Saturday, May 5, 2007

Out of Milk

In Barbara Kingsolver's novel "Pigs in Heaven," a single mom, Taylor Greer, brings her adopted Cherokee daughter, Turtle, to a doctor. Turtle has been having painful abdominal cramps. The doctor asks about Turtle's diet. Taylor is panicky and guilty--she doesn't have much money, but she's been trying to do right by the kid.

"I make sure she gets protein," she tells the doctor. "We eat a lot of peanut butter. And tuna fish. And she always gets milk. Every single day, no matter what."

"Well, actually, that might be the problem." The doctor then instructs Taylor, without explaining why, to stop giving Turtle milk.

"Excuse me, but I don't get this," Taylor says. "I thought milk was the perfect food. Vitamins and calcium, and everything."

"Cow's milk is fine for white folks," the doctor answers, "but somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of the rest of us are lactose intolerant. That means we don't have the enzymes in our system to digest some of the sugar in cow's milk. So it ferments in the intestine and causes all kinds of problems."

In the current American estimate, I'm white folks, but that's a fairly recent development--see Karen Brodkin's fascinating book "How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America." I'm nouveau blanc. But I'm also one of the earth's lactose-intolerant billions. I grew up loving milk and I still do, but enough is enough. Last week I finally put milk on my banned list, as part of a subtractive process of figuring out what's wrong with me and my diet.

I'm not allergic to milk, that's a rare problem I don't have. I'm not ethically opposed to dairying industry practices, BST, antibiotics and all; and if I don't object to eating cows I can hardly object to milking them. Nor do I have any alternative or mystical ideas about milk or the holy sacred function of the bowels.

I just want to give the food I eat a chance, for once, to be digested in peace, floating lazily down the steady-flowing peristaltic river of life, not rushed along in repeated spring spates and flash floods. (I could have said this more plainly but be glad I didn't.) My hope is that I can establish a more normal relationship with the food I eat if it spends a more normal amount of time in my gut.

What took me so long? The problem has been evident since I was 11 or 12, and I've known its name for at least 20 years. But the ill effects of lactose strike so late in the process. It doesn't make my lips and tongue and palate itch, the way raw apples do. It doesn't make my stomach burn, like walnuts, or make me throw up, like mussels. No, I love drinking milk. By the time the trouble starts, the eating is done. Mission Accomplished! And when it comes to eating, I guess that the mouth is "the decider" and devil take the hindmost...which it does.

Weight loss is simple, some people tell me, and I agree that it ought to be. But I seem to have complicated my life in many ways such that nothing ever seems simple. My new strategy involves radical simplification, round after round of it, more rounds than I thought would be necessary, but here we are.

No peanuts, no milk. So much to blog about. Next time, chocolate gets it between the eyes. You don't want to miss that.

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