What Ever Happened to Fresh Cream?
“If you believe in progress, this may change your mind.”
Fresh cream. The words bring back memories of grandmother topping her strawberry shortcake with a luxurious dollop. Churning rich homemade ice cream on a Saturday afternoon. What could be fresher than real cream? Well, these days almost anything could.
“Things are seldom what they seem / Skim milk masquerades as cream,” sang Buttercup to the Captain in H.M.S. Pinafore. The seemingly fresh cream you buy today isn’t skim milk, but neither is it fresh. More than likely it came from an assembly line in California, or Missouri, or Sulphur Springs, Texas. (That’s if you buy what is labeled as cream. If you buy one of the so-called non-dairy creamers, it may have started life in a soybean patch in the Panhandle—a possibility that Gilbert and Sullivan mercifully never had to consider.)
Progress—in the form of a process known as Ultra High Temperature (UHT) treatment—is taking traditional fresh cream off grocery shelves at a dismaying rate. Dairies are substituting the new product in the same cartons they formerly used for the real thing, merely changing the fine print to include the legally required words “ultra-pasteurized” or “sterilized.” If consumers will swallow sterilized cream, the dairy industry hopes someday to apply the same treatment to milk. The goal is a liquid so totally processed that it can sit around for months without refrigeration—turning dairy products, in the words of one industry writer, into something that could be stored with “soft drinks on the same shelf in the markets.” If that sounds unappetizing, consider what has happened already.
In a blue metal and beige brick building on the north side of IH 30 in Sulphur Springs, the Specialty Foods plant of the Southland Corporation houses the only UHT cream plant in Texas. Wearing a blue baseball cap, production manager Jim Morgan oversees an aseptic process in which 175- degree cream is heated to 285 degrees by steam infusion, held at that temperature for exactly four seconds, and then transferred to a flash chamber that reduces it to 175 degrees again almost instantly, thereby destroying most bacteria and rendering it practically sterile. The cream is then homogenized, cooled, and stored.
Specialty Foods prepares UHT cream for twenty different dairies, doing the whole job right down to using each one’s distinctive carton. Trucks carry the finished product to ten states—as far east as Paducah, Kentucky, as far west as Colorado Springs and Albuquerque, as far north as Wichita, Kansas—in a colossal version of the milkman’s morning run. Unopened, the little cartons will last six weeks or more, compared to the ten-day shelf life of fresh cream.
UHT is the pride and joy of the dairy business. If you don’t believe that, visit the Texas A&M Library and leaf through the imposing collection of dairy periodicals there (Journal of Dairy Science, Butter & Cheese Journal, Die Milchwissenschaft, Milch-Zeitung, Le Lait, Goat World). You will hear its praises sung, sometimes rhapsodically, as in this stirring tribute from the Southern Dairy Products Journal:
In the beginning there was raw milk and cream, and people died from disease borne by dairy products; And along came pasteurization and the children stayed healthy.
But the mothers complained because the cream soured; and they turned to false Gods.
And along came sterilized dairy products and the mothers were happy again.
Actually, if the truth be told, it was the dairy business’ own accounting departments and not the mothers who did most of the complaining. Unsold products, or “returns,” are a chronic liability for dairies, who have no choice except to remove them from supermarket shelves and dispose of them once they have soured. Cream has never sold as well as milk, so the industry looks on UHT sterilization as a heaven-sent way of prolonging the shelf life of a troublesome product. Once they’ve gotten rid of it (by placing it on a retail shelf) they don’t want it back. They want you to take it. And with UHT, they have devised a way to keep it sitting there until you do take it. For six weeks, if necessary.
“It’s common knowledge that cream sales in the fluid milk industry dropped because it wouldn’t keep,” says John Speer of the Milk Industry Foundation, a lobbying association in Washington. Thanks to UHT, “dairy sales are climbing back and cutting into the vegetable fat business”—the Cool Whips, the Cereal Blends, and the other false gods of whom the poet spoke. In the past three years, dairies have stampeded to the doorsteps of the UHT cream processors. The idea that they have done so to keep mothers happy is largely a convenient fiction, since once UHT cream is opened it goes sour about as quickly as the fresh kind. The difference is in its shelf life before it is opened; and except for the rare mother who stockpiles her refrigerator with unopened cream for weeks in advance, the real beneficiary of UHT is the dairy distributor.
