Small town color and Love

I have to admit, when I first saw the brightly painted, graffiti style van parked in front of the house on the corner, I thought that whoever drove it must be transitory.

A friend said to me once that there are a collection of people who live in this town only because they broke down here.

Maybe that was the case with the occupant of the little yellow house on the corner, a rental with a historically high turnover.

But I started to notice the house’s occupant – long, burgundy hair, sometimes in pigtails – and they weren’t leaving.

Seasons passed, and a sign went up:  a long, wooden, hand-painted sign that said: “Rock’n’Roll is my religion, and Jesus is my lord.”

I’d see someone chopping wood, or mowing, and once I rode past and saw a figure in thigh-high white leather boots standing by a smoldering fire in the backyard.

WHITE LEATHER BOOTS? THIGH HIGH? dressing up in Troy means putting on a pair of clean jeans, so who was this person, and what the heck were they doing here?

Small towns like the one we live in [Troy, Montana, population 900] often have a reputation for being small minded, and less progressive and tolerant than urban areas.

But are they really? There is certainly not much in the way of diversity here, but those who are different from the majority [white, working class, heterosexual, Republican] are often tolerated with a surprising amount of loyalty and love.

I believe I’m one of those who are different but accepted. People will tell me about those damned Californian’s who come up here with their money, and all those foreigners’ coming to take our jobs …and then look at me and say “but not you. I’m not talking about you. You get it.”

People here are sometimes racist and homophobic because they don’t know any different. When I was working at the high school I had to patiently explain to a white student that saying racist things about our then president Obama while sitting next to their African-American friend is hurtful.

The white student looked at me, confused.

It became clear that the black friend was not thought of as black. They were part of the community, accepted, the ‘otherness’ put aside, the color of their skin forgotten.

So I’m not “a foreigner,” or “an immigrant,” to my fellow townspeople, although technically I am both in this country. I am their Australian, someone whose motive’s they understand, someone familiar.

I think the same is true for our bright-van owning, leather boot wearing, lace loving friend.

I’m going to tell you the story of Michaela Love, who was born Michael in Massachusetts in 1959.

“I’ve been here for two years now, I can’t believe it,” said Michaela with a laugh after I finally asked if I could interview her, and she had invited me in and offered coffee.

What do you like about being here? I asked.

Michaela answered that although she misses the city for the music scene, the boutiques, and restaurants, “I like the people [here], there are lots of really good people in this town.”

Michaela’s home is cozy, the walls of the living room lined with her extensive record collection, and crocheted afghan’s on comfortable looking chairs.  This little cottage in Troy feels a long way from her previous home in West Hollywood, where, she said, there was a big transgender and queer community.

Michaela has one whole room devoted to her clothing collection: rows of ruffled, frilly blouses and dresses hanging from every vertical surface.

closet

Michaela said that coming in with confidence and openness has helped her find a place in the community.

“There is so much hate in the world …I will never contribute to that,” she said, sipping coffee “I try to live up to my name.” Born to Irish Catholic parent’s, Michaela Love is proud of her name and that her relatives carried it when they arrived on the Mayflower [the ship that transported English adventurers to what is now New England, in 1620].

So how did her Catholic parent’s respond when, at age four, Michaela began to ask for soft nightgowns like her sister had?

“My mom is the best kind of Christian,” Michaela explained “she would say ‘it’s not our place to judge.’ It’s Christianity 101. She has always been very accepting of who I am. She still sends me blouses!”

While her father apparently struggled more than her mother with accepting Michaela’s gender identity, and took her to see a therapist [who said: “the harder Michael tries not to be a girl, the more he will be a girl”] he backed her up after she was raped at age 16 by a male neighbor.

“I finally told my father what had happened,” Michaela said “and it was too late to report it, but my father went next door and told the man ‘if you ever go near any of my children again, I will kill you.'”

Sexual harassment is an unfortunately common experience in Michaela’s life, and she has had plenty of practice with comebacks and retorts.

