My grocery shopping list recently got shorter. A product that I enjoyed nearly every day for more than two decades has gone out of existence. Sometimes these events create an uproar among consumers who feel they've been abandoned. Lots of news stories appeared during the past year lamenting the demise of Postum. I was never keen on the venerable cereal-based drink, but I now share the unhappiness felt by its fans.
The product that won my unswerving allegiance was Milkman Instant Lowfat Dry Milk. It came in an orange-colored box that was easy to spot on store shelves because it showed the face of a smiling brown-eyed girl looking eagerly at a tall glass filled with a taste treat.
That little girl was smiling for an excellent reason. Milkman had a more satisfying flavor than nonfat dry milk because it was made "with the kiss of cream." It's a slogan that will echo in my memory as I adjust to daily life without the trusty orange box in the kitchen cupboard.
I started using Milkman in the 1970s as an additive to hot beverages. It provided the milky enhancement I wanted without cooling the mixture. This is important for me because I'm a person who likes hot beverages to be served just slightly below the temperature of molten lava.
Milkman was introduced in the 1960s by Foremost Dairy of California, which later became Foremost-McKesson. In 1982 the company decided to sell the production plant. A group of investors took over the operation and formed a distribution firm called Familiar Foods, which kept the kiss of cream available to Milkman loyalists for 25 more years.
I know all this because I went looking for answers a few months ago when I realized Milkman was starting to disappear from local supermarkets. My e-mail queries to Familiar Foods in the City of Industry near Los Angeles were answered by Jeff Mulligan, who worked with the company and the Milkman distribution system since it split off from Foremost-McKesson.
Mr. Mulligan was sympathetic to my distress but confirmed my fears. Milkman was no longer being made. The final batches were shipped last January. Sales, he explained, were declining each year. The production equipment was getting old, and future profits wouldn't be high enough to cover the costs of upgrading or moving to a different plant. It was time to quit.
Frankly, I knew this would happen eventually. Throughout my history with Milkman, I never once saw anyone else in a store buying it, nor did I ever see any in the homes of friends or relatives. Who, I often pondered, were the other consumers? We seemed to be a mysterious bunch, making purchases furtively and never drawing attention to our actions.
Mulligan said Milkman was popular with campers, and REI stores always carried it. There were also longtime customers who cut out the shopping scramble by having bulk orders shipped directly to their homes.
Perhaps if I had reached out and contacted other Milkman users around the country, we could have formed an advocacy group, pumped up sales and profits, and staved off the product's demise for a few more years. But in all honesty, how much national excitement can anyone expect to stir up about low-fat dry milk?
I'm pretty sure the remaining inventory of Milkman in my area has been snapped up by people like me who realized the terrible truth late in the day. In the past three weeks, I managed to snag four boxes. Each one contains 12 packets, and each packet is filled with enough precious powder to make one quart. At my rate of use, they should last until Christmas, or possibly New Year's Eve.
Walking the aisles of my neighborhood supermarket will seem a bit lonelier without that little brown-eyed girl staring at me from the shelf, and hardly anyone except the Milkman consumer base seems to have noticed she's gone away. According to Mulligan, I'm the only media person who queried Familiar Foods asking why the kiss of cream turned into a kiss of goodbye.
These days, I'm making a determined effort to savor every serving of my dwindling stockpile. On trips to the store, I look at other products that have survived for decades like Malt-O-Meal and Necco wafers and wonder what the future holds for them.
If you have a special food or beverage in your life that is off the beaten track of market popularity, don't take it for granted. Celebrate the moments you have together. There may come a day when that special culinary companion suddenly isn't there anymore.
It's an unhappy, frustrating experience. And it leaves a really bad taste in your mouth.
[Editor's note: Good news for Milkman fans! The product was re-launched in early 2011 and is available online from www.packitgourmet.com. For more information on the Milkman return contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org.]