There really is no mystery about what is wrong with sterilized, ultra-pasteurized cream. It tastes funny, and it’s hard to whip. Dairy people are coy about the first point, but they concede the second. If you listen closely, you may even hear them making a virtue of its whiplessness. “It’s actually better than fresh cream,” suggested one proponent of UHT, “because if you whip the old kind long enough it might turn to butter.” One imagines grandmother weeping softly in the corner: “Oh, mercy! What will I do with this butter?” If you whip the sterilized product long enough, by contrast, it might turn to whipped cream.
Of the nation’s leading food critics, only Boston’s Julia Child confessed to us that she had come to terms with the stuff. “I may say that when I first heard of it, I was absolutely horrified. I said, ‘What are they doing to us, giving us super-sterilized cream, and wah, wah wah!’ And then I got some and used it and I find it whips up perfectly well… I always put a tray of ice cubes in a bowl and cover them with water, and then stick a stainless steel bowl in that, and always whip it over ice. I think you’ll have no trouble if you do that. I find also that it turns perfectly well into crème fraîche. The only thing is, it doesn’t have much taste if you use it alone over strawberries; but in that case I think the thing to do is stir in some confectioners’ sugar and a little rum or vanilla, to give it a little added taste.”
On the other hand, Craig Claiborne, food critic of the New York Times, told us he hated it. “It is just disastrous to try to get that stuff to whip. If you get it to whip at all, you have to chill your beater, your bowl, and the whole works. It’s abhorrent, absolutely, that they’re foisting this thing off on the American public.”
Claiborne is equally charmed by its flavor. “It tastes like condensed milk,” he says. “Any place you use it, any recipe, it’s going to alter the flavor. It won’t be like fresh. Thank God I live in an area [East Hampton, Long Island] where there’s a dairy farm close by so I don’t have to buy the stuff.”
Most, but not all, food authorities share Claiborne’s view. James Beard does not cook with UHT cream, nor does he use it in his teaching classes. Helen Corbitt, food consultant for Neiman-Marcus and author of numerous cookbooks, says, “I personally don’t use it if I can help it. I find that it does not whip as well, and if I put it into sauces that call for heating the cream I don’t get the same kind of consistency. If you’re making a mousse you get a different texture.”
Jean LaFont, the head chef at Dallas’ celebrated Oz restaurant, wrestles with the problem constantly. “When I came to this country from France and tried to make the same recipes,” he says, “quickly I understood the whipping cream was not the same quality, so I had to adjust myself. There are many, many problems… each recipe demands a different adjustment.”
One of Houston’s top French restaurants had so much trouble whipping UHT cream that the chef reluctantly switched to Redi-Whip, an aerosol product. Ann Clark, the director of a successful cooking school in Austin, buys unhomogenized raw milk in health food stores in order to skim off the top cream for sauces. Ice cream manufacturers like Blue Bell avoid UHT products. A spokesman at Baskin-Robbins’ plant in Bryan said “the home office won’t let us use” anything but the fresh, unsterilized variety, which is purchased directly from a dairy cooperative.
Articles in dairy periodicals describe the flavor of UHT cream as “cooked” or “cabbage,” a result of volatile sulfur compounds or free sulfahydryl groups liberated by the sterilization process. Some of this off-flavor is removed by de-aerating the cream later on, and more is released by packaging the finished product in paper cartons—instead of cans, which “lock in” a similar flavor to condensed milk. Much current dairy research is devoted to devising a technology that might produce a fresh-tasting sterilized product.
Less attention has been given to the nutritional effects of slugging a delicate cream with 285-degree heat. That can’t make a vitamin very happy. And British dairy researchers have observed that UHT processing “might cause impairment of protein quality” for consumers.
But, actually, as long as the resulting cream isn’t poisonous or radioactive, the question of nutrition is not really all that urgent. Anyone who set about to get his essential nutrients from whipping cream would soon weigh at least 500 pounds and have more serious problems to worry about.
