Transforming Acerphobia

There are things about traveling about which I am quite happy to complain at length (have you noticed?). And then there are one or two things about which I feel such deep horror, such fundamental ontological dread, that complaining does no good, and indeed only serves to more profoundly trap me in my fears. I’m talking here, of course, about milk.

There are two types of phobia about daily products. First, you have the lactophobes, also known as galaphobes, who are just straight-up scared of dairy products. I’m sure there are varying degrees here – for instance, I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that some lactophobes will quietly make an exception for ice cream – but at the heart of it, you’re dealing with a bone-liquefying revulsion of anything that comes from an udder.

The second kind – my kind – is less severe, but a handicap regardless. Acerphobia (or acerophobia) is the fear of sour milk, or the fear of sourness in general, or indeed the fear of all forms of spoilage, rot, decomposition, and food-or-drink-related entropy. It’s the chilling knowledge that anything we consume can become contaminated in a hundred different ways, most of them 100% natural and organic.

It’s normal to recoil from moldy bread or fruit. Our nostrils revolt, our taste buds throw up red flags. But my neurosis goes further, such that, if there is a single spot of mold on one slice of bread, the loaf gets tossed. A few fuzzy berries in the basket? Buh-bye. I know it’s wasteful, but the alternative is shoving those objects to the back of the fridge or breadbox, hoping they somehow reverse their putrefaction. It never works out.

Milk is worse, and better. A fresh loaf of bread is wholesome, healthy, free of risk. You can pluck most berries off the bush and tuck right in. But milk comes out toxic, and must be pasteurized before it’s safe. In my mind, that means the risk of sickness remains locked within the milk, a ticking time-bomb of decay. But on the up-side, milk cartons clearly broadcast their decay rates. I take expiry dates as holy affirmations that the inherent badness in the milk will not be unleashed until one minute past midnight on the date provided. Or – y’know, earlier, if it smells a bit weird.

My hang-up with dairy expiry dates got so profound, I once wrote a play about the issue. One character was a doom-sayer cultist who’d noticed an “expiry date” carved on a rock, and so believed the world would end that day. Then, he bought a carton of milk scheduled to expire three days later. Miracle milk! He ended up imbibing it so he could survive the end-times. That’s how seriously I take those little date-stamps. I will always dig to the back of the racks, straining to snag the one single carton that’s one day fresher. Forestalling apocalypse.

Where did it come from, this minor mania of mine? Too much speculation would be traumatizing in itself, but I have a couple of theories. First, I am allergic to penicillin, or so I’ve been told. It was discovered when I was an infant, so I don’t really know what will happen to me, I’ve just always avoided it. But I remember reading a picture-book about the discovery of penicillin. Now, it wasn’t one of the ValueTales books – that was a series of allegorical cartoon biographies wherein historical figures learn the Value of Courage or the Value of Determination or the Value of Overcoming Adversity, usually through conversations with an anthropomorphic animal or object. It wasn’t this, but I can vividly imagine that it was, and that Alexander Fleming learned the Value of Unconventional Thinking from a talking slice of moldy bread.

Anyway, maybe my young brain connected penicillin (poison!) with mold (yucky!) and then extrapolated to all forms of rot. But that doesn’t explain why milk has become my sticking point. So, there’s another potential explanation, and I’m sorry to say it’s not pretty.

I was maybe six, at Howard and Ross’s house, eating pizza lunch before a trip to the waterslides. I was voracious and parched; I kept asking for glass after glass of milk. The boys’ mom even commented on how thirsty I was. And then, just as quick as it went down, it all came back up. I threw up all over the table – masticated chunks of pizza, but mostly just a river of white. The waterslide trip was canceled; I was sent home. Was the milk bad? Had I simply drunk too fast? Or did I have heat exhaustion, or just flu? In my mind, the symptom has become the cause, and now, whenever I pour a glass of the white stuff, I fight to suppress in the image of pizza-lumpy milk-barf soaking into the tablecloth.

I said I was sorry.

In France, milk products are “UHT sterilized” and are sold unrefrigerated. They sit on the supermarket shelves, boasting absurdly distant expiry dates, taunting my fears. The bottles say “demi-écrémé,” which just means it’s halfway between skim and homogenized – exactly what I drink in Canada – but the “demi” part makes me feel, irrationally, as if a half-assed effort were involved somewhere in the production process. Coffee cream is scarce, but you can buy 18% “semi epaisse,” a thick, gloopy cream that clots in any liquid that’s not boiling hot. Every time I open a container, I half expect it to sprout eyes and a mouth and start teaching me about the Value of Suppressing One’s Gag Reflex.

Perhaps the strangest part, psychologically, is my unwillingness to quit. Even though buying unrefrigerated milk makes me queasy to my core, I have no interest in giving up on breakfast cereal. And I’ll abide milk in my espresso, or even sugar in my café filtre, but at home I’ll brave the gloop. Because I like milk and cream – and butter and yogurt and ice cream – even though I’m convinced it’s out to get me. And so I suffer in silence, taking my dairy products one curdle hurdle at a time.


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