A brief reflection on milk allergies, milk alternatives, the importance of cappuccino, and quality of life
Cows, I learned recently, can’t walk down stairs. The problem is weight distribution and the way their knees bend. You can invite them up, but you’re just asking for trouble.
I’ve been thinking a lot about cows and milk ever since the holistic doctor I see told me to cut milk from my diet. I don’t see him because I’m sick. I see him because I want to be more well. He’s my age, thin and energetic, an MD who realized the limits of traditional medicine early in his career and went alternative. Once a year I get blood work and see him. He checks all my levels and suggests dietary adjustments and supplements. I didn’t know it, but I’m low on iodine. I need a little more selenium in my life. More vitamin C and D. The store is in the front of the office. They take credit cards.
“Casein,” he says. A protein found in cow’s milk. We’re in the examination room. On the wall is an acupuncture chart. “You’re allergic to casein.”
I tell him I feel fine.
I’ve always been a firm believer in milk. My parents told me to drink my milk. The TV told me it’s a natural. It does a body good. Got milk? Yup. When lactose intolerance became a thing, I sniffed at it as a fad and embraced milk like never before.
“I don’t object to cheese,” he says, “but I’d like you to try to cut milk from your diet.”
I don’t sneeze. I don’t have a runny nose. I don’t have rash or hives. How can I be allergic?
“Inflammation,” he says. “Gut.” He shows me all my levels in the blood work. Next to each value is normal range. He points to casein. Milk-wise, I’m above normal.
He tells me I’ll feel better.
“I feel good.”
He taps the blood work print out. “Try it.”
“What about cappuccino?”
“Try a milk substitute.”
“There is no substitute.”
He says I’ll probably lose weight.
I communed with cows, you might say, when I was a kid. My grandfather, a rural mail carrier, had a small farm. He milked 8-10 cows every morning and every night. He called them, Cu boossss! at dusk, and they came to the barn, slowly, with soulful, cowful grace. Once they took their stalls, he pulled a stool next to them and milked them. The sweet smell of hay mixed with cow piss, their lifted tails and prodigious plops of dung, the sound of their steady jets of milk hitting the pail: these are a foundational memories.
When there was a calf, the grandkids got to name it. My calf was Hester, a name suggested by my mother. My brother named his calf Sheep. He thought of that on his own. When the calves pushed their noses through the fence in the barn, we stuck our fingers in their mouths to feel their slimy tongues and eager sucking search for udders. It was mysterious. And terrifying.
“Try it,” I said to my kids years later. We were in Romeo one fall, north of Detroit, on a pumpkin buy, stopped at petting zoo. There were goats, rabbits, ducks, and a couple calves. The calves nosed through the fence, in our direction. I held out two fingers, inserted them, felt the strong gooey suck.
“No way,” my daughter said.
My son took a step closer to his mother.
The thing is, for cappuccino, I’ve recently started using the hard stuff—whole milk. Skim or 1 percent, don’t waste your time. Yes, the milk foams, it shapeshifts into huge billowy, frothy clouds, but there’s no density. Ever been on an airplane descending through a cloud? That’s lowering your face to skim and 1 percent foam. White nothingness. For the longest time I believed in 2 percent, which produces a substantial froth and warm, full-bodied milk to stain your coffee. Then, just recently, I went whole, and I was home.
It’s true milk will mess with you. I know from experience.
When our daughter was two years old, we brought her to Italy for the first time. It was August. It was hot. Our first days we went straight to the beach on the Adriatic. She wore a hat, we slathered sun screen all over her, we stayed out of the sun in the afternoon. We kept her under the umbrella when she played with her cousins in the sand. On regular intervals she took milk from a bottle, her preferred delivery system. The third day she was listless. She had developed a moving rash. We called a doctor friend of the family. He came to our apartment, looked at her belly.
“Maybe there was something in the sand,” my wife said.
“Maybe,” he said.
“I think she got too much sun,” an aunt said.
“Possibly,” he said.
“She should have some broth,” my mother-in-law said, her prescription for any ailment.
“Always a good idea,” the doctor agreed.
“I think it’s the milk,” I said. They were all speaking Italian. Nobody heard me.
“Bring me a soup spoon,” the doctor said to my mother-in-law. He turned to my wife. “The rash is probably orticaria.”
“What did he say?” I asked.
“He said it’s orticaria.”
“What’s that?” I asked
“What’s that?” she asked.
“It’s a rash,” the doctor told her.
My mother-in-law came back with the soup spoon, which he took from her and said, in Italian, that he needed to see our daughter’s throat. He wasted no time on negotiation. He pried her mouth open with the spoon, looked at her throat, and withdrew the spoon.
“There’s nothing to do,” he said. “You’ll have to wait.”
Meantime, the baby wailed.
Over the next week or so the rash migrated from her arms to her legs, from her stomach to her back. It was a moving target. We dusted her with baking soda. She stopped eating. She spiked a fever. She didn’t eat for three days. One night, after refusing the broth pushed at her, she agreed to eat a hotdog, an American food she could reason with. All along drinking what struck me as an odd form of milk, a Parmalat product that sat on shelves unrefrigerated, capable of maintaining through months of storage, thicker than the milk she was accustomed to. It was strong. It tasted bad in coffee.
“I think it’s the milk,” I said to my wife one night. The baby slept, a hot rashy mess in her lap.
“Or the sand. Or the heat.”
“But that milk,” I said. “Have you tasted it?”
Next day the aunt brought down some fresh milk in a half liter carton. It was cool, the right consistency. It was clearly and unmistakably the milk we knew. Our daughter got better.
I know. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. After this because of this. Maybe the orticaria just ran its course. Still, she got better. And the coffee tasted good.
My effort to quit milk is less than valiant.
For a few weeks I try soy milk. I find I can drink the stuff. I can even enjoy it, so long as I don’t put it in coffee; it ruins coffee. Forget trying to froth it. All I can get it to do is bubble. Who wants hot bubbles in their coffee? And sorry, but soy milk is the wrong color. Is it good for me? A casual search for the health benefits of drinking soy milk produces contradictory results: Fitday, the 6 benefits of soy milk; Empowered Sustenance, 10 reasons to never drink soy milk; Authority Nutrition, Is soy bad for you? the shocking truth; Health Fitness Revolution, Health benefits of soy milk; Natural Health Newsletter, Benefits of soy & soy protein danger. The Harvard School of Public Health, in “Straight Talk about Soy,” reports that evidence of benefits is simply inconclusive.
Worst of all, soy milk only is good by itself. Cookies and soy milk? No thanks. Apple pie and a glass of soy milk? Are you kidding?
Next I try almond milk. It flunks a series of tests.
Rice milk, ditto.
There are milks galore: goat milk, sheep milk, camel milk, hemp milk, coconut milk, hazelnut milk, oat milk, cashew milk, flax milk; each, I’m sure, with its salubrious qualities. How hard to we want to work at this?
One morning I’m at my daughter’s house. She’s a mom now, with a kid about the age she was when orticaria took her by storm. She pours me coffee, opens the fridge and takes out a half gallon of organic, ultra-pasteurized 2 percent milk with DHA Omega-3 added.
“What’s DHA Omega-3?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “I think it’s supposed to be good for you.”
“I bet it is.” When I check later than day, I find totally contradictory claims. It’s an elixir; it’s poison.
“It was all they had on the shelf last night,” she says.
“As long as it’s good in coffee.” I pour some in my cup and taste.