by Leah Mueller
Let's get it straight right off the bat: Milk products are bad for you, especially as you age. I know, you love the hell out of French cheese, and you'd never give up pizza or ice cream. Put that aside for a moment and consider: Milk comes from nursing cows. Whether it's a happy, organic pasture-fed cow or one confined to the stockades and artificially inseminated — the fact remains: You're consuming a product specifically manufactured for bovine babies.
Which is why most human babies make the transition to dairy easily — they're growing like weeds. They soak up the milk fat into their sturdy little bodies, and clamor for more. We humans are meant to wean from our own mothers around age two — three (though this length of time is frowned upon in America) — the same time when we should give up dairy products. Our bodies no longer need milk, and, as if by sinister magic, dairy becomes more difficult to digest.
As children get older, they sit at day care tables around tumblers of milk. They eat macaroni and cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches. The fare is bland and comforting, and kids like that. Parents and caregivers cut up more sandwiches, encourage the children to eat as many as they want. The snotty noses begin, the continuous dripping of mucus that lasts for months. Adults chase the kids around with tissue boxes, mopping their faces. The snot doesn't stop. In fact, it worsens, and suddenly the kids are sick. Better feed them more sandwiches and milk!
I'm sure I'll never convince you to change your mind, stubborn consumer of milk products. You refuse to/can't live without dairy, and that's fine. For 55 years, I scarfed down Ben and Jerry's and nachos and bad pizza like the rest of you, until one day I realized the disconcerting truth: Milk products were making me sick. Menopause causes a precipitous drop in womens' ability to digest dairy products. A big part of the famous post-menopausal midsection weight gain stems from our sudden, frustrating inability to handle rich food of any kind, and dairy falls squarely in that category. Forget fat-free yogurt, which barely counts as food. Dairy sticks in your intestines like doughy clumps of paper mache.
Two years ago, I went cold-turkey. I'm of Northern European descent, so I don't belong to one of the ethnic groups associated with dairy allergies. If anyone should be able to scarf down milk products while bounding across the tundra, it's me. Unlike the vast majority of people from Asia or South America, I belong to an ethnic group which brags a tolerance of 70-85 percent. In North America, the lactose intolerance figure sits at about 21 percent. Presumably, the word "intolerance" refers to documented cases, ones severe enough to require a doctor's diagnosis. Celiac disease afflicts only one percent of the U.S. population, yet restaurants proudly display the "gf" marking beside many of their dishes. Why is there no such sensitivity to the dietary needs and preferences of those who eschew dairy?
Could marketing by the powerful dairy lobby have anything to do with the hospitality industry's callous disregard for folks who choose not to consume milk products? Many people stridently claim their unshakable devotion to dairy, in a manner that smacks of addiction. Considering the fact that most of us were weaned prematurely from our mothers — or never nursed at all — it is no wonder we seek solace in milk.
Restaurant owners are fully cognizant of the average person's love of rich food, and oblige such folks by dumping several types of dairy into each meal. Forget about asking for dry toast — your eggs will be cooked in butter. Spaghetti with marinara and no Parmesan cheese? The noodles are cooked with butter, and there is cheese in the tomato sauce, you idiot. And forget about dessert. You don't deserve that, asshole.
Yes — shocking as it may sound, my requests for dairy-free cuisine are often met with outright hostility. From the recent straightforward animosity of a barista in an "organic" coffee shop ("Yeah, I'll leave a message for the owner about vegan options and put it with the 12 OTHER NOTES!!") to the more subtle lip curl of the waiter in the upscale seafood restaurant when I ask if my salmon can be prepared without butter, the message is clear: I'm a demanding jerk, no matter how nicely I inquire.
Restaurant employees work hard, often for substandard wages. They are beholden to their bosses, and it's unfair to shoot the messenger. Only an asshole is rude to a server. Early in the non-dairy dining game, I learned the rules: Be excessively polite. Explain you're allergic to dairy — do not use the word "intolerant," and don't state it like it's merely a dietary preference. Who the hell do you think you are, anyway? Apologize for your silly, uncooperative digestive tract. Ask questions: Are the vegetables steamed with butter? What sort of cooking oil do you use? Is milk used in the tempura batter? There's a good chance you won't be pleased with the answers, but persevere — and don't be surprised if your food arrives with cheese sprinkled on top of it. Be prepared to wait a long time for another dish, and expect to pay full price.
I often go to specialized vegetarian/vegan restaurants — easy to do in Portland, Oregon, much harder in places like Canton, Ohio. However, since I am not vegan, I do enjoy fish, occasional chicken, and more rarely, dishes cooked with egg. My dairy-free diet has caused me to embrace vegan cuisine with new fervor, and I now eat that way about 80 percent of the time. At home the figure is closer to 100 percent. Fortunately, I like to cook. I probably should avoid restaurants entirely. Still, hard as it might seem for a reader to believe, I actually enjoy eating out, just like everybody else.
I have no plans to give up seafood, despite dire warnings about mercury and antidepressants. I live in a part of the country which boasts some of the freshest fish available. When it comes to dairy, however, seafood restaurants are the absolute worst of the lot. Their menu is the Holy Grail of the dairy industry, to the point where the average person cannot imagine steamed crab or lobster without butter. Most fish is usually sauteed in butter, drenched with a rich cheese sauce, then sprinkled with additional cheese. An average serving of fresh fish arrives at the table with at least three different dairy ingredients. That's not the waiter or the chef's fault — it's the owner's. But you'll play hell convincing the staff to prepare your meal any other way than what is stated on the menu.
Part of me thinks I've turned into a ranting old woman — a self-image I've held since my late 20s. As food becomes harder to digest, people get crankier. If you're middle-aged and stuffed full of dairy products, your outlook on life is bound to be a bit "snotty." Ideally, we adapt to our aging bodies by ingesting simpler foods, not ones that clog our sinuses and intestines. But most of us don't pay attention to our body cues, and we cling stubbornly to modes of comfort we should have outgrown when we were toddlers.
That's fine for YOU. Eat all the goddamn milk products you want. Just don't force them down my throat. I don't want or need dairy in my pesto, my tomato sauce, or even my ice cream. If up to 30 percent of our population is lactose intolerant, why is there so little regard for individual choice or public health? Could it be that we assign more importance to the interests of wealthy lobbyists? Naaaaah, that's impossible. It's better not to think about such things, and eat whatever they decide to put on your plate. If your questions fly in the face of the status quo, you can rest assured the answers won't be anything you want to hear. Just shut up and eat your cheese pizza like the rest of us. You weirdo.
Leah Mueller is an independent writer from Tacoma, Washington. She is the author of one chapbook, Queen of Dorksville (Crisis Chronicles Press, 2012), and two full-length books, Allergic to Everything (Writing Knights Press, 2015) and The Underside of the Snake (Red Ferret Press, 2015). Her work has been published in Blunderbuss, Sadie Girl Press, Origins Journal, Talking Soup, Silver Birch Press, Cultured Vultures, and many other publications. She is a regular contributor to Quail Bell magazine, and was a featured poet at the 2015 New York Poetry Festival. Leah was also a runner-up in the 2012 Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry contest.