31 January 2010

"The milk wars..."

Materially, I had it easier than my older siblings. I know this. By the time I got to be in high school there were simply fewer mouths to feed and more income coming in - of course things were going to be easier. Some of my older siblings who still lived at home helped contribute to household expenses - the phone bill stopped being something that was fought about every single month, for one thing - but the most transformative for my life was when we went off powdered milk.

Store bought milk was too expensive for us growing up; powdered milk was much cheaper and with ten kids in the house that's what we could afford. It was someone's job to "make the milk" - you always used the same dented two gallon aluminum sauce pan, and got water out of the tap as cold as you could, and mixed in the powder. I remember so clearly the clanking and scraping sounds the metal spoon made on the side of that sauce pan, and how you had to mix real well so there weren't clumps of powder on the bottom. Not that the taste really improved but it was better to at least drink it in a liquid and not a choke down a solid. There were some discussions about whether putting the powder or the water in first was the way to go, or that it tasted better one way or the other. It didn't. It was always, consistently awful. It was chalk water, with an aftertaste that would linger no matter what you did. Ice cubes, or (on the sly) sugar, nothing made any difference - that aftertaste stayed on your tongue. Think: a gallon pitcher of powdered coffee creamer and water. That's basically what it was.

We had to have one glass of milk at every meal, so one approach was to slam it down, as quickly as you could, right at the start of the meal, and then pace yourself through high moisture content foods the rest of the way so you didn't get thirsty and need another glass. If you waited until the milk had warmed up, even just a little, you were a goner. It got almost chewy, or denser, or something. It could be that there was little real difference, but since we'd talked ad nauseum about strategies to make it "better", and the one area of consensus seemed to have formed around "drink it cold", that I just felt it got worse the longer it sat there. Or it could have been the building fear.

On your cereal powdered milk was okay - you only put enough on to wet the flakes and then you were good. Drinking the milk out of the bottom of the bowl was not done; you were to make an honest attempt at getting it all with your spoon, without too much clattering, but a little layer of milk at the bottom of your bowl was acceptable. But that glass of milk, looming at about 2 o'clock above your dinner plate, a little above your knife and spoon was just... well, daunting, really.

You had to strategize. Was this a night when you were going to resist, or was this a night for drinking the whole glass right off the bat and getting it over with? What was the meal - was there lettuce or carrots or bell peppers? How much bread was there? If there was stew - and my ma made awesome stew - then you were saved and the "chug first" strategy would work. If it were during Lent and there were only tuna briquettes, well, you were screwed. My mom's tuna briquettes were so dry you had to have liquid, and they didn't taste that good to start with. (Sorry, but they didn't - like bloated Toblerone in shape, tuna briquettes were basically little mini meatloaves except they were triangular, and tuna, and covered in crumbled generic saltines, and fried in Crisco. And often one side was pretty well done. The woman was busy with 112 things while she was trying to get dinner on, so sometimes things burned.) What to do? Lent was a season of sacrifice and preparation, and we took that literally in our house growing up. That Lenten meal might be a night for resistance.

This implies forethought but I don't think there was much. There were just times when I couldn't or wouldn't choke down a full glass of powdered milk, and I had to sit at the table, stubbornly, fuming, while everyone else cleaned up and went in the living room and got to watch Hee Haw. (Yes, when I was a kid watching Hee Haw was an incentive to good behavior. I remember mentioning that in a conversation my first year at Marquette, and a floormate from California looking at me, agape, like he'd never really seen me before.)

My parents were tough when I was a little kid, and that changed over time, too - they mellowed by the time I was in high school. Some of this was because I had learned things over the years from my ring side seat, watching my older brothers go rounds with dad and mom. Most fights could be avoided if I returned their car with even a little gas; if I called in advance if I was going to miss supper; if I let them know where I was periodically. But I realize with an adult's perspective that of course they mellowed - their stress level must have dropped significantly by the time I got to be in 7th grade, when they had only (!) three or four kids at home to feed on a daily basis, or in high school when sometimes it was just me, and things weren't so tight financially. I have first-hand experience with periods of paucity, and of not knowing how I was going to make a rent payment; times when I'd walk home from work because I was out of CTA tokens and couldn't afford the $1.25 fare, or when I'd get $5 from an ATM because I didn't have $10 to my name. I remember the stress that caused me, and that was just me. No one was counting on me, I didn't have to support anyone, and I came home to an empty, quiet apartment where I'd do the crossword or go for a bike ride. But I was stressed about money, and that stress was always with me - every meal, every commute, every trip past my mailbox, left unopened for fear of what overdraft notices might be in it - coiling around in my head, over and over. And that was just me.

