James Joyce’s Ulysses is known as many things: a masterpiece of modernism, the subject of a landmark obscenity trial, “really fucking Irish,” and the favorite novel of politicians when they’re trying to look smart. It is less known as a crucial primary document in the history of plant-based milks.
It is easy to miss this because a) very few people have read Ulysses; b) of those, even fewer have actually read every single word because there are really a tremendous amount of them; and c) the handful of people who have actually read it and paid attention the whole time are much, much smarter than me, and do not care about such trivial things as milk discourse.
But here it is, on page 507 of my copy of Gabler’s corrected text, around line 270 of episode 16, aka Eumaeus, aka one of the unimportant ones:
"There was no response forthcoming to the suggestion however, such as it was, Stephen’s mind’s eye being too busily engaged in repicturing his family hearth the last time he saw it with his sister Dilly sitting by the ingle, her hair hanging down, waiting for some weak Trinidad shell cocoa that was in the sootcoated kettle to be done so that she and he could drink it with the oatmealwater for milk." (Emphasis mine.)
Oatmealwater for milk. Oatmealwater for milk! I may have “read” Ulysses (the traditional way: for a seminar in college), but this is one of the few things I truly retained. “Ulysses is a novel about Stephen Dedalus inventing oat milk,” I wrote in the margins, and then I tweeted it, and then, a year later, I pitched this article. I think it is fair to say — in overused internet parlance — that this is something I can’t stop thinking about. (Dedalus, for the unread, is Joyce’s literary alter ego.)
Why does this haunt me so much? There’s the apparent anachronism of it, as if Stephen might grab something from Sweetgreen on his way to work while carrying a Freeman’s Journal tote bag. There’s the high-low aspect: oat milk might be slightly pretentious, as milks go, but it isn’t exactly literary. Mostly, though, this passage haunts me because it contradicts an established history.
The general consensus about oat milk is that it was invented in the ’90s by the Swedish food scientist Rickard Öste, founder of Oatly. Oat milk exploded in popularity over the past couple of years thanks to its environmental bonafides, superior taste, and dairy-like frothability compared to other milk alternatives. (Like anything popular, it’s also had to survive a few cancellation attempts.) Many plant-based milks have long histories — almond milk, already in use in the Middle East, was popular in Europe as a dairy alternative by the 1300s. Soy milk has been around in East Asia since at least 1365. An American cookbook from 1899 references “peanut milk, raw peanut milk and cream, almond milk, hickory milk, pine-nut milk, chufas milk and cocoanut milk.” But oat milk? That’s the nouveau riche of the plant milk community. Even a 2,972-page publication titled “History of Soymilk and Other Non-Dairy Milks (1226 to 2013)” doesn’t contain a single instance of the phrase. The historical record is clear: oat milk is a ’90s invention, like Nu Metal or fast-and-loose interpretations of sex positivity.
Or is it? Might this passage indicate that some sort of proto-oat milk was known to the urban poor of Dublin in the early 20th century? Or perhaps — even more exciting — did James Joyce himself invent oat milk when all he thought he was doing was writing a masterpiece of world literature? To figure out if this “oatmealwater for milk” business points to a secret history, I talked to Regina Sexton, a food historian at University College Cork in Ireland. (Oatly declined to comment. I am choosing to believe this was out of fear.)
Unfortunately for me, she was skeptical. The Dedalus family in the novel is very poor, and the oat milk moment is “just a way of demonstrating and fortifying his descriptiveness of poverty,” Sexton said.
“All they're doing is making reuse of a product, which in this case is probably the water that the oatmeal has been soaking in,” she said. “It doesn't connect with any tradition of using oatmeal in that sense to make milk in Ireland,” unlike almond milk, which has a “very, very strong historical pedigree.”
Right, I said, but don’t food practices born out of poverty evolve all the time? Even if Rickard Öste wasn’t trawling the pages of Ulysses for alt milk inspiration — which, okay, I am prepared to accept that he probably wasn’t — if using oatmeal water as a milk substitute was a common practice among the Irish poor, wouldn’t that indicate a separate but significant moment in the history of oat milk?
“You know, there is a tradition of using soaked residue of oats that they can drink,” she told me. “Now, that is used as a milk substitute, but that dies out. And I think the Joycean one, it's in an urban context, it's in a context of poverty. I don't think it's fairly widespread.”
Dr. Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire, a chef and food historian at the Dublin Institute of Technology, told me about a traditional Irish fermented oat beverage called sowans, made from oat husks or meal, which could have been consumed as a type of oat milk. Sowans would have been “acidic,” Sexton said, and very different from contemporary oat milk. But it “can be used in the context of replacing milk linked to religious practice,” particularly for fasting during Lent in rural parts of the country.
I had my answer. It was a resounding “sort of.” Oats were such a cheap, universal staple of the Irish diet that oat by-products found their way into a variety of fringe food practices. That might not be enough to add an asterisk to Oatly’s claim to have invented the stuff, but it does (in my opinion) merit at least a citation in the oat milk Wikipedia article.
Lastly, I reached out to Dr. Peter Adkins, a fellow at the University of Edinburgh who’s studied vegetarianism in Ulysses. To him I posed the question of whether drinking oat milk makes Stephen Dedalus — or, in fact, precludes him from being — a hot girl.
Adkins wrote back that this question made him chuckle, but did not actually answer it. Stephen’s relationship to food is “disorderly more than anything else,” he wrote. “He is often repulsed at his body and the stuff that goes in and out of it. He would be a problematical poster boy for veganism, I think.”
There you have it. Stephen Dedalus: a problematical poster boy for veganism. Ulysses: it has more in common with a SoHo coffee shop than you think. Oat milk: maybe kind of Irish! Of course, we’ve recently learned that sex is Scottish, which is an objectively cooler thing for any nation to lay claim to. Maybe if I ever read Finnegans Wake I’ll discover that Joyce also invented ketamine.
Mariah Kreutter is a writer living in Brooklyn.