The way people talk about non-dairy milk, you’d think it was a fad dreamed up by vegans in the ’90s and gradually force-fed to the populace via overeager baristas, Gwyneth Paltrow, and the Swedes of Oatly. Unfortunately for people who’d like to simplify all narratives around not using animal products, almond milk dates back to at least 1226, when it was mentioned in A Baghdad Cookery Book. Soy milk came onto the documented scene in 1365, and almond milk had made it to Europe by 1390, when it became popular during Lent. The first written mention in English of soy milk was in 1704. Thank you to the SoyInfo Center!
Contrast this with a “Shouts & Murmurs” in the August 23, 2021 issue of The New Yorker begins its “A History of Alt-Milk” in 218 B.C. with, “Elephant steps on errant walnut” and skips over all actual developments in the name of “humor,” because there is nothing funnier than not drinking the breast milk of another species.
Historically, human diets have been much more diverse and localized than in the West of the past 100 years or so, and the idea of cow’s milk dairy as the most neutral and “normal” is a European invention. “Most people who retain the ability to digest milk can trace their ancestry to Europe,” as Scientific American reported back in 2013. According to this 2002 (yes, old) study, that’s only 35 percent of the global population. That’s the thing we’ve been force-fed: a non-diverse diet based on European taste and genetics, with animal exploitation a given at an industrial level of production. In the U.S., dairy producers received subsidies totaling $3.5 billion in 2020, whereas oat producers received $44 million. The power is not with dairy alternatives, despite whatever guilt the media folk of New York City have observed among their peers.
It doesn’t get everyone on Twitter’s panties in a knot to realize this, though, and panties in a knot are what drive traffic. Better to talk about how “sensible” one’s experience of summer 2021 in Europe was and announce that hot girls are bringing back whole milk, as this Grub Street piece published last week states based on a couple of tweets. Apparently non-dairy milk’s popularity and creep toward culinary normalcy has been manufactured by the wellness industry, and people haven’t felt like they’re “allowed” to have cow’s milk. This idea, in the piece, comes from someone who works in artisanal cheese. It reminds me that the IDFA (International Dairy Foods’ Association) lobbied for more milk in schools against the advice of nutritionists because they see sales declining.
“In 2018 alone, the IDFA spent around $300,000 a quarter lobbying on issues including school lunches,” wrote The Guardian in 2019. “‘Any government program is going to be a huge moneymaker for them and that includes schools,’ said Levin. ‘That’s where a lot of excess surplus product is dumped; it’s dumped in schools, it’s dumped in prisons.’” That’s hot, just like having that European gene for lactose tolerance!
And as Austin, Texas–based barista Katie Hatch tells me, whole milk probably isn’t making a comeback. She has anecdotal experience, yes, but that’s also what the beloved free market tells us: Oat milk sales grew 170 percent in 2020. It seems to be the only consumer choice people are making on a big enough scale to have an actual impact on industrial animal agriculture.
One hypothesis Hatch has is that people realized they don’t want to drink ounces upon ounces of cow’s milk in the morning—that it’s indeed one easy dietary and ethical change they can make in their lives to feel good about.
“I’ve worked in coffee the past seven years and everyone was into the local, low-temp pasteurized, non-homogenized milk in 2014–18,” Hatch tells me. “Since oat milk made its U.S. debut three to four years ago, it has completely changed the game. Cafés are making their in-house chocolate ganache oat-based, featuring seasonal menu items that complement the oat flavor, and making sure they have a vegan or dairy-free version of just about every menu item. I clear a fridge full of oat before I go through four gallons of whole milk these days! Hot girls drink iced oat lattes and tip at least $2. Rich people drink iced Fronk’s lattes (locally made almond, cashew, date blend that has a five-day shelf life and is a $2 upcharge), but mostly because rich people can’t deny the most expensive version of something and Austin can’t deny a local brand.”
Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t like milk, so I have a pretty fierce anti-milk bias. I use full-fat coconut milk in most recipes, sweet and savory, and also have Costco packs of almond or macadamia around to put in cakes, but I take my coffee black. When I was in college, I would order a double tall soy mocha from Starbucks on my way to school sometimes, because I had been proven lactose intolerant about 100 times over and I was sick of running to various bathrooms (most notable of these vivid memories of gastrointestinal distress involve Dunkin’ Donuts, whether on the Hutchinson River Parkway or Main Street in Port Jeff).