“A man called me a prissy little bitch recently,” she said, ” and I just said to him: well, I may be, but I’m not your bitch.”

Another incident in a nearby Montana town, bigger than Troy, was harder to come back from:

“A real red neck man in Kalispell pushed me up against a car last year,” Michaela said. “I was scared. He said ‘I bet you like that, don’t you?'” and then his girlfriend, who was there, actually slapped him. Women are protective of me. They won’t let men hurt me, and they explain that hurting me is just the same as hurting a woman.”

Even within her community, my community, Michaela is bearing the brunt of other people’s confusion and prejudice.

“I was at the bowling alley in Troy, and a man who often goes there came up and grabbed my breasts [Michaela began hormone therapy about 8 years ago, but is not currently taking hormones, because of the high cost]. The girls who work there threw him out.”

Michaela has been married and divorced twice, and her second wife was a Russian/Norwegian Victoria’s Secret model [I saw the wedding photos!].

“I would love to meet the right person, and it could be anyone,” Michaela told me “but I want to meet someone face to face, I don’t have the internet or a computer, I’m a dinosaur in a modern age!”

Although she said that “being a glamour girl is hard when there’s snow on the ground,” Michaela has no plans to leave Troy or Montana, and part of her reasoning is to help small town folks see that she is no threat.

“I’m not ashamed of who I am,” she explained “I’m not going to sneak around. And I hope that at least one kid in Troy can see me and think ‘I can be what I am too,'”

Michaela’s  life has spanned years as a glam rocker in the 80’s in LA [she was in several local bands: Black lace, Lipstick Traces, and Danger Dolls] to now: a small town retiree who spends time playing guitar and touching up the artwork on her van and making trips to Arizona to visit her parents.

I saw her painting the fence of the local biker bar next to the train tracks this spring, and she is on a first name basis with our chief of police, along with everyone else in town. She is clearly part of our town, and tells me “I bring a little color to Troy.”

van

As I hop on my bike to ride away from the little yellow house on the corner, Michaela leaves me with a final thought:

“If you don’t express who you are, you are robbing yourself of life. To thine own self be true.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Homesickness

I used to feel homesick a lot when I was first living in Montana.

I would kind of dive into the feeling, longing so hard to just feel fine sand beneath my feet and smell fishy, minerally sea air.

To walk across dry, crackling good smelling eucalyptus leaves and be in the harsh Australian sun, mildly wary of snakes and feeling the skin on my neck crisp.

IMG_0147[1]

Now the homesick feelings have tapered off, partly because I’m pretty used to coming and going, and partly because I have two kids and a lot less time to think!

But it still sneaks up on me sometimes …

We were in Missoula visiting friends and picking my father in law up from the airport last weekend and I walked down to the Good Food Store, a huge organic grocer down the street.

It took me long seconds to figure out that the cashier was Australian. She just sounded funny – I thought maybe she was deaf.

When I realized, I asked her “are you Australian?” and she said, without looking up, and in a tired voice “yep, good guess.”

And then I said something, a simple communication: “I have some bags” and her head bolted up and she said “are YOU Australian?” and we looked at each other for a second. I was so happy in that moment. To see yourself in someone else – a stranger. What a powerful force national identity is.

I wanted to hang around and listen to her talk to people, but that would have been weird, so we quickly established that she was from Tassie and I from the South Coast of NSW and I loaded my bags and walked away.

I do, of course, talk to my family sometimes. And every year, we have had at least two visitors from Australia, so I hear the accent. But it’s different when it’s people you know, and know well.

So sometimes I call our Australian bank or the mortgage company. Usually, there is a reason, like a blocked bank card, but sometimes I call for an account balance I can access online in two seconds.

And when the recorded ad reel begins in a broad Aussie accent, I relax. When the sales rep answers, I melt further, allowing my voice to flatten, the ends of words to run into one another.

I cut my words in half and relish it. I say ‘dodgy’ and ‘I reckon’, try to work in ‘shed’, ‘ute’, ‘relo’s’ and ‘veranda’. For a five minute conversation with Kirsty from St George, I am so Australian it hurts.

