Friday, March 18, 2016

Here’s to good old milk

In 1945, America’s per capita milk consumption was a quite astounding 42 gallons. That was the high-water mark – or the high-milk mark – for drinking milk. By the time I became a post-formula milk drinker, in the early 1950’s, Americans were already drinking less of the white stuff.

You would never have known it Chez Rogers, where milk was pretty much the house drink.

Soda, or, as we would have called it, tonic, was in the fridge on warm-weather holidays only. So, around Memorial Day, 4th of July, and Labor Day, we could generally count on a glass of orange soda or a glass of root beer capped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. My mother would often make up a pitcher of lemonade (from the frozen cans, and often blinged up with grape juice ice cubes), or a pitcher of Zarex, the poor man’s, liquid version of Kool-Aid. Ginger ale was available for upset stomachs, as was coke syrup (but never Coke). But milk never went away. A glass of lemonade or Zarex might be an afternoon treat.

Cold weather holidays – Thanksgiving and Christmas – meant cider from Parson’s Cider Mill.

Juice was served at breakfast, in juice glasses the size of thimbles. To this day, when, on occasion, I pour myself a normal-size drinking glass full of juice, I imagine my mother shuddering over my shoulder. The very idea of drinking juice as if it were water. Imagine that!

Speaking of water, back in the day, kids just didn’t drink that much of it unless you were outside in the heat, running around playing hard in someone’s yard. Sometimes you could get a mother to hand all the kids glasses of it, but mostly water came out of someone’s backyard hose. Or, if you were outside in the heat, running around playing hard in a city park, water came from a water fountain, or, as we would have called it, a bubbler. (There’s still a bubbler in the Boston Public Garden, and I occasionally take a swig just for the hell of it.)

But mostly we drank milk.

Milk, glorious milk.

We drank milk at breakfast. We took a milk break mid-morning at school and all guzzled down your half pint. Each week, you had to bring in your “milk money” – 10 or 15 cents – to pay for that milk.

Everyone went home for lunch where the drink on offer (or was it the drink being forced down our throats?) was milk. The local noon-time kiddie TV show was Big Brother Bob Emery’s Small Fry Club. We did not watch Big Brother while eating, but there was ample post-lunch time before legging it back to school to watch a cartoon or two, and take part in Big Brother’s daily Toast to the President of the United States, a big glass of milk lifted towards a photo portrait of the incumbent. I don’t remember Harry Truman; I do remember Ike.

If you had anything to drink with a post-school snack, it was milk. Unless you stopped in to visit my grandmother on the way home from school, in which case the drink was tea, served the Irish way, milky and sweet.

Milk was served once again at supper.

My mother never liked milk (nor does my sister Kath), but it was what we drank, in vast quantity, delivered by the milkmen from Blanchard’s Dairy. One of my father’s cousins had married a Blanchard, and the weekend milkmen were usually my father’s cousin-in-law Phil, or his cousins Matt and Ned.

Unlike my mother, my father was a milk drinker. Sometimes he’d have a beer with supper, and a highlight was when my father would start singing “Here’s to good old beer,” which we knew would be followed by a chorus of his own invention: “Here’s to good old milk, it will go down smooth as silk; Drink it down, drink it down, drink it down.”

Whether he had a beer with dinner or not, within a couple of hours after the table was cleared and the dishes done, my hollow-legged father was snacking on something, often a stack of Saltines slathered with peanut butter. All washed down with a big glass of milk.

So I can honestly say that, while we may not have been there during the peak year of 1945, the Rogers family contributed mightily to per capita milk consumption in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

But milk consumption isn’t quite what it used to be. In 2013, it was down to 19 gallons per head.

Despite it being on a downward slope, Coca Cola and others are entering the fancy-pants food market in hopes that they can win consumers back.

In its quest to slake the world’s thirst, Coca-Cola is intent on making milk a billion-dollar brand. But not just any kind of milk. Coke has joined forces with a dairy cooperative to create Fairlife, which produces a filtered, high-protein, low-sugar, lactose-free designer milk also called Fairlife. It costs about $4 for a 52-ounce bottle—more than organic milk and about double what the conventional stuff sells for. In its first year on shelves, Fairlife reached about $90 million in sales, giving a sizable boost to the specialty milk category, which includes milk with more calcium or no lactose. (Source: Bloomberg)

They’re doing so because soda consumption is going down, I suspect even more radically than milk consumption has been. There’s that link to obesity and all sorts of attendant ills, after all. And there’s also been some backlash against bottled water, given the anti-environment aspect of all those plastic bottles.

While “specialty milk” has grown quite a bit, jumping “21 percent in 2015, up from 9 percent in 2014”, it’s not clear that there are a ton of folks who will pay a premium for milk. But there are some drivers that would lead folks to pay more:

Consumers, especially millennials, want animals and workers treated well without compromising taste, convenience, or quality, says Fairlife co-founder Mike McCloskey, a veterinarian turned farmer. He’s long been fixated on the comfort of cows and sustainable farming methods, such as converting manure into methane to power dairies.

As for me? I’ll take a pass on the high priced alternatives. But I do got milk, and I’ll keep on keeping a pint of 2% in the fridge for that morning bowl of cereal – water just doesn’t do it – and my afternoon cup of tea. Here’s to good old milk.

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