Growing up in the early 1950s, visiting at my gram’s house, I was accustomed to seeing a can of evaporated milk on the table that the grownups put into their coffee. Those days, my gram, Mom and Dad, and lots of my other relatives always used instant coffee.
My gram let me have a taste of coffee by dipping her spoon into her cup and offering it to me, once in a while adding a couple of full spoons to my glass of milk. That was all the coffee I ever got in those early years, though I suppose it fostered a taste for coffee that has lasted to this very day.
The flavor of coffee with evaporated milk is unlike anything else I’ve ever tasted. And amazingly, evaporated milk has not been as drastically reformulated as so many of the other viands of my youth, so that if I long for a nostalgic moment, I can add a little to my coffee and be reminded of those moments at my gram’s side, see in my mind’s eye the green painted kitchen table with the flour sack tablecloth, and, the large white coffee cup she always used.
Of course, you can add milk to your coffee and sweeten it at the same time if you scoop out a drippy-tailed spoon full of condensed milk, like the fellows in the fishing fleet used to do aboard fishing boats in the early 1900s. Condensed milk is a little like milk jam, sweetened, cooked down until thick, as much a preserve as strawberry jam.
I keep both evaporated and condensed milk in my pantry at all times, because, well, you just never know. What useful stuff.
A long time ago, one of my older island neighbors told me that she and her husband always laid in a couple of cases of evaporated milk before winter came. Before we had a year-round ferry here, islanders depended on people who kept cows for their milk, and the island had several dairy farms plus a few single cows in sheds here and there which produced more milk than the owners needed.
Cows dried off periodically, and evaporated filled in. Once milk came from the mainland, lots of people gave up the local cow. Evaporated was just the ticket if the ferry couldn’t run.
Actually, evaporated was just the ticket because it worked so well at replacing cream. Thicker than milk, it was fine for coffee, for adding to mashed potatoes and essential in classic chowder. Add water to it and you can use it for baking or making puddings.
There is milk in aseptic packaging now, with as long a shelf life as canned milk. I ought to get over my resistance to milk in boxes. (I’ve gotten over a resistance to wine in boxes now that it is possible to find a slighter better quality wine which suits us as a “house wine” for ordinary suppers.)
There are probably hundreds of recipes that begin with a can of condensed milk. I use it to make a favorite fudge sauce, and more recently, a no-churn ice cream consisting entirely of one can of condensed milk plus a pint of whipped cream. It produces the most divinely smooth, rich ice cream. You can find the recipe on line; believe it or not, it comes from Martha Stewart.
Amazingly enough, condensed milk still comes in 14-ounce cans, while other cans of food, like soup for instance, are shrinking in tiny increments every few months, as for example, from 13-and-three-quarter ounces to 13-and-one-quarter ounces, and so on. No doubt someone at the condensed milk factory is trying desperately to figure out how to sell less at the same price, just as everyone else is doing.
It would be a rare occasion when one of our island stores failed to have milk or cream. And it is relatively easy for an Islesboro islander to get to the mainland. Still, I like to imagine that Annie Bunker, who lived in this house before me, may have used evaporated or even condensed in her tea or coffee. Somewhere out in the barn, there is a wooden box with “Somebody or Other’s Condensed Milk” painted on the end, possibly ordered up by Carrie Charest who summered here during the late 1930s into the early 1960s.
Keeping evaporated and condensed milk on hand, besides ensuring that I’ll have these useful ingredients when I need them, leaves me feeling, a little more than not, like a provident islander of the old school.
Sandy Oliver is a food historian and writer who lives on Islesboro.