Then I hang up and step out into early spring.

Sleet/snow/rain is falling – what the weather stations quaintly call “a wintry mix.”

Thin slashes of icy slush hit my face and I breathe in the grey light. I am here, I am choosing to be here with Haak and our Montana family and I know now that even this wintry weather will soon bring spring.

 

 

 

Being a tea drinker in the US sucks

I just got back from a mother’s day tea party at Atticus’ kindergarten. It was adorable, and Atty”s kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Root, and her helper’s had laid out plastic table cloths and real cups and saucers for mom’s [I’m a M-o-m now, not a M-u-m, as I always expected], dixie cups of lemonade for the kids.

[An aside: Australian readers are thinking wait a second, her son’s teacher’s name is MRS ROOT? this would be the worst name for a teacher in Australia, because root is slang for sex. If you were being very crude [or funny] you would say to someone: wanna root?]

I was super impressed with the effort that Mrs Root had put into this party. She is an awesome teacher. But was I expecting to actually drink tea?

Absolutely not.

I have long ago adjusted my expectations around tea when we are in Montana.

Early on, I tried every brand of black tea I could find. I ordered it online, I bought it in bulk in fancy health food store’s. I don’t know what it is, but American tea just tastes bad to me.

I’m kind of mad about the Boston tea party, although still shady on the details, because I suspect we are still tasting the repercussions here in the US. We could be drinking great tea, like they have in Ireland, Australia, New Zealand: basically, all the western countries that didn’t chuck a bunch of tea in the sea.

I think that the countries that grow tea [India, Pakistan, Kenya, Turkey] give American tea suppliers all the dregs at the bottom of the tea chest – tiny specks of tea mixed with grass and sheep poop and other things that don’t taste like tea.

One of my closest friend’s here, Shawna, stopped drinking coffee last year. And when tea was her main vice she finally understood what I’d been complaining about all these years.

So I started slipping her some of my gift tea, sent from Australia. Mum is my main supply, but it’s become common knowledge for Australian’s visiting that a few packets of Aussie tea will always be welcome.

tea

Australian tea is strong, but somehow still sweet. Many people drink it with a bit of milk, some with a lot of sugar. Because it’s not as caffeinated as coffee, it’s served more often: when you go to someone’s house anytime of day, you’re often asked: wanna cuppa?

My cousin Lily always has a weak, milky cup of tea before bed. I love her sleepy dependence on the routine: even in the days we were out drinking together, she would come home and make tea at 2 am.

When I first had Atticus, and my friend Lulu had a baby at the same time, she said to me once, sleep deprived and frustrated with babies: “It was a five cups of tea day today for sure.”

Although I usually have just one cup, and thankfully my baby days are over, sometimes I still use Lulu’s measure. Hangover days. Jet lagged days. Days after everyone had a stomach bug all night.

One of Haakon’s cousin’s, Amanda, once took us to an amazing tea house in Boulder, Colorado. It was early in my time here, and I remember that cup of tea being very special, especially that I could ask for milk with the tea and be understood [American’s usually drink black tea black].

I remember the first time I was served my own cup of tea: I was about ten, and I was on holiday with my family, visiting some good friends of my parents who were staying at Scott’s Head in northern NSW.

It was late [for me] and dark and a salty warm wind blew off the ocean. My friend, Meredith, the daughter of mum and Dad’s friend’s, and I were given warm, milky cups of tea and what seemed like a generous amount of scotch finger biscuit’s for dunking.

We took our treats to the upper deck of the rental, looking out into the darkness where we could just barely see white waves rolling in; but we could hear the roar.

The wind blew, and I remember getting kind of crazy, jumping and holding our arms out. Was it the tea? the lateness of the hour? the thrill of feeling like adults?

Whatever it was, addiction set in, and tea stills feels like home. It’s the first thing I do when I wake up: put the kettle on, drink tea with milk.

Back in the kindergarten classroom, Tracy [a teacher’s aide] came around with an ornate tea pot: but what would be in it?

