This is a story about one of those things I wish I’d appreciated about my parents as a kid, but instead felt totally mortified by. I was never a “cool kid.” I got glasses in fourth grade, which was the same year I started the growth spurt that put me well over five-and-a-half-feet tall before most of my friends had even hit the five-foot mark. I was awkward.
My mom raised me to love food. As a chef and owner of a catering company, it was her lifeblood. She took my sister and me to Chez Panisse when we were 9 and 12, respectively, and I’ll never forget the buttery, flaky goodness of the salmon I ordered. She dragged us to early morning farmers’ markets on weekends, and I’d groggily follow her around as she picked up produce for dinner and bragged to vendors about our latest accomplishments. Her catering company also served as a CSA pickup site for multiple local farmers, including an Atlanta-based dairy that sold unpasteurized, non-homogenized milk in gallon jugs labeled “FOR PET CONSUMPTION ONLY, NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION.” Appetizing, right?
As a child who often conflated skim milk with “skin milk,” this not-for-human-consumption variety freaked me out. We weren’t a family who drank milk with our meals (or really consumed it at all on a regular basis), but my mom still brought home a chunky, shake-before-drinking gallon every so often. I’d reach for it when I needed something to dip my cookies in, then immediately complain about how the fat at the top didn’t fully dissolve no matter how hard I shook before pouring. And I absolutely never offered a glass to a visiting friend or houseguest—that would have been social suicide. I didn’t want to become known as the girl with chunky milk.
To my horror, my mom’s weird dairy obsession didn’t end with milk. I came home one afternoon with a friend in tow and was greeted by a large Mason jar on our kitchen counter, filled with lumpy beige mush that looked alive. And alive it was. Kefir, my mom explained, is made from milk and yeast-like grains that need to be fed regularly in order to grow. Grow!? How could dairy possibly need to grow? I never tried this particular dairy experiment, and my mom gave up trying to convince me of its merits around the same time I refused to try cod liver oil.
Our refrigerator contained other animal products that were off-putting to my tweenage self: goat’s milk yogurt, eggs so fresh they still had feathers and poop stuck to them, a slab of beef or pork that had been butchered by one of my mom’s farmer friends. At the time, I didn’t like knowing the animal I was eating, and I certainly didn’t like having to wash chicken poop off my eggs.
I’m not saying my mom’s penchant for these foods is what led me to become a vegetarian in college and never look back, but I’m also not not saying that. (I’m still in favor of humane, sustainable meat and poultry consumption for the general populace, I just choose not to partake.) Vegetarianism aside, my mom’s food-buying habits taught me to value fresh produce, support local farmers, and eat what’s in season. She never forced me and my sister to try any of her culinary oddities, but rather showed us our options and taught us to be conscientious eaters.
These days, I miss my mom’s weird dairy, plain and simple. Do kefir grains still freak me out? Absolutely. But now, as someone whose Big Girl Job involves knowing the dairy world inside and out, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for the countertop kefir and fresh, lumpy milk of my childhood. My mom taught me so many lessons, both purposefully and by osmosis, but her kitchen-based teachings are what stuck with me the most. I survived my awkward childhood relatively unscathed, and came out on the other side in full appreciation of the things that once left me mortified.