Pet Milk was a kitchen staple in most Southern homes in mid-20th Century America. It had as many uses as a coffee can full of bacon drippings.
Thankfully, the two weren’t used interchangeably.
Opening our Frigidaire, you’d see that the top shelf of our refrigerator always included a gallon of Borden’s Milk, a stick of Parkay under a see-through glass butter dish, and a can of Pet Milk.
Pet Milk (a brand name for evaporated milk) was the Swiss Army knife of a mom’s kitchen. It was used for just about everything.
Running out of Pet Milk was not something that was allowed to happen, lest the family would starve.
The most frequent use for Pet Milk I remember was as creamer in coffee. Sure, you could buy real cream, or even milk a cow and churn the milk until you separated the cream, but Pet Milk was inexpensive and readily available.
A small, pointed can opener was all you needed to make a triangular opening on one side of the top of the can, and a smaller vent hole on the other.
Once the can was open, just about anything was possible.
In addition to creamer for your coffee, Pet Milk was used to make meatloaf, pecan pie, biscuits, mashed potatoes, gravy, and an endless supply of other meal recipes.
Even babies used It. Doctors sent newborns home from the hospital with a recipe of Pet Milk, Karo Syrup and water.
The Pet Milk Company provided it free to families who had multiple births. They shipped it to Cowling’s Grocery in Ashdown, Arkansas, where my grandfather picked it up for my mother and her identical twin.
Lots of kids were raised on this concoction (including this writer).
Pet Milk was also used during Arkansas winters, when we would make snow ice cream.
Snow ice cream required clean snow from atop my mom’s 1960 model Buick (you learned not to scrape down too far for snow, lest your ice cream would also include a gift from the neighborhood birds).
Mix the snow with Pet Milk, sugar, and vanilla extract and you had excellent homemade ice cream without all of that hand cranking that was usually required during the summer months.
No bake desserts were also possible with Pet Milk. A simple and fast one was one cooked on low heat on the stovetop. Pet Milk, sugar, cornstarch, and vanilla extract made the base, and sugar melted into caramel was the topping.
A couple of hours in the fridge to cool, and moms had an easy dessert that went perfectly with fried chicken, potato salad, and other menu items for a church dinner on the grounds.
Other Pet Milk recipes included Mexican casseroles, macaroni and cheese, fudge, even white bread.
Carnation Milk was a different company that also made evaporated milk, but just like Southerners call all soft drinks a Coke, we call all evaporated milk, Pet Milk.
But around the 1980s, something happened. Foo foo coffee became a thing, and with it came foo foo creamers. You’d go to someone’s house and instead of offering you Pet Milk in your Folger’s; they’d offer you hazelnut pumpkin spice creamer in a flat white macchiato latte.
This is where the wheels began to come off our culinary stability. Once we lost Pet Milk, all of the great Pet Milk recipes followed.
Today, most fridges and pantries have no Pet Milk. Our children do not know this country goodness, and it’s time we brought it back.
Let’s start with it as a coffee creamer option, then the crème brûlée recipe, some meatloaf, white bread, and the rest. Before the memories of Pet Milk have evaporated.
By John Moore