Turns out, tea.

And really tasty tea. Some kind of lightly sweet, iced tea with an earl grey flavor.

And Atticus asked me for a sip. So I gave him one.

Atty

 

 

 

 

Contraceptives: the real measure of inequality

Aside from having my basic human needs met, what is the greatest freedom I have?

Since 2011, when I had my first child, my first thought when I see my belly is always gratitude.

Belly crop

I’m grateful that I was able to grow two healthy babies. I’m humbled that I got to choose when I conceived [roughly!] and with whom.

I’m so, so grateful to my mum for being into homebirth so I knew that was a possibility, and so honored that Anki was our midwife, and both kids born into water at home.

And I’m delighted that I have chosen to close that chapter, and that Haakon has a vasectomy, leaving us completely free and easy with regards to contraception [I’ll talk about the merits of vasectomy in a later blog].

No more wondering when a period is later than usual if a baby is the reason.

No more hypothetical moral grappling – if I were pregnant, would I abort?

I see this access and the ability to control when, and if, to have kids, as the ultimate luxury, and one humans have not been enjoying for very long.

I don’t care how many babies people have, when they have them, or if they don’t, or if they have them with many different partners, or a same sex partner, or raise them alone.

But now that we have such amazing options for contraception, I care very much about people only having babies that they want.

According to the US census website, the world population is 7.6 billion as of May 2018, and growing by about 180,000 per day.

And the United Nations Word Population fund says that 214 million women in the developing world who want to prevent pregnancy don’t have access to contraceptives.

We should want to fix that, because parenting is not for the faint of heart – a friend’s toddler once threw her head back and broke her mother’s nose during a tantrum. Most of us parents have cleaned a log of poop out of a pair of pants at least once.

Having and raising a child takes resources – food, clothing, money or bartering power. But it also requires support, a community, social capital.

If you have no resources, especially social resources, having a baby will not magically make them appear. And we need those resources – every one of us has felt squeezed dry at some point by the emotional demands of parenting.

Knowing this, sexually active women everywhere spend hours, weeks and months of their lives caught up with trying not to get pregnant.

More and more men are taking responsibility for not making babies, but since the evidence is written on a woman’s body she is often the most invested in preventing pregnancy.

In both of my homes, the US and Australia, people generally have pretty good access to contraceptives, whether drugstore condoms or an IUD, implant or vasectomy.

But access doesn’t necessarily trump culture. Although contraceptives are technically available in white, rural America, where I live, they often remain just out of reach of those who really need them – young people.

A conservation, religious undertone means sex ed leans towards teaching abstinence.

I just got back from a walk to the park, where I bumped into Tyran, who is not quite 21 and has two sons – a  four year old and an eighteen month old.

I asked her about her first pregnancy, and how that came about, how she felt about it.

“I was 14 when I got pregnant, and I had Lovell when I was 15,” Tyran said.

But Tyran wasn’t naive about getting pregnant:

“Oh, I knew how it [sex] worked, my mom told me, and we had sex ed at school,” she said “they didn’t give us condoms though, I think that would be good, if there was a clinic you could get free condoms, if they put them in our hands.”

Thinking back to being 14 myself, and remembering not being able to see past a week, I asked her if she just didn’t care.

“Yeah, I think that was it. In that moment I just didn’t care, I thought I loved him.”

Tyran, with help from her mom, the grandparents of her kids, and her youngest son’s dad, who pays some child support and has custody of both kids whenever he can, has fulfilled the American dream.

Work hard, fight adversity, not get an abortion.

Of her youngest child, Tyran said:

“His dad is really cool. A nice guy. We got married after 3 months because everyone said to me ‘why not, he loves Lovell,’ and I thought maybe god was giving me this, a family,”

She gestured to her youngest son, in his stroller, as we walked.

“But he [god] was really just giving me another kid,” she said, and smiled and stopped to adjust her son’s visor “he was conceived on a pull out couch. That’s kind of ironic, isn’t it?”

