When a barista asks me what type of milk I want, I don’t say “cow’s milk” or “whole milk.” I say, pointedly, “normal milk.” It’s a habit I picked up some years ago in LA, a city where, each time I visit, I become a cantankerous caricature of myself. It likely began at Dinosaur Coffee or Intelligentsia as a joke and calcified into a statement of identity at Urth Caffé or Café Gratitude, much like a teenager’s favorite band T-shirt.
The habit is a bad one. Equating the status quo — be that straightness, whiteness, or maleness — with “normalcy” perpetuates discrimination at best and endangers lives at worst. Think of Shirley cards, the pictures of smiling white ladies, often marked with the word “normal,” that were used to calibrate Kodak color photo machines. Or consider that the majority of prescription drug trials don’t enroll adequate numbers of women or people of color, and therefore “normal” dosage is all too often tailored to white, male bodies. And yet, with every order of a cappuccino, I perpetuate this flawed concept of normalcy, signaling that my milk values are traditional, orthodox, and dairy-based.
The social significance of alt-milks is a relatively new phenomenon. Until recently, those who avoided cow’s milk mostly did so for gut-related reasons. “A small number of people, especially young children, have an allergy to the protein in cow’s milk,” explains Dr. Jonathan Terdiman, a gastroenterologist at the University of California, San Francisco. “A larger number of people do not have a sufficient amount of the enzyme that digests the sugar in milk, lactase.” This lactase deficiency affects up to 90% of some East Asian populations, many of my own family members included. “Finally,” says Dr. Terdiman, “others may be intolerant to the sugar in cow’s milk even with sufficient lactase. But for most people, cow’s milk is safe and very well tolerated, and choosing nut milk is based on preference.”
And what is preference if not a statement of identity?
A few decades ago, if you drank soy milk and weren’t a crunchy hippie, you were probably Asian. When my Chinese-American family would go out for weekend dim sum, we’d inevitably end up with an order of youtiao, sticks of fried dough served with sweetened soy milk for dunking. To me, they were a routine disappointment, like someone handing out apples on Halloween — the dough not sweet, the milk not creamy. But sometime in the ‘90s, soy milk got a makeover. Consumers became irrationally fat-phobic, rejecting eggs and worshipping at the altar of Snackwell’s fat-free cookies.
While some lactose-tolerant alt-milk drinkers might simply prefer the nutty taste of almond milk over cow’s milk, for the most part, ordering plant-based milk involves a level of virtue signaling.
Suddenly soy milk — lower in fat than skim milk while still high in protein — was the choice of gym-going moms, available in suburban grocery stores and national coffee chains. It was no longer something you drank because it was a staple of your culture’s cuisine or because dairy made you gassy. It was a choice, a preference, as Dr. Terdiman says. And that choice demonstrated your priorities. (Still later, soy milk would experience a fall from grace as sensationalized studies suggested a link between soy and breast cancer. We’ve come full circle; today, if you drink soy milk, you are probably Asian.)
While some lactose-tolerant alt-milk drinkers might simply prefer the nutty taste of almond milk over cow’s milk, for the most part, ordering plant-based milk involves a level of virtue signaling. It telegraphs a willingness and ability to pay a surcharge for a perceived benefit to the planet or to one’s own health. There’s credence to the former — a plant-based diet is objectively better for the environment — but like many talking points in the wellness industry, the health argument is squishy.
Cow’s milk has a more robust nutritional profile than most milk substitutes. It also is higher in calories. The conflation of “healthy” with “low-cal” is one of the more insidious tricks the diet industry has played on the masses during its stealthy transformation into the “health and wellness” industry. Counting calories in the pursuit of thinness may be out of vogue, but who can argue with being healthy and well — especially if you become thin in the process? Being “well” is expensive — fitness classes, cleanses and detoxes, apparel — but non-dairy milk is a virtuous, everyday luxury that almost everyone can afford, like Lanvin for H&M but with rock hard abs.
That’s when I start to spin out. I see the nice white lady in activewear in front of me in line and envision her stage-whispering to an unseen audience, “I may be paying a dollar more for my latte, but isn’t my body worth it?” I imagine her clicking her tongue as I reach for my full-fat cappuccino. Is it in judgment? Or sympathy?
Maybe I’m too poor to afford the upcharge or too ignorant to know that cow’s milk isn’t good for you — like the only reason someone might go to McDonald’s is because it’s cheap, or the only reason Asian grandmas still drink soy milk is because no one has shown them how much better oat milk is. I imagine this nice white lady extending an exquisitely sculpted arm towards me, holding out her almond milk latte in an act of beatific generosity: “Here, take it. On me. I want you to have this.”
All that runs through my mind as I snap, too loudly, “Normal! I want normal milk!” at the bewildered barista. It’s sheer insanity that milk, most closely associated with honey, mothers, and human kindness, has become this fraught, this loaded, in my mind. When I do occasionally want an alt-milk — when I’m feeling phlegmy or guilty about the dairy industry’s carbon footprint or simply curious about a coffee shop’s homemade macadamia milk — I ask for it sheepishly, willing the barista to intuit that this is a departure from my regular order. I want her, a complete stranger, to know I’m not the type of person who says “I’m feeling naughty” when asking for seconds or who lectures her friends about why sugar is technically poison. I want her to know that my “normal” is whole milk, from a cow — fatty and frothy and entirely peerless.