When I was a kid, milk was milk. It came in a glass bottle from the milkman, by way of a cow. Simple. There was skim milk, which my mother bought when my grandmother visited. It was watery and not exactly white, more like a sickly blue. My grandmother took a splash of it in her Sanka. (She also liked something called “ice milk," which was exactly as lame and non-creamy as it sounds.)
In the milk case at the grocery store, there were cartons of heavy cream, which was whipped into peaks at Thanksgiving to put on top of pumpkin pie, and half-and-half, which was also served in tiny individual tubs in restaurants. That was pretty much it for milk.
If we were lucky, or if our mother was in a good mood, we got Nestle’s Quik to make our milk chocolate, or even more exotically, strawberry Quik to make our milk pink. That was awesome milk. Mostly, though, we had to down a glass of white milk at every meal. About the only variation on milk I can remember was the terrible-smelling baby formula that my younger siblings all guzzled down like little drunks.
Now, however, an astonishing number of milks vie for space everywhere you shop. So many milks to consider! When my husband became a vegan nearly three decades ago, our first alternative to milk was soymilk. I used it as a substitute for milk in recipes, and he poured it on cereal. At the time, however, it was still kind of weird. Then we discovered rice milk, which wasn’t as thick. It had a lighter taste and feel in the mouth. It was also less controversial, as excessive consumption of soy was suspected of imitating the effects of estrogen on the body, which meant the potential of breasts for men and cancer for women. Milk could be complicated.
These days we can purchase a dizzying array of milks. In addition to soymilk and rice milk, we can choose from almond milk, cashew milk, macadamia milk, hazelnut milk, oat milk, hemp milk, pea milk, and coconut milk. There are also combination milks, like the cashew-coconut I recently brought home for us to try. Each of these different types of milk can come in multiple varieties, such as original, unsweetened, vanilla, or chocolate. And even as these products become more popular, the dairy industry objects to any of them being called "milk."
Alternative milks aren’t just for vegans who eschew all animal products for ethical reasons. They are a boon for people who suffer from dairy allergies. The many nut milks have also been helpful to people who are trying to cut back on animal fats in order to control their cholesterol levels or weight. Other plant-based milks like pea protein milk appeal to people with nut allergies, or to those who are environmentally conscious of the huge amount of water that crops like almonds require. One’s choice of milk can entail much research and reading of labels.
Culturally, however, I’ve noticed that alternative milks are a trigger food, in the way that granola used to be. Or alfalfa sprouts. You must be a leftist if you use cashew milk, just like you used to be suspected of communism if you made your own granola or sprouted alfalfa seeds. These trigger foods of the past have become commonplace in mainstream diets: Now there are granola bars tucked into lunchboxes by parents of all political persuasions. Now there is an entire store called Sprouts. I assume that, eventually, new-fangled milks will likewise raise no eyebrows.
When I started writing about all the milks, I imagined an informative piece about an array of options. Upon completion, it seems that my point is not really about the milk. It’s about the loss of control we may experience when we feel confounded by something that used to be simple. The comedian Michelle Wolf’s comment during the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner — "Milk comes from nuts now, all ‘cause of the gays.” — made me laugh; it was satirical, but it’s indicative of a deeper fear. We folks of a certain age (ahem: boomers and older), sense that everything is changing, don’t we? Everything has always been changing, of course, but the newest developments proceed at a faster pace now. Things we couldn’t have imagined existing just a few decades ago are ubiquitous facts of life. Language and technology and even milk have become thorny and complex. Perhaps our challenge, every time we start a sentence with “When I was a kid …” (see above), is to remind ourselves that we are no longer kids, that actual kids are the kids now, and that our task as mature adults is to grow in grace and acceptance of the beloved, confusing, and ever-morphing world we share. And that often, change does a body good.