, grinning and sipping from a styrofoam cup. He handed us a cardboard carrier with four more cups inside.

"It's fresh," he said. "From Columbus, Ohio."

After days of searching, too many dead ends to count, and hours in the back of a stranger's limousine, raw camel milk was finally ours.

See also:
Plate or Pass: Camel meat

It started innocently enough. While researching camel meat, we stumbled upon a Star Tribune article from 2009 about the possibility of camel milk coming to Minnesota within a year, a development that would benefit Minnesota's Somali population. So, five years later, where was it? We called Dr. Millie Hinkle, the founder of Camel Milk U.S.A. and the driving force behind the legalization of camel milk, to find out where all the camel milk vendors were.

"They're mostly, honestly, undercover," she said.

Without dairies pasteurizing the milk, vendors aren't allowed to legally sell camel milk. Still, this staple of many Somali diets is available here in the Twin Cities -- if you know where to look for it.

We were determined to find this particular strain of milk, so coveted that a black market has formed around it. On our way to the Mall of Somalia, we stopped at a Halal market on Lake Street.

"Do you have camel milk?" we asked. The man behind the counter laughed. "Only cow's milk," he said. As we walked towards the door, he called out, "It's illegal, you know!"

At the mall, we asked a cook at a small cafe toward the back of the building if he knew where we could find the milk. He pointed us toward the coffee shop near a front entrance. "If it's not there, try Lake and 13th," he said. We asked the man at the front counter of the coffee shop if he had seen any. The customers standing in line looked startled. "Camel milk? No, not here. Try there," he said, pointing to a halal meat market across from his shop. It wasn't there either.

Defeated, we got back in the car and headed for Lake and 13th. We asked the men behind the butcher counter. They said to ask the man up front. We asked the man up front. He darted his eyes. "No we don't have it. We used to have it, but not anymore." He walked us to a shelf lined with dozens of empty plastic containers. "These are the bottles it came in," he said. "The milk went bad."

Before setting out for our second search attempt, we emailed Hinkle asking if our struggles were to be expected. "You're not imagining things," she said. "They are selling it undercover. It is black market, because it's illegal to sell the milk raw."

By day three of our unsuccessful search, we had a friend ask his Somali co-worker to help us find camel milk. He offered to try a halal market on Franklin, predicting that they probably wouldn't have it. Inside the store, a half-Somali, half-English conversation involving six people ensued. Before we knew it, we were being ushered into a limo by its driver, a Somali man who was determined to help us track down our camel milk.

At the first market, our fearless guide walked through the back door, exchanged a few words with the butcher, and shook his head. "There's no camel milk here." We tried another market. Then another. We asked some confused Holy Land employees. Finally, our driver announced that we were to stay in the car. "They don't trust you because you're white," he said. He went in alone.

Our last stop was a restaurant that we'd tried before and were turned away from. Ten minutes later, he came out with the four containers of camel milk, which sold for $2 each. We thanked the him profusely and headed home with our contraband.

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