I wrote about cereal not too long ago, so now it’s time for milk. For something so simple, it sure has gone through a lot of changes.
When we were kids, men in white uniforms driving snub-nosed trucks delivered milk in glass bottles with aluminum foil caps – all concepts that seem quaint today. There were basically two choices: whole or skim. It was easy to tell them apart: whole milk was white and skim milk was gray. The latter may have been developed by the enemy as an instrument of torture during World War II, but I’m not sure. To me it was closer to water than to milk.
The whole evolution of milk, I think, points toward one thing – that tension between white and creamy and gray and watery. When I went off to college, we had the choice of something called 2%, or lowfat milk, which referred to the level of fat in it (skim milk was essentially nonfat milk). When I left home in 1977 – my first time living out of state – I discovered that Washington state had something that California didn’t have: 1% milk. I couldn’t figure out who was making regulations that allowed one state to sell different kinds of milks than others, but I liked it.
There’s a concept the food industry uses to judge the viability of low-fat products, called “mouth-feel.” When the consumer tastes it, does it have the same taste and texture as something with higher fat (or sugar) content? Baked potato chips do not have the same “mouth-feel” as deep-fried potato chips. Neufchatel does not have the same “mouth-feel” as regular cream cheese. But I was okay with the mouth-feel of 1% milk, and I’ve been a big fan ever since.
It is possible to take a good thing too far, however, and the dairy industry occasionally skirts that line. Don’t get me started on the abomination called “fat free half-and-half” – that just makes no sense, like the phrase “Southern Democrat” (interestingly, there are no more Southern Democrats – they’re just Republicans; I wish fat free half-and-half would disappear too).
But I digress. Those things happen in an election year. Anyway, I ran across this new thing in the supermarket recently. It’s called “creamy fat-free” milk. Here’s the thing. I like milk, probably too much, even though it’s generally considered a kid’s drink. I drink it with meals. We drink a lot of coffee in our house, and while I love coffee, I have to adulterate it to keep it from tasting like coffee. A lot of milk goes there, too.
Because I’m always watching my weight, the idea of creamy fat-free milk was intriguing. I looked it up online to try and figure out what chemical mumbo-jumbo they’d applied to make it creamy, and discovered it was something called carrageenan. It’s a thickening agent … okay … derived from seaweed. It turns out this stuff is used in food a lot as a substitute for fat, but it’s also found in processed meats, shampoo, toothpaste, and shoe polish. Charming.
I also discovered – shades of 1% – that Safeway had been selling the stuff elsewhere since 2004. Come on, guys, California is supposed to be the cultural leader of the union. How come we’re the last to get the new milk products?
I tried a half-gallon of creamy fat-free milk to start. It was good. The mouth-feel fooled my mouth. You know where the mouth-feel failed? In my coffee. There was just something missing. Apparently those coffee molecules really need to have some honest-to-goodness fat molecules to work their taste magic.
Apparently I’m not alone. When I look at the expiration dates on the cartons of the creamy fat-free milk, they don’t appear to be selling as fast as the other milk products. It may, in fact, end up a footnote remembered with only mixed fondness, like men in white uniforms, home delivery, foil tops, and Southern Democrats.