Tyran plainly loves her kids.. She sent me this picture of her sons, Lovell and Kale:

lovell and kale

Although Tyran was close to getting the contraceptives she needed, and turned a hard situation into a positive one, in some places, getting and using contraceptives effectively is an even bigger hurdle.

A family friend and doctor of sociology, Richard Barcham, told me a bit about the availability of contraceptives in Papua New Guinea, where he has worked on and off since 2000.

According to Richard, people in PNG are generally not shy about talking about sex and contraception, and tend towards being “pretty promiscuous.”

The biggest hurdle in getting contraception to those who want it, he said, is the power men have over women.

“The status of women is very low,” Richard wrote in an e mail “a large family is a big loyal workforce for a man to build prosperity, so men sometimes have multiple wives.”

Richard has heard women say they carry condoms in case of rape: he said rape is “gut-churningly and bizarrely common.”

Although the PNG government offers what it can by way of health services, most people have never seen a doctor, Richard wrote.

Churches and other aid groups provide better and more healthcare than local services, and because of religious conflicts, these groups often don’t offer contraceptives.

If a woman is offered long term contraceptive options, like an injection or implant of hormone birth control, often her husband must give permission, and “this can be a problem,” Richard said.

Richard told a story about working with a non profit group called Touching the Untouchables, who aim to bring health care to people in the highlands of PNG, only accessible by one road, which is “a bit dangerous,” because of road accidents and highway robbers.
“We often traveled in a District ‘ambulance’,” Richard said  “really a Toyota troop carrier and not anything like an ambulance at all. I recall on one occasion travelling in the front of such a vehicle,  with a health worker and the driver, while a group of village volunteers, NGO staff and their cargoes bounced around in the back. The health worker had boxes of stuff on her lap, and every time we passed a group of people standing by the road she would pass handfuls across to the driver. Behind us, people scrambled in our dust to pick up these tossed treats. On closer inspection, the contents of the boxes turned out to be condoms.”
A rising awareness in PNG of using condoms to prevent HIV, as well as to control pregnancy has made their use more popular. Richard sent me this link about a recent donation of 120,000 condoms to PNG.
The best part? every one of those condoms is strawberry scented!

 

If you appreciate your freedom with family planning, and want to gift that to another person, some organizations that provide contraceptive aid in the US and internationally are:

The United Nations Population Fund 

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Planned Parenthood

Pathfinder International

 

 

 

 

Darling jacket

I’ve never had a relationship with an item of clothing quite like my love affair with the down jacket I bought two years ago.

I’ve worn this navy blue jacket ten months of each year I’ve owned it, and when I’m not wearing it, its presence is upsetting Haakon because I slither out of it like a second skin:

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[I also hang it up sometimes, because I love him]

Back home in Australia, there is no clothing item that I wear so much – and that could save my life. [OK, maybe sun protection is on par!]

I spent the first few winters in Montana muddling through the unfamiliar cold with borrowed, old style down jackets, and layers of wool jumpers.

I was cold and hot a lot, because I didn’t understand the different types of cold yet – that the common cold here is between 30-40 F, which is cold, but not that cold.

I always wore leggings under pants in winter, no matter the temperature, and when I stepped into heated buildings, waves of sweat would wash over me, a feeling not unlike stepping out of an airplane into a tropical climate still wearing jeans because when you left, it was cold.

Now I step out in just jeans when it’s in the 30’s, feeling naked and so tough.

But there’s also the cold I had never experienced that hits in January or February- dry, windy 10 F, cold that makes your face hurt, which is almost impossible to comprehend on this fine spring day.

Cold that makes you realize your hair is not quite dry when you hear cracking as each hair freezes.

Cold that makes you run to try to get away from it, cold that makes your heart vibrate.

After hearing a story from a friend who is on the search and rescue team, I started throwing a lighter in my pocket when I went walking in winter.

This friend had searched all day for a teenage boy who had gotten lost while hunting.

It was early fall and the temperature was around freezing and the kid was disoriented when he was found, a sign of hypothermia.

