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  • Gastro Poetics

Ode to Oatly

This weeks been rough.

Between navigating four flights home from Europe, re-acclimating to Los Angeles laissezfaire protocols, and having my body decide whether its living nine hours into yesterday or tomorrow, I have had but one consistent to keep me sane: oat milk.

Every year Americans pick a new food to vilify and contrarily another to crown. It’s our determination (desperation) to find that fountain of youth we are so sure lurks in the obscure diet of some indigenous people, which keeps our annual nominees en vogue. A brief decade in review, starting with the naughty list, includes some longtime favorites such as trans fats, carbs, and of course, the horror that is gluten. But then we have our nice list, foods so sexy they’ve been immortalized by a hashtag: acai (ah-sigh-ee folks, it’s 2019 we can do this), kale, anything pomegranate, and alternative milks.

First it was almond milk. For those living in the lap of lactose luxury, this sudden leap into the crushed nut juice barley tweaked the radar. For everyone else, this changed the game. From fitness zealot to paranoid consumer, Americans everywhere started demanding the wet cardboard flavored substitute and proceeded to ruin both the standard of good coffee and protein shakes at the same time. Weak attempts to season the bland nut water came to our shelves in the form of blue cartons marked chocolate, vanilla, and banana. But that wasn’t enough, and it wasn’t long before we started milking everything in sight. Rice milk, soy milk, walnut, hazelnut and even goat milk have not only found their way into mainstream grocery inventory, they’ve been flying off the shelves ever since.

With the competition for alternative milks constantly struggling to find that magical blend of lactose creaminess and subtle flavor, the market has always found itself taking second place in the hearts of die-hard udder suckers.

But somewhere in Sweden, the milky tides were turning.

We were in Solvang, a Danish styled old town (and a PCH must) ordering coffees at an urban café. My partner got his potent brew of grounds and water, while I opted for a matcha.

“And what kind of milk would you like?” A standard 2018 question.

“Half and half?” (I always ask this question with an almost falsetto intonation because, everyone knows half and half is just as fatal as gluten; it’s basically butter.) He gives me a surprised yet proud facial expression: Lactose warrior: welcome. Then he sadly shook his head no, but his barista senses must have been tingling because as I shaped my lips to concede to the dreaded almond byproduct, his light bulb ignited.

“I do have oat milk though!”

Oat milk you say!? This exists? Like, it’s a thing already? He immediately had my interest and he knew it. My inability to turn down a new food item soon had me mesmerized by the foreign green frothy liquid that sat before me. I cautiously took an adventure taste and felt the thickened milk like substance coarse through my veins. It was pure milk alternative ecstasy and the addiction was immediate. Creamy, nutty, non invasive, and with the faintest flavor of fresh toasted grain. How?, I mused softy in my lactoseless high, how did I not know.

I proceeded to inquire about the specific brand of gateway drug the barista had so kindly put me onto and received but one extraordinary word: Oatly. Even the name gave me that warm bedside beverage vibe.

Later that week, back in LA, I happily ambled to the local Jons in East Hollywood to procure my poison. I scrolled with excitement through the benchwarmers of the dairy team looking for my beloved Oatly, but was only met by powdery gourd shaped bottled of almond milk. I gave an entitled sigh at the slow gentrification process of my neighborhood. We’re just not there yet.

Next I tried the Food 4 Less on Sunset. A little north, a little west, just far enough from home and just close enough to a Tendergreens. Feeling foolproof, I entered the mini Costco style market and perused the options yet again. Almond, soy, hazelnut, coconut, cashew, goose egg. I felt hot on the trail: my next bet was a sure one.

The sliding doors blew open forcefully and the smell of overpriced produce, fair-trade coffee, and serve it yourself trail mix wafted into my desperate nostrils. The Mecca. With aisle upon aisle of alternatives ranging from duck eggs to powdered goat milk, WholeFoods has maintained our American right to have every available option of everything, all the time. They’ve even paired up with Amazon ensure it. So imagine my repugnance when I visited not one, but three of these monopoly conglomerate stores and found zero Oatly. Anxiety began to set in. Was Oatly only a thing they had in Solvang!? Was I now 125 miles away from the creamy crack? And when did Whole Foods start slackin? A lot of confusion and frustration lead me to finally renounce the quest for the oat milk. I eventually caved in and bought the only generic brand available. It was… uninspired.

A month had gone by and I was beginning to feel just as empty as I did on the nut milks. I reached for a carton of second rate oat milk one day at the store and suddenly snapped.

“What the hell happened to all the Oatly!?” My tone was about two octaves too high by Whole Foods standards, and definitely the final thread on this stock boys back. He pinched his brow, tapped down his clipboard, and drew a long breath, clearly frustrated by the repetitious nature of this interaction.

“The company is on backorder, we should have it in a couple weeks,” he responded through a sigh. I felt my forehead unfurl, my eyes started to brighten, and the corners of my mouth even motioned for a smile. I ran to find my partner hypnotized in the pasta aisle and bombarded him with the good news. He congratulated me as though I had won a sizable scratch ticket, which was exactly how I felt.

We would go on to take a three week vacation to Europe in the following months, where the Oatly seemed to be flowing like the Euphrates. I recently returned to the States making a quick stop over in NYC before coming home to LA, and witnessed the bicoastal advertising genius that is the Swedish based Alt Milk God. For amber waves of grain, from sea to shining sea, may we forever trust in the one and only Oatly.

Well played Oatly, well played.