The symbolic politics of a nice glass of milk


March 02, 1997|By MIKE BURNS

I DON'T JOUST. At least not on horseback. I spent my childhood in a place where the dream of young riders was to be a cowboy and compete in the rodeo. Lancing a small ring at full gallop wasn't on anyone's list.

In Maryland, however, jousting is the official state sport. It says so right in the Maryland Manual and in other repositories of

official arcana.

It's an interesting equestrian challenge, as I've observed several years at the Pylesville tournament, even if the numbers of participants and its spectator appeal are limited. Lacrosse is probably more appropriately the Maryland state sport.

All of which is to say that, despite the waves of hyperbolic rhetoric that precedes its consecration, being the official state anything is usually not worth much.

JTC It's certainly not like being the "official sponsor" or "official product" of some nationally televised event, where the advertising-public relations exposure is commercially valuable.

What it is, for the most part, is "nice," a comfort to those advocates of its state designation, something to add to the organization letterhead.

Most people know what they consider to be the prime examples of Marylandia. They don't need to be told by the wise guys of Annapolis what is, and is not, quintessential Maryland.

The rockfish is, naturally, the state fish and the blue crab its official crustacean. No argument there. The black-eyed Susan as state flower is bountifully apparent in our fields and along roadways. The Baltimore oriole may be difficult to find in local wilds, but its name and plumage reflect the colors of Lord Baltimore's heraldic shield.

Few Marylanders care, or would bother to dispute, whether the official arthropod should be the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly. Or care that the white oak is dubbed the state tree, or that the Chesapeake Bay retriever is the official state dog (even though other breeds are much more popular in Maryland).

And virtually no one even knows there is an official state fossil shell, the former home of an extinct estuarine snail.

So there would appear little reason for agitation over a small piece of legislation in the Maryland General Assembly to make milk the official "state drink."

But there were the dairy promoters waving cow-shaped balloons on the statehouse steps this month, and the Dairy Princess from the Eastern Shore declaiming the positive virtues of moo juice.

Legislators from the state's dairy counties, most prominent of which are Carroll and Frederick, sported "milk mustaches" on their lips in good-humored support of the bill as it was debated by the House of Delegates.

The measure passed by an overwhelming majority, after debate that was decidedly light-hearted, although some declared the proposal to be too frivolous for deliberation.

No one disparaged the bovine beverage. No one dared seriously to propose an alcoholic libation in opposition, although one has the impression that legislators as a whole are more accustomed to the fermented thirst-quencher than to the lactic variety.

The apple juice lobby

The strongest protest came from delegates who argued that Maryland was a state of many drinks, without prejudice or favor. Some partisans advanced the case for apple juice, squeezed from Maryland apples, as the state drink. One diplomat suggested that apple juice could claim to be the "favorite state drink" if not the official one.

Yet under the froth was a serious political purpose. Milk producers spend an enormous amount of money promoting and advertising their "generic" drink. Not in Coke's league, of course, or Budweiser's, but a surprisingly persistent, well-funded campaign aimed at developing consumer consciousness of milk's food value.

The official appellation of "state drink" would undoubtedly bolster this milk marketing promotion in Maryland. But it's questionable whether it would help to sell even another gallon or two of the dairy product. Because per-person consumption of drinking milk is on the decline, and not from lack of marketing.

Consumer tastes in beverages are shifting, amid concerns about calories, cholesterol and fat content. People are finding other sources of calcium and and other well-publicized nutrients in fluid milk. Getting a state seal of approval for drinking milk could be a step toward regaining consumer market preference.

The "state drink" label would also give support to another legislative move by the dairy industry: to allow the state to set minimum prices for milk. Pennsylvania and Virginia have minimum prices, creating unfair competition for Maryland dairy farmers, the state industry argues. Minimum state prices could also stabilize the consumer cost of milk.

That has been a controversial plan in the past, and faces a lot of opposition from various camps this year. Whether milk becomes the state drink or not, Maryland consumers could find the price-support system a hard one to swallow.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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