A new restaurant in San Juan, Pío Pío, has challenged my resolve by serving the most exquisite Irish coffee I’ve ever tasted. I drink it, because it is good and because by the time dessert rolls around, I’ve had a couple of glasses of wine. Then I pay the price.
I grew up in a whole cow’s milk house, though I would never drink a glass of it on its own, nor would I ever eat anything cheesier than a slice of pizza, because I’ve always been averse to what I would later realize I’m intolerant of. Because of that intolerance and my later strict veganism, I have a very judicious relationship with dairy as a whole. To me, all milk is just an ingredient and, if used, should be sourced from small, ideally local farmers. (To more fully understand my positions on agriculture, please read everything else I’ve ever written.)
The cultural aspect of cow’s milk as the milk, which is supported with taxpayer money without sufficient animal welfare regulation—if there could even be sufficient welfare regulation of an industry where cows are forcibly inseminated and then have their babies taken from them, as they cry out, so that humans can drink the milk meant for calves and the male calves can become veal—has been the troubling thing for me. I think it’s sensible to diversify whatever food one consumes, to not get too hung up on any one product. Pushing the idea that it hasn’t been a good thing for this one particular sector of animal agriculture to have some real competition? Quite predictable that we’re seeing pushback from liberals on literally any small consumer change that favors planetary health and animal welfare. Whose lives should change to stave off rising global temperatures? Not theirs! Anyone else’s!
So if you’re only into cow’s milk in your coffee—cool, just don’t pretend that non-dairy milk is some sort of health conspiracy. It’s centuries old, and the world is depending upon everybody getting used to switching things up sometimes. I do think it’s funny to position an industry that is wildly state subsidized, is horrible for animals, and has really poor impact on the environment as the new downtown chic. Will flavorless industrial eggs be the next hot thing—the smaller the hen crates, the better?
This Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will feature the artist, writer, and cook Tunde Wey. We discuss his self-published essays, thoughts on money, and whether food can be a real means of change.
Programming Note: I’ll be off next week for Labor Day, returning on September 13 with a piece about baking, which I see as the third essay in the triptych of “On Bones” and “On Abundance,” about reimagining what our future will taste like.
Annual subscriptions are $30; monthly, $5. For an example of the weekly interviews, see this free one featuring Bryant Terry. For an example of From the Kitchen, see here.
Nothing! I am not taking assignments until my manuscript is done. Subscriptions will help me finish it.
Book research. Sorry for this section being boring but it will continue to be boring until 2022.
Lots of teeny-tiny eggplants, my favorite. Lots of salad for lunch, to try to keep us healthy. Lots of dates dipped in peanut butter as a snack, because salad makes me hungry. I’m working on September’s cooking From the Kitchen, which will be about the beauty of charring vegetables.
fresh soy milk is one of the most amazing things on this planet, hands down, everyone owes it to themselves to experience it (unless you have a soy allergy, obvs). oat milk is a tougher sell for me just because... I don't wanna pay $5 for a carton that's basically a spoonful of oats, sugar, and some processed canola oil? but as a lactose-intolerant american, it is helpful to have around now and then.
i will say though: when i was growing up, we had a friend who had a small farm (food for his family + some for profit), and he had a few dairy cows who wandered around and let me pat their noses. the milk really helped the family, money-wise, and i still remember how beautiful the glass jugs were with the little cap of cream on top, which i got to stir. it was delicious, and i remember that being an early moment of food consciousness for me: our friend, his land, those cows all added up to the splash of milk i poured onto my cereal one morning.
Yes! It is insane to me that people think "alt-milks" are the odd ones.
It's very strange that in the US it isn't common knowledge that lactase persistence (the ability to digest lactose beyond nursing) is the derived allele (mutation). It common in Northern European and some North African and Middle Eastern populations, but nowhere else.
Personally, I love cheese but find milk disgusting (tasting) but abhor the practices that lead to the forced milking of animals forced to have offspring and nurse them for less than an ideal time.