Before I go, I have something to say

Clouds in My Coffee

My son called me from his grocery store in Omaha last summer. I’d given him an ice cream maker for Christmas, and he was searching for the whole milk his recipe called for. Finally, we figured it out. “Is this it?” he asked. “Vitamin D Milk?” Bingo. It seems regular, high-fat milk no longer dares to go by its old name.

I grew up drinking whole milk. It was good and creamy, and gave me and my sister strong bones. My dad, who always carried a thermos of black coffee to work, stirred a splash of milk into his tea at supper. Mom gave us some kind of dessert every night, and her cookies were a great way to finish off my glass of milk, while other desserts – apple crisp, chocolate pudding cake – became even more delicious when served in a bowl so I could surround it with a moat of milk.

I must have been about ten when skim milk entered my family’s life. Maybe Mom was on a diet, or Dad’s doctor told him to cut down on the fat. My sister and I eyed this transparent liquid suspiciously and, after our first disgusted taste, took to calling it “skin milk.” Yuck, we said. Spare me.

Eventually, I got used to two-percent, and, finally, its distant cousin, one-percent. But now that I’m the cook, when a holiday (any holiday) approaches, you’ll find cream, both half-and-half and whole, sitting in my fridge. You can’t serve holiday dessert without coffee, and most of us like a little half-and-half with our home-ground Starbucks. And who wants pumpkin pie without whipped cream? Or, for that matter, gingerbread?

The trouble is, even after the holidays, I sort of got used to having some form of cream in the house, especially once I started making chai.

I tasted my first authentic chai at the Maharaja restaurant in Madison, the one on Odana Road right next to the Indian grocery store. It was creamy, and steaming, and sweet. I learned to pace myself, since they poured free refills if you didn’t refuse, or I would become so full of creamy, sweet tea that there wasn’t much room for the 47 other dishes in their noontime buffet. A little chai goes a long way.

Finding myself craving this perfect drink once I got home, I invested in a couple of Indian cookbooks and learned to make it myself. At first, I did it from scratch, heating the tea leaves with cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and cloves, then adding the milk and bringing it all to a simmer. Yum. This is the real thing, not at all like the stuff they make from a mix at your local coffeehouse. That kind tastes like watered-down spice cake batter. Not that there’s anything wrong with licking the beaters after you make a cake, but I’d rather not have it for breakfast.

Then my grocery store started carrying chai tea bags, so I brought some home to try. Thus my chai-making became a streamlined affair, just a matter of heating the water with the teabag in it, letting it steep four minutes, and adding the – well. This is the problem. This is why my doctor isn’t happy with my chai habit.

Once a year, like any intelligent person who wants to live past her fifties, I get my lipids checked. I also find out how my blood sugar and thyroid are doing. I don’t weigh much, and I exercise, so every year I’ve had good numbers. Nothing for me to worry about. Nope, I’m not mainlining bacon morning, noon and night; I’m not eating chips and a candy bar at lunch every day the way I used to. (Don’t get me started on the way I used to eat. One of the greatest insults of age, I’ve found, is not being able to get away with all sorts of things I used to do without a thought.) (Let’s pause for a big sigh here.)

I noticed certain numbers on my lab test had gone up this year, but I still took my results in, dutifully thrusting them at my internist. He was concerned, maybe even surprised, until I spilled the beans. “It might be the chai I have every day,” I murmured. “The chai I make with three ounces of half-and-half.”

Ha! There I was, hoist on my own petard, and if you don’t quite know what that colorful saying means, go ahead, look it up. It’s even worse than it sounds. Talk about a ticking time bomb.

Skim milk, he ordered. Skin milk? Either way, I’m doomed. I LOVE creamy things. I HATE fake half-and-half. For one thing, it’s full of weird ingredients (Carageenan, anyone? Dipotassium phosphate?), and for another, it does not taste creamy at all. I tried it. I poured the ruined chai, and the remaining pseudo-cream, down the drain.

When my elderly mother went to live in a beautiful assisted care mansion (really), I stopped by one day and was invited to stay for a snack. We sat in the sunlit dining room, and the wonderful woman who had opened her home to old people brought us fresh raspberries from her garden, piled into crystal goblets and sprinkled with sugar. Then, as if it were nothing, she brought out a pitcher of cream, pouring it over each berry. We ate them, Mom and I, with spoons.

I plan to do that again, maybe on my birthday. Surely a half cup of cream annually can’t hurt anything, can’t shove my numbers up into the Emergency category. After all, that’s an entire serving of fruit! Fruit is good for you, and so, I must insist, is the occasional splendid indulgence.

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