My parents, like most, advised me not to take candy from strangers; yet I, a twenty-one-year-old who should know better, when faced by a cluster of strangers pushing large, suspicious coolers in the streets of New York City, took the strange vegan milk.
Most days, I’d say that I’m proud of nailing the New York walk, of finally being able to pass street vendors and charity collectors and not cave into their calls for donations or attention like I did in high school. To give myself some credit, I did walk past the suspicious milk people twice. The first time, there was a single man pushing the cooler across the street asking if people would take free milk. I spotted him and whispered to my friend, “That man is passing out free milk. Whole half-gallon cartons!” My friend thought I was crazy. We walked away thinking it was a joke, or just something about the city we didn’t get. We went on to the public library without much more thought.
On our way out of the library an hour later, we were directly confronted by the milk people. “Free vegan milk?” “No thank you.” The woman seemed surprised—that I rejected the milk or that I’d stopped to be polite I couldn’t tell. As we continued down Sixth Avenue, we passed collections of people carrying these red cartons. I joked that I should get the carton just because.
The two of us had no plans for the day really. Originally, I was coming to the city to meet a cousin from Colombia, but when she fell ill our plans became far more fluid. My friend and I were to meet a different cousin, but we had hours before that time would come. Our time in the library was spent mapping out a route to SoHo for bubble tea and an eye-catching book store (Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books). We were riding a wave of spontaneous decisions and accepting the gift of free milk seemed like too big of a coincidence to ignore.
Lo and behold, one of the milk men showed up again, but this time it was by a semi-truck full of these milk cartons, unloading them into the coolers for free distribution. It was even shadier now, but, still, when confronted I took the milk in a split second decision and both my friend and I burst into laughter as we walked away. Taking this free vegan milk was absurd. It was noon, I had a full day in the city ahead, and no way to drink or refrigerate this carton. We passed a fourth group of milkmen, whom I waved my carton at to justify not taking their milk. As we passed, a milkman said, “She looks so happy!” Really I was trying not to laugh hysterically. It went into my backpack as a very unnecessary weight—one packed with questions, including why and who?
NotCo is a Chilean company founded in 2015 with similar goals to any vegan start-up: stop the evil process which goes into animal product consumption. (Vegan milk, unlike mass-produced dairy milk, does not rely on overcrowding livestock, unnatural diets, and unlivable farming conditions.) “Take animals out of food production while never, ever compromising on taste,” NotCo’s website reads. On the surface, it seems a noble cause, and maybe I shouldn’t question the milk. However, the milk is called NotMilk, not soy or oat or rice milk. NotMilk. So, what’s in NotMilk? Sunflower oil, pineapple juice, cabbage concentrate, and an overdose of salt among other things. Not what you typically think of as milk-like things. But NotMilk gets stranger: an AI created it.
Giuseppe is NotCo’s real creation. An algorithm which analyzes an animal-based product at the molecular level and then replaces it with what the website calls “plant goodness.”
Okay, so let’s give this milk the benefit of the doubt. The robot-created milk uses weird ingredients to create a plant-based substitute of a food staple. The intention is good, and the milk got attention over the summer from major news outlets like USA Today and The Washington Post. It had taste tests and crowning points of being the first AI-created milk.
Later in the day after receiving this milk, I met up with my cousin and their partner, who insisted on taste-testing this suspicious milk. The fact that it was AI-generated only made it more seducing. We poured out a couple glasses and finally tasted this unnatural, plant-based milk, against our better judgement.
Was it good?
The milk smelled plant-ish, but it tasted like salt. On a good day, I tolerate regular milk. This milk was far worse. I could hardly stand a sip. At some point we even thought maybe shaking it would make it better. It didn’t.
“All I can picture when drinking this is a vague humanoid in a Chilean warehouse concocting formulas for fake milk,” my cousin’s partner said.
“You can tell an AI made it. There’s no humanity in it. Just salt,” my friend said.
“Like a movie where the robot keeps the human locked in space because it knows better. ‘I know what you need, human: salt.’”
There are 180 milligrams of salt in a one-cup serving. A regular glass of whole milk has 100 milligrams. It’s obvious that the AI has never tasted milk and therefore has nothing to compare it to. Even the phrasings on the outside seem robotic and strange. “Hello curious foodie. Welcome to the future.” Curious we were, but is this milk the future? I certainly hope not.
So, of course, our test session was followed by conspiracies about why truckloads of this milk were being passed out for free on the streets. Maybe it’s not selling well (I wouldn’t be surprised). Maybe the milk is tampered with (my dad, after I told him about this affair, said, “That’s exactly how you get roofied”). Maybe there are millions of nanobots inside each carton. Maybe Jeff Bezos is dabbling in new forms of mind control via plant milk (Bezos Expeditions is a “key investor”). Really, the possibilities are endless, and I have no answers.
The NotMilk carton came home with me to Princeton. I don’t plan on drinking it and honestly don’t know what to do with it, but it sits in my fridge as a souvenir for now. Its strange phrases and ominous origins are an interesting mark on my expedition to New York. Although I had no plans, I had never imagined I would walk away from this trip with free vegan milk. Usually, I favor detailed plans and timetables to organize my trips, but I’ve recently explored the joys of simply wandering. I’ve done it in other cities: Toledo in Ohio, Boston, and now New York. There’s a certain freedom in making spontaneous decisions; a new understanding forms of the city when you simply pick and choose as you go. I have new boba locations, a list of bookish places to see, and I’ll never be able to go to Korea Town again without thinking about the carton of robot milk I split among friends. So much of our lives are scheduled out, so when on break, might as well truly go on break. Take advantage of the spontaneity and the strange. Why? Well, as the box proudly declares. “Why not?”