This essay is a sample for the Hoosier Food Story contest that Indiana Humanities and the Indiana State Fair are partnering on. For rules and regulations on the contest please click here.
Indiana is associated with many different food items that help create a special identity for Hoosiers. First and foremost there is corn.While there is more than corn in Indiana, it is everywhere –in our fields, our food and our fuel. Then there are soybeans. We have a lot of them too and in fact, we rank 4th in the nation in soybean production. We also have the breaded tenderloin, which is a Hoosier favorite that originated in Huntington. While all of these food items help set Indiana apart there is one item that is so symbolic, iconic and yearned for that hundreds of thousands of people watch and wait every year as a special individual receives the gift of its refreshment and satisfaction. I’m referring, of course, to milk, and no other drink has the reputation and prestige of this dairy delicacy.
The tradition of drinking milk in victory lane at Indianapolis can be traced back to the ‘30s when one of racing’s most dominant drivers started a tradition that has defined victory at Indy. Louis Meyer won the Indianapolis 500 three times, but it wasn’t until his last win in 1936 that he requested a nice cold glass of buttermilk to rejuvenate, reinvigorate, and replenish his body after driving 500 miles in the May heat. Meyer would often drink buttermilk on hot days because he thought it did a good job of quenching his thirst. I think most INDYCAR drivers will agree that after driving 500 miles you need something to drink! Ever since Meyer requested buttermilk in victory lane it has become tradition for every winner to drink milk after winning the race. It is one of the most recognized traditions in sports and has made the milk bottle an iconic image at the speedway.
Over the years there has been a variety of drinking methods incorporated by drivers and team owners. During the ‘70s and ‘80s the drivers took a polite sip of milk in victory lane, hoping to savor every last drop of the rewarding beverage. In 1990, Arie Luyendyk seemed to barely wet his whistle when he arrived in victory lane, a far cry from what would happen later in the decade. In 1998 Eddie Cheever found himself in victory lane and was apparently dehydrated beyond comprehension because he chugged the milk like it was the last drop of liquid left in the world. The site was very satisfying as you could tell that Eddie understood the significance of winning the race and drinking the milk. However, in more recent years the drivers have started a new tradition (that I believe started in 2006 when Sam Hornish won the Greatest Spectacle in Racing). Sam quickly took a drink of milk and then proceeded to toss and spill the milk all over his team, spilling the sacred nectar all over car and driver. I’m sure Sam smelled “sour” doing interviews with the media for the next few hours after the race. But of course, he didn’t care!
Surprisingly there has actually been some resistance to this tradition, which in 2005 was ranked No. 1 in a Sports Illustrated list of “sports coolest prizes.” The two biggest cases against drinking milk in victory lane have both involved orange juice. If you think about it, orange juice is the arch nemesis of milk. If milk is Batman, then orange juice would most definitely be the joker. They fight at breakfast (you can’t drink orange juice and then eat a spoonful of cereal, the contrast in flavors is way too extreme). They also are pitted against each other when teaching kids proper nutrition. Orange juice helps keep colds away, but milk gives you strong bones–what a tough decision to make! They also have clashed at the 500 on two separate occasions.
In 2001 PETA actually sent a letter to then Speedway CEO Tony George asking him to stop the tradition of giving milk to the winner of the race because of cruelty to cows. PETA suggested that the winner drink orange juice instead. Thankfully, the tradition went on. The biggest coup d’état that orange juice has attempted to stage against milk was in 1993. Emerson Fittipaldi shocked the world by taking a quick infant-sized swig of milk followed immediately by a “bottoms up” maneuver that resulted in a wave of orange juice being consumed by the 2-time Indy winner. Fans were furious, because if there is one thing that makes the 500 such a special race it’s the tradition and pageantry of the event. And then here is the winner of the race backhanding the greatest tradition the race has. Criticism was quick to hit Fittipaldi, but he maintains that what he did was okay because he drank the milk first. Fittipaldi’s reasoning for drinking o.j. was because he owned an orange farm in his native Brazil. Talk about plugging your own business! Despite that setback both milk and “Emo” have returned to the track regarded as the heroes they are.
As you can see, Indiana loves milk. What other Indiana food is so revered and immortalized? Milk has been a part of the Indy 500 tradition for nearly eighty years and I’m sure it will be around for another hundred. In a state full of great food and great stories, milk is definitely standing in the winner’s circle.