It was late summer 2003 when Nick Guth and Brett Monteleone decided to clean out their refrigerator. The two Louisiana State University seniors were a typical pair of bachelors, so it was only natural that there were unidentified specimens of foodstuff and a few half-finished milk cartons in there. One by one, they checked the long-passed sell-by dates of each opened carton of milk and tossed them into the trash. But one stood out: It had just three more weeks left until it would reach its one-year anniversary of being expired.
"We kept Milk because he was the carton that had the [longest-past] expiration date in our fridge," explains Guth, now a Louisiana State Area Manager for Proximo Spirits.
"Nick's email [address] was LSUpartyboy@gmail.com," offers Monteleone, now the Executive Chef and General Manager of Old Rail Brewing Company in Mandeville. "It's not like we needed an excuse to party, but for some reason this seemed like a good one."
Milk's first birthday party was held on September 17, 2003. "After that, we knew we couldn't get rid of him," says Guth. "We'd celebrated him, he was family; so we kept him."
Every year since then, on Milk's ever-older expiration date, they get a cake, invite friends over, and celebrate Milk. One of Guth's brands at Proximo is Three Olives, so an array of vodka flavors are set up for a hosted White Russian bar. Although, before you ask, Milk does not participate. "Milk comes out with his birthday hat, and we sing to him," says Guth.
Once he reached a truly impressive age, Milk's family decided that he deserved more formal recognition. Each year on his birthday since 2011, they've been submitting Milk to the Guinness Book of World Records… and each time, the submission has been rejected, with reasons ranging from the difficulty of verifying his age to simply "no thanks."
But Guinness record-breaking or not, Milk has seen milestone after milestone in his keepers' lives. When Guth proposed to his now-wife, he said, "Will you do me the honor of being Milk's step-mom?" When Hurricane Katrina hit the friend group's hometown of New Orleans, Milk was the only thing taken out of the fridge and kept safe on ice. When Milk turned 12, his birthday party was so big that it included a brass band and a couple New Orleans Saints dancers. And when Monteleone, too, proposed to his soon-to-be-wife, he asked her to be Milk's other step-mom. "We feel that a stable, solid family life will ensure the success of our boy moving forward," he tells me.
Now, Milk is approaching his 14th birthday, with no end in sight to his life or his relationship with Guth and Monteleone.
I'd heard about Milk a year ago from a mutual friend, actor Kyle Clements. When I eventually met Milk on a trip to New Orleans this June, there remained only one thing to do: Smell him.
To my utmost surprise, Milk didn't smell nearly as bad as I thought he would. His aroma was more of a mild blue cheese odor than that of curdled milk or baby puke or old cow's insides, which were my initial suspicions and fears. My curiosity about his condition after nearly a decade and a half was piqued, but my C in high school chemistry was not going to get me the answers I needed, at which point it seemed pertinent to turn to an expert.
"Well, that's faint praise," said Dr. Bob Roberts, professor and head of Food Science at Pennsylvania State University, when I told him about the not-unbearable smell. "I'm going to guess it went through some very funky smell periods. The succession of microorganisms is really going to depend on who's there, and who's there is really going to depend on what was in [Milk] originally that survived pasteurization and what got into it over time [after being opened]."
Basically, what I took from Dr. Roberts—who researches problems related to the microbiology of dairy products for a living—is that opened milk, no matter how old, will get gross.
"Once you open it up all bets are off," he says. "The container also makes a difference. And once you get air into the system, it can oxidize and can allow different bacteria to grow."
As for tasting… "I wouldn't," he warns. "If [Milk] had been unopened, I would have less concern about that. But since it was opened, you don't know what it was exposed to. If it was pasteurized and packaged properly and didn't contain pathogenic bacteria, it's not likely to be a problem. You can have a sterile product that tastes horrible, but it's sterile. So from a microbiological perspective, it's fine."
"That's a really odd question," he continued, regarding Milk's current flavor state, "but I can tell you that I don't think it is like a ripened cheese, or a fine wine—it didn't get better with time."
While Dr. Roberts didn't get to inspect Milk physically, he suspected that his color would be dominated by riboflavin, rendering it a greenish, translucent mass.
Guth corroborates some of what Dr. Roberts has said and describes the iterations of color Milk has undergone: "He kinda got yellowish and chunky at the beginning, then began to separate. For a while the top was bright, bright white and the middle was a translucent grey with dingy white at the bottom. Now, the translucent grey is the biggest section and the bottom is dingy off-white."
Adds Monteleone, tenderly: "Milk has gone through a bloated period, and [he] imploded at one point. But, he is our Milk, and we love him."