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When in doubt, open up a can of sweetened condensed milk to herald a good time. Unseal the tin and pry open the top to unveil a dense, milky curtain of sweet dairy delight. It’s inside this 14-ounce tin, in the thick, sugary swirls, that the reality of being simply, truly happy lies.
Ser muy feliz, as some Latinos might say.
Sweetened condensed milk might not be essential for every Latino, but for many, rows and rows of the product are par for a properly stocked pantry shelf. In my family, having hordes of condensed milk is akin to receiving a sacrament. “Look,” I say to my mom whenever she visits me, at which point I quickly steer her towards my kitchen and give a sweeping gesture to my mass collection of Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk cans.
In Cuba, where my mother was born, sweetened condensed milk works as a sort of salve for a country with limited access to consistent, fresh, and safe food supplies. With the water removed, condensed milk has a longer shelf life — in this way, it's also been a boon for remote countries where access to fresh dairy is lacking. Today, the product makes for a perfect addition to Latin American dishes like Cuban flan, the Brazilian dessert brigadeiro, and tres leches, an iconic Nicaraguan and Mexican cake.
To understand how sweetened condensed milk became a prominent ingredient across Latin America, it’s essential to look back at its origins.
For total transparency, for years, I believed my mother’s iteration of its history. Sweetened condensed milk, she’d explain with her chin in the air, came straight from Cuba. Alas, according to her records: the chicken, the egg, maybe even God himself came from her beloved little island country.
However, history actually chalks it up to an American.
New Yorker Gail Borden Jr. is credited with having invented the process of making sweetened condensed milk in 1853. By this time, the human proclivity to consume cow dairy was in full swing. Production was cheap, and cows were easy to train. A big caveat, however, was that refrigerators had yet to be invented, meaning there was the constant matter of the milk spoiling. As a result, it was typical for dairy producers to thin milk with water to increase profit. According to the Smithsonian, this resulted in an unsightly “bluish-gray color.” They remedied the appearance with additives —chalk, plaster dust, and dye — which often caused illnesses.
Borden became compelled to find a solution to contaminated milk, which he’d seen afflict and kill several children on a voyage from London. Much later, in the wake of the American Civil War, former Union soldiers who’d received sweetened condensed milk as food rations from the U.S. government introduced the product to the general population.
So … how did it become a Latino staple?
Dig deep into the history of sweetened condensed milk and you’ll find that its introduction to Latin America is actually a smidge indeterminate. (It turns out it’s not just the moms from Cuba claiming sweetened condensed milk was invented by them or came to their country first.)
However, according to “Animal Colonialism: The Case of Milk” by Greta Gaard, it is safe to say that the appearance of sweetened condensed milk in Latin America came as an answer to a gap that only came as a result of — you guessed it — colonization. Gaard's 2017 article lays out how the European colonization of Latin America brought about the introduction of milk to the region in the 16th century. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that an increase in demand for female labor brought about the idea that cow’s milk could help.
Merisa S. Thompson’s article “Milk and the Motherland?” for The Journal of Food Law & Policy details how in 1914, Nestlé stepped in with sweetened condensed milk to “curb adulteration and improve the sanitary quality of milk.” At this time, Nestlé set up a trading agency in Port of Spain “to distribute Nestlé-manufactured” condensed milk in the Caribbean.
By 1921, Nestlé developed La Lechera, marketing the new sweetened condensed milk brand to markets in Latin America, Spain and Latinos in the U.S. Eagle Brand also developed a condensed milk brand with a focus on attracting Latino consumers by introducing Magnolia Sweetened Condensed Milk to grocery shelves.
These days, sweetened condensed milk is a beloved ingredient prominent in Latin American cuisine. Skim the desserts section of most Latino menus, and you’ll find sweetened condensed milk-laden desserts.
Take, for instance, Fonda San Miguel, a Mexican restaurant in Austin, Texas which serves up arroz con leche — a rice pudding sweetened with condensed milk.
At Los Balcones, a Los Angeles-based Peruvian spot, the quinoa con leche and banana tres leches are soaked in condensed milk. In Chicago, the Colombian restaurant Adorn boasts an item called Solterita & Cream, which features nitro condensed milk “rocks.”
If you’re lucky enough to live in a city where Latin American food trucks exist, venture outside your neighborhood for a simple condensed milk dessert or drink.
Personally, I think the horchata from El Chato Taco Truck is unbeatable.