The kids jeans were wet and he was wearing cotton socks and sneakers, and I remember my friend saying over and over “wool [which is warm when wet] could have saved his life if we didn’t find him. Having matches or a lighter would have saved him. He was totally unprepared.”

Well, I didn’t want to be un prepared.

I had chosen to live in this ridiculous climate, so I better learn how to survive it. I started noticing that when women went out in winter in fancy shoes, they put insulated snow boots in their cars in case they broke down and had to walk.

I realized I could not be prepared for winter by shopping at thrift stores, which is where all my other clothes come from.

I bought some tall neoprene boots, which are supposedly protective down to -30F. They are certainly cosy, and completely waterproof.

And then I bought the jacket. Extremely expensive, it is also light as a feather and seems like it wouldn’t insulate at all.

I wore it all winter with a sweater or two under it and was warm, even on the coldest days.

I wore it in the fall and spring over a light shirt or T-shirt, because in the mountains, the cold is always there, waiting, and the second the sun slips behind a cloud, a brisk and icy breeze makes you wonder why you were wearing a T-shirt at all.

I’m still wearing it in May, although daytime temps are in the 60’s and 70’s [20’s in Celsius] throwing the jacket in my bike basket when we ride to the park to pack up the ice skating rink and wearing it on cool nights around a campfire.

The companies that make these jackets always have advertising showing people out in the elements, rock climbing, running, cycling.

I reckon they should have an advertising campaign about how their gear helps transplants from hot countries just survive a north American winter.

Bugger cycling, I’m using my hard core performance wear to walk to the store and to dash from car to house.

I’m not the only one.

Pascal moved here from Cameroon to be with his wife, Heather, and their daughter Madeline [below, with Pascal]

 

Pascal

Pascal just got done with his first winter here. His wife, Heather, told me that he didn’t like having cold hands and feet and that he won’t admit it, but he spent most of the winter sitting in a rocking chair beside the wood stove.

Like I did, Pascal will have to figure out how to dress to be able to enjoy winters here.

I’ve passed Pascal working his job as part of the school maintenance crew over the winter, both of us hunched against the cold, both looking, I imagine, at the falling snow with the same combination of wonder and disgust.

When I pass him at the school, Pascal is wearing a big, puffy black jacket, and he waves, smiles, and gets back to flag raising.

Our jackets hold us down, despite their lightness. They keep us with our families.

DSCF3287

 

 

 

 

Heidi, Peanut, the duck and Mr Black Bear

My friend Heidi told me this story really fast while we were getting ready for a party the other night. It’s such a great story I just had to jot down what I remembered of it …

So you can visualize, here is a pic of Heidi last Halloween with her two dogs, Juan and Peanut [and Keeler, small and blond]. Peanut is in front, a tiny brown scruff of fur, and it’s important you know Peanut’s size for the story.DSCF2764

So Heidi was in the woods, walking her dogs.

“I keep this little knife in a sheath in my car, and some plastic, in case of roadkill,” Heidi began [Montana recently made it legal to salvage road hit animals for meat] so I’m walking and all of a sudden this big, beautiful duck flies straight into a tree in front of me and it’s lying on the ground so I’m all PEANUT! sic em!”

After Peanut failed to kill the duck, Heidi broke its neck, and, feeling very primal, got her knife and began to skin it.

“I realize now I should have plucked the duck,” Heidi said “but there I am, covered in blood on this little rise and it starts to rain. And then the dogs start going off and I look up and there is Mr black bear, right in front of me.”

Heidi started yelling to let the bear know she was there.

[A quick refresher for those not familiar with bears. It’s just like snakes in the part of Australia I come from: black snakes and black bears are generally less aggressive than  brown snakes or brown [Grizzly] bears. So Heidi did the right thing for the right bear.]

“Heeeeeyyyy bear!” she called at the top of her lungs, while trying to call her dogs at the same time.

Heidi dropped the duck, and ran back to her car with her dogs.

But after waiting there for awhile, she realized she wanted that duck, her hard won windfall.

