Milk consumption in fantasy worlds

As a Canadian of 97% northern European descent, I grew up drinking cow’s milk. Lots of cow’s milk. Great big glasses of it, because everyone in my white-majority communities knew that milk was necessary for good health. Lactose intolerance was some sort of rare disability that didn’t affect anyone I knew.

At least, it seemed that way until I worked a few jobs in Asian restaurants. I spent time with coworkers of Japanese, Korean and Thai descent. Most of them loved the taste of the Western world’s dairy treats, but couldn’t eat much of them. Not without adding a chemical digestive aid, anyway. Their ancestors didn’t have a good reason continue digesting large amounts of lactose into their adult years — unlike Caucasian people from cold climates, who faced vitamin deficiences and health problems unless they drank animal milk during the winter months. Fermenting milk to make yogurt or cheese does break down some of the lactose, but doesn’t entirely solve the problem.

Milk consumption is actually kind of amazing. Human lactose tolerance has mostly come about in the last 10 000 years, which isn’t very long at all when we’re talking about evolution. In that time, milk has become a broadly integrated part of culture — as in, “the milk of human kindness” and other ideas of nurturing. Some cultures even value animal milk and use it widely, despite lactose tolerance being surprisingly uncommon in their population (India is an example of this). Again, we often take for granted that people can drink milk.

Most of the time in speculative fiction, we can make convenient assumptions about what’s going on. If a fantasy world resembles Europe and has white people in it? They probably function like white people on Earth. If we see some elves who strongly resemble the humans they live alongside? They probably function like humans in day-to-day matters like eating food, unless we’re told otherwise. But if a fantasy race or its world doesn’t closely match what we know to be true, we have to be more careful with our assumptions. I was careful not to mention dairy products anywhere in Remedy, because I didn’t want to impose that idea without good reason.

When I considered whether my world should consume animal milk, I found few pros and lots of cons. Aligare society doesn’t keep large mammals other than horses, and doesn’t have any particular herding culture. No one has adapted to a cold climate that would encourage milk consumption — heck, “cold” is a scary concept linked to apocalypse. And the korvi people, a whole third of society, are reptile-birds with no good reason to digest lactose. When it’s typical to offer a korvi food in exchange for doing some odd jobs, it’s important to make sure your everyday food products won’t make that korvi sick.

What really secured my decision? It’s the way Aligare society respects personal choice. Aemets, korvi and ferrin respect each other’s differences and the fact that every individual walks their own path. They don’t feel a human need to impose “normal” values on anyone. I think they’d be more inclined to see milk as a temporary food for infant furkind, because that’s the right choice for them at the moment. Everyone else has their own appropriate foods.

Now that I’ve written this post and thought so much on the subject, it’s a little weird to open my fridge and see a big carton of cow milk in there. Oh, right. White human who grew up thinking this stuff was vitally necessary. But I really think this highlights why it’s important for speculative fiction to question what’s normal and why we’ve declared that “normal”. If a culture puts cheese on their dinner table, it can mean a lot more than you’d think.

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