Monday, October 31, 2011

Milk: Why do we love to hate it—and hate to love it?

A short piece for today, this last day of October, and I’ll tell you from the outset that what you’re about to read has very little to do with Halloween. I figure there are already pumpkins enough out there; and besides, I have a great pumpkin recipe I’m going to share with you closer to Thanksgiving—and it’s not for pumpkin pie! But the fact that it's Halloween does me think about children. More specifically, it makes me think about children coming home with candy, way too much candy. As far as I'm concerned, the best thing to do with all that candy is wash it down with a great big glass of milk. Ice cold milk. Straight out of the fridge. What could be better? Well, according to many adults I know, almost anything.

In fact, it’s hard to think of a food that inspires as emotional a response as milk. Drinking a glass of the stuff, that is. Pouring it over a bowl of cereal is fine and adding some to your morning coffee is OK too, but gulping down a glass of it straight out of the fridge? A little iffy. And even if you do indulge in a glass at home now and then—generally with a late-night cookie, a slice of chocolate cake, a piece or two of Halloween candy, or, on the other hand, over a lunch of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich—do you order it when you’re dining out on poisson au beurre blanc or pasta puttanesca? My guess is no. Why not? Why is it considered right and proper to order wine or beer or soda or water or even (if you live in the Midwest) coffee with your dinner, but not milk?

Because milk is for babies. They’re the ones for whom it’s produced, after all—nature didn’t intend it to nourish adults, which is why most babies are weaned from their mothers’ breasts about the time they start cutting the teeth that allow them to enter the wonderful world of solid food. Why bother with milk when you’ve got so many more appetizing options? And then there’s the business of lactose intolerance. Mammals generally lose the ability to digest lactose at about the age of two, which is explanation enough of why so many adults gag at the thought of a glass of milk: quite literally, it makes them sick.

 But the more you think about the matter, the more you have to admit that there are a lot of adults who keep drinking milk long after they’ve been weaned from the breast (granted, the milk of other species). They don’t associate milk with infancy; they just like to drink it and they can do so with no ill effect to their digestive systems, no doubt because milk has comprised such a major part of their diet for so many millennia that their physiologies have adapted to it. Who are they? The people who call it milk—or Milch, melk, mjolk—as opposed to the people who call it lait, latte, leche, or lapte. Whereas the milk-drinkers love the stuff, the latte-drinkers find it disgusting. Interesting, huh? People who speak a northern European language like German, Danish, Dutch, Swedish, and, yes, even English drink it, and people who speak a Romance language like French, Italian, Spanish, or Romanian don’t. Who said there’s no connection between the sounds that come out of our mouths and the things that go into them?

How this lacto-linguistic divide came into being is a matter of historical record. When Julius Caesar first stepped foot on northern soil, his astonished comment about the natives was “they live on milk and meat.” We can only imagine how queasy he must have felt: there were actually people who drank milk? But being Roman, he didn’t call it milk; he called it lacte, the beverage that he associated with babies—and with people who were little more than babies, barbarians. No Roman citizen would touch the stuff (except, of course, to transform it into cheese)—and neither did anyone who spoke a language that evolved from Latin. Up north, however, where the stuff was called milk, they saw not a thing wrong with drinking the raw liquid—and so they did. As they do to this day.

But here’s the rub. Even those of us who call it milk and who drink it as adults nonetheless echo Caesar’s disbelief and disdain. Certainly we do in public. Which is why we’re far more likely to drink it in the privacy of our own homes—standing in front of the refrigerator in our pajamas in the middle of the night—than when we’re out and about in the public eye. Don’t believe me? Just try ordering a glass the next time you’re out for dinner and see for yourselves what your friends and relations have to say.

Now, back to Halloween. I wonder if I've got enough candy to hand out tonight. I wonder if I've got enough milk on hand to wash down whatever's left over.


  1. fascinating and very true. I never realized that this linguistic divide existed. I wonder how it works in the East? In India milk is a divine product derived from the sacred cow. In Mongolia the nomadic culture centers on milk and milk products. I wonder how the language works there.

  2. Dear Professor Lipkowitz: In the Assyrian explanation of the origin of civilization, ""The Gilgamesh Epic", the hero Enkidu is transformed from an uncivilized being (child) into a man by learning to drink wine. "He drank strong wine,... He became merry, and his face shone, and he anointed himself with oil". In other words,civilization began with the discovery that one cannot get drunk on milk. But why was another contentions people, of whom I am one, promised a "land flowing with milk and honey"?
    It's a puzzlement. Tnanks for the blog.
    Zayde Mordecai.