How much financial stress must my parents have been under? How were they going to get heating oil for the furnace for the winter, or the eye glasses that were needed, or school supplies, or groceries for the week? They didn't talk about it, not to us, but it must have suffused everything. So if my dad went a little over the top about me not drinking my milk, well, I get it. A lot of dads in that situation would have beat the crap out of me for my lack of respect and my disobedience. I never got the: "I work my tail off to provide and what I provide isn't good enough? What kind of over-coddled insolent little brat are you?" speech. On some level I suspect my dad was frustrated in not being able to give us all what we wanted though again that was never spoken. They almost never hit me, and they definitely never hit me over milk. Even when I would sit at the table for hours, alone, in front of my orange metal glass of room temperature powdered milk, not drinking it. I'd sit there, in the dark kitchen, with Hee Haw audible from the next room. I was stubborn, and would dig in my heels. No one else defied our parents, not in so obvious and brazen a manner, as I did. It was my line in the sand. "It wasn't fair," I thought - though the specifics on why it wasn't fair, exactly, haven't survived - and even then my world view was fairness-centered. "Why should I have to?" And the standard response of "Because I said so" wasn't good enough for me, nope, not on this score.

In most ways I was a good kid - not overly hard working, perhaps, but deferential, sensitive and obedient. Except on this point. I hated that powdered milk, and I deeply resented that one glass requirement. So there I'd sit, some nights until way past my bedtime, sometimes falling asleep in a kitchen chair. I'd get carried up the stairs, angry and defiant and tearful, and put into bed. And at breakfast, sitting at two o'clock above my cereal bowl, just above my spoon, was the metal orange glass of powdered milk that had been put in the fridge overnight. And I wasn't allowed to use that milk for my cereal - I had to drink it. And it would start again.

My oldest sister loves to tell of how I mailed her a letter, while she was living in Texas, that in its entirety read: "Dear ___, The milk wars are on again. Love, Steve."

When some of my older siblings got jobs, they started buying "store bought milk". I don't know if they told mom and dad ahead of time, or if they did it because they were tired of the spectacle that I provided. It didn't matter. I didn't know the words at the time, but it was clearly profligate, and decidedly decadent. And I was instantly, completely hooked. Oh my god, it tasted so good! And the first glass and the last glass tasted the same! And within reason, it was still palatable when it warmed up a little - at the end of the meal, if there was a gulp or two at the bottom of your glass, you could still drink it and not gag! We never went back.

Shortly thereafter, my parents' buying patterns changed and they started buying some name brand stuff, and for some things there is definitely a difference. Generic catsup isn't all that great, for example; the ice milk suddenly and without comment was replaced with ice cream, which was simply not comparable. We went from generic powdered drinks or Wyler's brand to Kool-Aid; a noticeable improvement. And my parents stopped buying potato chips in the huge box - it was at least two foot square - that we'd get at the start of every summer. We were expected to eat the ones in the bottom just like we ate the ones when the box was fresh, two months before. Potato chips that have been through a humid Indiana summer in a box that was kept in the laundry room were simply not very tasty. Or crunchy. They were soggy and stale, and they were put on our plates, and we ate them, maybe even after a big gulp of powdered milk if there was three bean salad on offer as well.

And of course with no powdered milk in the cupboard, or in the metal aluminum pan, or in the blue porcelain pitcher with the small chip on the lip, we stopped fighting about me drinking a glass of milk with every meal. Like many wars, I don't know that there was a lot gained by either side. I think I got a reputation among some siblings for being spoiled and impudent, and for having a "smart mouth"; my parents never mentioned these things. I remember wishing that I could be like the others and just suck it up, literally, but I couldn't - or wouldn't, or didn't. Maybe both sides were a bit wounded from the encounter, and equally baffled by it.

One thing I know: everyone was glad when it was over.


1 comment:

Patty said...


Don't know if this would be too painful for you to wear or appreciated if I sent you one.