“So I went back for the duck,” she said.

Hollering all the while to let the bear know she was there, she grabbed the duck and brought it back to the car to finish cleaning it up.

The sun came out, and a rainbow formed.

Then Heidi drove to our house, because she wanted to clean herself and the duck and not bother her housemate with the mess.

And I happened to be dragging two screaming kids up the stairs for bed and told Heidi that now was not the time for a visit, so she went next door to our friend Shawna’s house and told her the story instead.

Back at the party, Heidi finished telling her story and unveiled her potluck offering: pieces of tender wild duck cooked in bacon fat and roasted with the flesh of one of her homegrown spaghetti squashes.

“Now I’m thinking about it, I realize that bear had just woken up [from hibernation] and was probably starving, I should have left him the duck” Heidi reflected as we got the food ready for the party.

“You could have just tossed the duck to the bear and he could have caught it in his mouth” said Shawna, laughing.

The end.

Side note: I take interactions with wild animals seriously, and encourage everyone to keep a respectful and safe distance and not feed wildlife ducks or anything else.

 

 

 

The USA’s love of fake cream, and why it has me beat.

I love a good creamy dessert. Custard. Mousse. Trifle [What is a Trifle?]. Creme Brulee. Plain old whipped cream dolloped on warm cake.

But every now and again while we’re in Montana I’ll greedily load my plate with creamy dessert at a potluck or work lunch and after the first bite realize that the “cream” in a dessert is too thick, too greasy and too white to actually be cream.

Americans love whipped topping. And they love to share recipes using whipped topping like this chocolate and marshmallow pie which involves opening a package, a tub, a box, and mixing stuff together.

Made from a hydrogenated blend of vegetable oil and sugar or corn syrup,  whipped topping was invented by New York dairy farmer Robert Rich, in 1945, when world war two rationing affected the availability of dairy foods.

But it was actually the automobile maker Henry Ford whose company was the first to begin experimenting with making cream and milk substitutes from soybeans. Ford was apparently a soybean enthusiast and shared what he knew with Rich, who based his recipe on soybean oil.

Although neither Ford nor Rich were associated with the Seventh Day Adventists, who believe in eating a high fiber, vegetarian diet [John Harvey Kellog, of cornflakes fame, was a member of the church], the religion seems to be at least partly responsible for the early success of Rich’s soybean products.

One of the religions founders, Ellen White, wrote in 1873: “We have always used a little milk and some sugar. This we have never denounced, either in our writings or in our preaching. We believe cattle will become so much diseased that these things will yet be discarded, but the time has not yet come.”

White was onto something – milk and cream, in a time before refrigeration and sanitation, were a bit like Russian roulette. A bad batch could cause serious illness, or death. A person could even contract bovine tuberculosis through contaminated milk.

But not so much sweet whipped vegetable oil: I left this container of whipped topping on my counter overnight and it looked pretty similar in the morning [this is, of course, thanks to preservatives as well as a lack of bacterial contamination from not being an animal product].

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But why has fake cream stayed in the market in the US, while other countries, like the UK and Australia, also suffered food rationing during the war and returned to dairy cream?

The answer partly lies in the US’s historically low wages and the insane cost of private health insurance, which leaves low to middle income households with not much of a budget for food [several friends I’ve talked to pay around $10,000 a year for family of four, and that is considered “good” insurance, where the employer also contributes $10,000-20, 000 annually. I think I’d rather pay a little more in taxes and have universal health care].

As well as being cheaper than cream, whipped topping is convenient because it can be frozen and holds its shape for much longer than whipped cream [it’s often why the slices of cream pie in the revolving pie stands you see in diners here stand up so well, even after hours of display.]

Along with his whipped topping, Rich created a non dairy coffee creamer in 1945 and sensitively called it “coffee whitener” to avoid lawsuits by the dairy industry.

Coffee has been the hot drink of choice in the US since tea was thrown into the sea in Boston in 1773 – a pivotal moment in the American revolution and separation from Britain.

