Like a scene from an inverted Proust novel, the memory of breakfasts with my grandparents conjures the taste of cantaloupe milk. In fact, it is the only thing I can truly remember eating during those early mornings. My grandfather bought the milk from a vendor down the street. It came in amorphous plastic sacks labeled in green with a line drawing of a melon. I picked these packages up by their corners and used a pair of scissors to carefully cut a slit for a short plastic straw.
Here in the US, the milk comes in structured cartons, the flavorings in three: plain, chocolate, and strawberry. Cantaloupe is a seemingly counterintuitive flavor option, but no more so than strawberry, a fruit more acidic and thus more likely to curdle milk than complement it. Most chocolate milk also fails to live up to the promise of its name, offering little in the way of actual chocolate taste and leaving a grainy trail of sediment from chocolate powder too stubborn to dissolve. On the other hand, we describe the taste of ripe melons using adjectives derived from dairy products: creamy and buttery. The pH of a cantaloupe clocks in at an almost neutral 6.5. But more importantly, the cantaloupe flavored milk of my memory was not sweet in the hollow, sticky way that made the back of your teeth ache. Its sweetness was full-bodied, drawing out the wholesome richness that could only be attributed to milk. Each sip felt well-rounded.
I could have been the poster child for the now-defunct “Got Milk?” campaign. Each week, my mother brought home a gallon of milk from the supermarket. By the end of seven days, we would open the fridge to find that the shelf on the door was empty, the plastic container already sent to the recycling bins next to the driveway. I drank at least two glasses of milk every day. It seemed to match everything I ate: cereal, slices of Betty Crocker cake, tacos, baked ziti, fried rice, soup, the frozen pizza and chicken nuggets served at the school cafeteria.
For the most part, the milk of my childhood came in plastic jugs. It was pasteurized, homogenized, and fortified with vitamins A and D. The label was red, which meant it was whole. From the ages of six to eleven, my brother and I drank it out of matching plastic mugs featuring the Disney characters inexplicably dressed in Mexican costume. My mug had a scratch over Donald Duck’s head. His did not.
Not only had my parents made milk the kid-approved beverage of our household, they also had left me believing that the best milk had exactly four percent fat. I had my first glass of skim milk at a sleepover, and I left the next morning, sleepy from too many movies and confused why anyone would buy something so diluted. 2% came later, also at a friend’s house, but we ate from plastic utensils that had absorbed the synthetic scent of dishwashing detergent. Water, milk, orange juice—everything tasted like fake lemons.
But as quick as they were to support the reign of whole milk in our house, they were also just as quick to end it. Their cholesterol levels were too high. Their hearts beat under the sudden specter of clogged arteries. Whole milk, while not the main culprit, was now an unnecessary risk. Besides, my mother explained, my brother and I didn’t need it anymore. When we were small, she had fretted whether our bony wrists and thin limbs were the products of genetics or undiagnosed malnutrition. Ignoring her own delicate wrists, she bought whole milk and hoped its lipids and proteins would smooth out our angles.
Whole switched to 2%. The gallons turned into quarts. My father developed lactose intolerance, and my brother began to complain that milk unaccompanied by food also upset his stomach. Yet when I tried to leave the house without eating breakfast, my mother would shout after me to take a granola bar, and when I refused, to please at least drink a glass of milk.
I am not a picky eater, but I am particular. I will frown if the cupcakes I have baked are too dense, when the giant apples from Costco have none of the honeyed fragrance that fruit is supposed to have, and when broccoli is cooked past the point of crunchiness. I can also tell you when the milk has past its peak of freshness. I can even quantify it on a scale where a score of zero is an unattainable Platonic ideal and a one means that your milk is too solid to pour down a kitchen sink.
Milk spoils gradually in our refrigerator. Five days after purchase or at the approach of its sell-by date, milk scores a 0.5 on my sliding scale of freshness. When it begins to turn, it still tastes fine, but only if you don’t think too much about it. Two days later though, the milk, at a score of between 0.6 and 0.65, is only passably drinkable, more suited for baking and cooking. Anything beyond that is questionable. My mother, who both drinks milk regularly and lives at our house on a permanent basis, is the only one brave enough to stir dregs of this product into her occasional cup of coffee.
“What’s the difference?” I watch black turn into sepia as she stirs her spoon.
It is times like these when I wonder whether this is a matter of mind over matter, but I cannot be the only one who can tell that the old milk from the fridge is more viscous than it should be. That even the smallest amount of whole milk will make a richer cup of hot cocoa than a river of skim. That the UHC milk sold in rectangular cartons, unrefrigerated on the shelves of French grocery stores, tastes caramelized. I swear the grass-fed, organic whole milk that I accidentally bought one spring afternoon from Hyde Park Produce tasted sweeter and creamier. My roommate shrugged when I said this. She thanked me for buying groceries and took the glass she poured back into her room while I stood at the kitchen counter, still trying to make my case. It was different. It really was different.
If you try to find cantaloupe milk today, you might return home empty-handed. The closest substitute that you can find are paper cartons of papaya milk, its official-looking label explaining how many kilojoules contained in this product. In fact, my milk-drinking days largely exist only in my memory. In keeping with most of my family members, I now only have milk when it comes with a bowl of cereal and spend my grocery money on Greek yogurt instead. Between spoonfuls of yogurt and granola, I worry that I will eventually lose my tolerance for dairy altogether. My dad, who still eats ice cream out of the carton with me when I am home for school breaks, tells me that it wouldn’t be the end of the world, which is all I need to hear before I add milk back to my mental grocery list for next week.
At the store, I hover in the dairy section. 2% or whole? Other shoppers whisper “excuse me” and bump into my elbows. Their choices are automatic and easy. Nine times out of ten, I will walk out of the store with 2%, but sometimes, I pick up a plastic container with a red label. It always tastes exactly as I remember.