Dry Milk

Frances laughs at me. “You love being poor!” as I reminisce again about my childhood.

Now, though, I am not poor.

I open the cupboard now and look at that little plastic tub of semi-skimmed dry milk. It’s cheerful, with it’s red cap and coffee and bread imagery. “Ideal for use in breadmakers, cooking, tea, coffee or as a drink in its own.”

A drink on its own. Yuck. I remember dried milk. It didn’t come in a tub. Mom didn’t buy it as a thickener ingredient for the Kashmiri Lamb Kofta she was making for dinner, like Colin did this past weekend. The only breadmakers we knew of then were the old ladies at the Mount Ida Bakery or the machines in the big Wonder bread factory at the foot of the hill, near the river.

Powdered milk came in boxes, so big that they didn’t fit in the overhead cupboards. The box had a little metal slide spout on the side. I’m not sure why we had it in our house: none of my siblings has fond memories of it. Maybe my mom made us drink it, for the calcium.

We rarely had real milk. At least I don’t remember ever seeing any in the fridge. Maybe sometimes at school I drank the mini cartons. I’d guzzle them down quickly when I got one. The taste was so unfamiliar to me that I could only bear to drink it when it was very cold. It never was at school. The little cartons had been sitting, stacked on their sides in the milk crates, outside the classroom door for a while before they got passed out to us.

I don’t eat milk on my cereal now. People think that is funny, but why should it be? It seems counter-intuitive, like unlearning to make your bed.

I saw one of those “The Making of the Milk Ads” articles. The milk moustache is on all those stars’ upper lips is actually glue. Of course you can’t get a real, serious milk moustache like that to stay put under the hot lights in a photo shoot. I understand that. Still, now every time I see one of those ads I think “Glue. It does a body good.” And I think of horses. And glue factories. I don’t think of milk.

Jeannie lived in Paris for a while, before I ever moved here to London. She told me about the milk that sits on the shelf in the grocery stores. I couldn’t really understand it until I saw it for myself. “It has some hormone in it, I think,” she said “that preserves it.” Hormones. Yum. Just what you want on your Cheerios. Or stirred in your espresso. I found it here. It’s called UHT, or “long-life” milk or cream.

I discovered that UHT actually stands for “ultra-high temperatures”— the dairy product is sterilized at temperatures in excess of 100° Celsius then packaged in air-tight containers. I guess the milk was already at least 98.6° F in the cow, but it does seem upside-down to what I were are used to. Anyway, this process gives the milk longer shelf life, up to six months. The up side is that there are no hormones in it like I thought, except what the cow put it in. The down side is that probably the heat killed any hormones anyway, and anything else remotely healthy in it. But at least you won’t have to go back to the store for six months.

I dreamt about milk last night. I’m not sure if that is why I am thinking about this. In the dream, I was milking a cow. I can still feel the soft, warm udders in my hand, see the pool of white on the grass and dirt under its belly, where I missed the pail. I remember I was worried I was tickling the animal, and because it was a dream, I made it happen. The cow began to squirm from being tickled. I kept glancing at its foot, afraid I was going to get kicked in the head. I knew, though, that the cow would be very unhappy if I didn’t finish, so I tried to hurry. The more I hurried, the more the cow seemed to dance above me.

My dad’s uncle had a dairy farm in the hills outside of Reading, Pennsylvania. We went there when we were kids. I am unsure of the memory, because I have seen photos of it. I don’t know if I remember actually being there, or if I have just imagined the memory from the photos. We walked through on wooden boards, holding our noses from the stench, and watched the machines suck the milk from the cows. There were piles of crap everywhere. I can’t remember my great-uncle at all.

I do remember the powdered milk in my glass. Milk solids are supposed to dissolve, but the never quite do, especially if they are the cheapest brand in the biggest box that has been sitting under the counter for who knows how long. We only got a thimble-full of orange juice when we were kids, so I don’t know what we drank at breakfast otherwise. Probably iced tea. We drank a lot of iced tea. But there was the powder milk, a mini-foam on the top of the drink, obscuring the lumps. It isn’t exactly white, in the way that a smoker’s teeth aren’t exactly white. There is a yellowish tinge to it. When you drank real milk, if there were lumps, you knew that something was wrong with it. But with powdered milk, it was the status quo. Just try to relax your throat and let it go by. Or chew it up.

I did like being poor as a kid. I like making blanket forts, banging on pots and pan with a wooden spoon, and playing outside in cardboard refrigerator boxes. Maybe I had other toys, but I don’t remember them much. I even remember eating thin, soggy Chef Boyardee pizza fondly. But I never liked powdered milk.

Elizabeth Howard

Elizabeth writes literary non-fiction, haiku, cultural rants, and Demand Poetry in order to forward the cause of beautiful writing. She calls London, Kansas City, and Iowa home. 

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