All but a handful of Texas dairies now quietly distribute some version of sterilized cream. If you buy from Knowlton’s (in San Antonio), Land O’ Pines (in Lufkin), or Borden (in Lubbock), the cream you get has been shipped in from the production lines of Mid America Dairymen, Inc., in Lebanon, Missouri. If you buy from Schepps Dairy (in Dallas) or Meadow Gold (in Fort Worth), it comes from Avoset Food Corporation in California. If you buy from Crescent Valley Creamery (in Victoria), Wholesome Dairy (in El Paso), or Foremost (in Fort Worth), it comes from Specialty Foods. Regardless of the label, you can usually identify the true source by checking the code number on the package; cartons from the Missouri plant carry the printed code 29-528 on the side panel, and cartons from Specialty Foods are incised on top with the digits 480917.
In some cities—Austin and San Antonio are two—every commercial dairy has switched to sterilized cream, so the genuine article can no longer be found at any price. Houston is virtually in the same category. Those that have switched to UHT would like for you to believe they had no choice; the vice-president of Crescent Valley Creamery, for example, argues that “the cost per unit is prohibitive. The consumer would not be willing to bear the cost of processing a fresh whipping cream, even though there is no question the taste is superior.”
Fortunately, however, there are still a few holdout dairies in Texas which disagree with such accounting. Number one among them—our candidate for some kind of Distinguished Conduct Medal—is Hygeia Dairy Company in Harlingen. Hygeia tried the sterilized cream a few years ago, found their customers didn’t like it, and switched back to making their own fresh product even though that meant more trouble and costly returns.
“We used the ultra-pasteurized for a while,” says Noble Kidd, vice-president of Hygeia. “We did not have the favorable results we expected. People came in and said it had a cooked flavor; they didn’t like it. You just don’t get the real whipping cream flavor with it. Of course, it has some advantages on keeping-quality, but you know, most people buy whipping cream to use, not to store. We decided to go back to the old way. Just because something’s new doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better.”
Now that is the kind of talk that made America great.
Luckily for South Texans, Hygeia distributes far beyond the Lower Rio Grande Valley. You can find its products in Corpus Christi, Laredo, Beeville, Rosenberg, and points between. (At last, a valid reason to visit Beeville.)
The list of hero dairies should also include Farmers Dairies in El Paso, which packages its own 35 per cent butterfat cream and has never used UHT; Crest Milk Company in El Paso, which buys its cream from Farmers; and the Borden Milk Company, which distributes real cream in Abilene, Amarillo, Dallas, Marshall, Midland, and Tyler (though not in Houston, Lubbock, or San Antonio, where local sales managers have opted to import the sterilized product). There may be other dairies that still market the real thing, but if so, a careful search hasn’t found them. A few, like Gandy’s in San Angelo, bring back fresh cream for a few days around Christmastime, but that hardly counts.
New York magazine’s fearless Mimi Sheraton, the Saul Alinsky of food editors, reports that many Manhattan dairy distributors finally answered the cries of consumer outrage by restoring a line of fresh cream to grocery shelves, where it sits side by side with the sterilized stuff. Apparently no Texas dairy has done this. Schepps of Dallas does package quart-sized containers of real cream for commercial use, and if you live in Houston you can get what is probably the best cream in Texas—a fresh 40 per cent butterfat variety—by special order from the local Carnation factory. The catch is that you have to buy it by the gallon at $5.55 a jug. (Don’t confuse this blue-ribbon cream with Carnation’s mass-marketed half-pints, which come straight from Missouri. These UHT products are labeled “Cream for Whipping”—not, as you might have supposed, a prop for a sadomasochistic evening, but rather a concession to out-of-state regulatory laws.)
Lacking New York’s freedom of choice, residents of many Texas localities are left with nothing but UHT cream. For them, selective buying is out of the question. Unless they are prepared to form a neighborhood dairy cooperative in someone’s garage, the only choice may be a direct appeal to local dairies. If that sounds ridiculous, it tells you how cynical we’ve become about the way “free enterprise” really works. But cynicism may be premature. Willard Clifton, general manager of Austin’s Hillcrest Farms, says his dairy (which was the last one in town to abandon real cream) would consider bringing it back if enough people asked.
Ask. Otherwise, somebody may hand you a glass of sterilized milk before long.