Here in the north west, people still drink lots of drip coffee [much weaker than your average Aussie coffee], and if they’re not drinking it black, they top it off with cream.

But an American is talking about putting cream in coffee, it’s usually a product called Half and Half that they’re talking about, which is half whole/full cream milk and half cream.

But even in the time I’ve been living the states, pre sweetened and flavored non dairy creamer has become a more common addition to coffee.

The picture below shows the scope of brand and flavor of creamer at our tiny IGA supermarket in our town of 900 – french vanilla, hazelnut, caramel, peppermint mocha …

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Some creamers do contain milk, and some are entirely dairy based but sweetened. Some, like Rich’s original, are based entirely on vegetable oils.

The comparison of dairy foods versus hydrogenated vegetable oil foods is not clear cut, except to my taste buds. Many fake dairy products are vegan, and could arguably be a better choice for the environment and animal welfare.

While I didn’t appreciate it at the time, I was lucky to grow up on fresh goats milk.

Our goats – cared for then by Pauline and Jenny, were fussed over.

I remember them being given spoonfuls of molasses on whole organic oats, sweet chaff, seaweed meal and, when a goat showed any signs of illness, garlic and bunches of parsley and other herbs were added to their food tubs.

Their milk was delicious [and not garlicky at all!] and my love of dairy foods remains pure because of my early experience of respectful animal husbandry.

I hope that the move towards smaller, more animal friendly dairy’s can continue, and spread even to low income areas like our home in Montana.

Just before we left Australia last time, in late 2015, the coffee shops around my home in the Bega Valley [Red cafe and Evolve cafe were two I noticed] started using rich Jersey milk from Tilba Real Dairy to make their lattes and cappuccino’s.

Using fresh, non – homogenized milk makes a delicious difference to a latte, creating thick foam, which is pretty hard to do with 2% milk fat, as is commonly used in coffee shops here.

When we were in Missoula a few weeks ago, I noticed a jug of Kalispell Kreamery milk in the fridge where we were staying.

Pasteurized but not homogenized, the milk had the same sweet taste and thick cream on top as Tilba milk [and the dairy says on it’s website that if a cow has mastitis, they dry her up to allow recovery instead of using antibiotics].

Kalispell is two hours drive from us, and Missoula three hours – a bit far to go for milk, but I hope local suppliers will want to stock this excellent local product soon.

In the meantime, if you are  searching for the fluffy and creamy texture that whipped topping offers, please try my chocolate mousse recipe: it only requires opening a few packages [a carton of cream, some eggs, and chocolate] and the flavor and texture are off the scale.

Chocolate Mousse

4 eggs, separated

10-12 oz/ 300 grams of bittersweet or 60% chocolate chips [or a mixture]

1 small carton whipping cream [half pint, or about 235 ml – I think small cartons of cream are the same size in Aus and US]

 

Melt chocolate in a heat proof bowl over a pan of simmering water. Whip cream and mix in yolks.

Add melted chocolate to cream and yolks mixture and mix well.

In a separate bowl, with clean beaters, beat egg whites until soft peaks form.

Then – carefully fold the egg whites into chocolate mixture. You want to incorporate the whites, but not deflate them – they are what gives your mousse its ethereal texture.

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Spoon mousse into pretty little cups, glasses or ramekins and chill at least 4 hours. The texture continues to improve if left overnight, but do eat it within 24 hours.

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I recently tried sandwiching thin layers of chocolate cake with the mousse and chilling the whole four layer cake for 8 hours and it turned out beautifully. 

 

 

I found information about Robert Rich, Henry Ford, Seventh Day Adventists, Ellen White and milk contaminants at these sites.

Ministry, international journal of pastors: https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/1989/02/milk-has-the-time-come

Soy Info Center: http://www.soyinfocenter.com/books/170

Obit of Robert Rich: http://articles.latimes.com/2006/feb/17/local/me-passing17

Bovine Tuberculosis factsheet: http://www.cfsph.iastate.edu/Factsheets/pdfs/bovine_tuberculosis.pdf

 

Thanks for reading!