There’s a recurrent theme in the depiction of John and Sherlock’s home life, whether in fanfics, gifs, or fan art: milk. Specifically, Sherlock Holmes never buys milk, 221B is always out of milk, and John Watson always notices they need more milk. So what’s with the milk?
This is a meme that not only got referenced in the show, it was the show’s first meta reference! We’ll explain that in a bit – first we’ve gotta dive deep into this meme to find its origins.
As early as the second episode of Sherlock, “The Blind Banker,” we see John begrudgingly shouldering the lion’s share of the shopping. In the beginning of that episode John’s card is declined when trying to buy groceries. When he returns to 221B, he takes a little of his frustration out on Sherlock:
SHERLOCK: You took your time.
JOHN: Yeah, I didn’t get the shopping.
SHERLOCK: What? Why not?
JOHN: Because I had a row, in the shop, with a chip-and-pin machine.
SHERLOCK: You … you had a row with a machine?
JOHN: Sort of. It sat there and I shouted abuse. Have you got cash?
SHERLOCK: Take my card.
JOHN: You could always go yourself, you know. You’ve been sitting there all morning. You’ve not even moved since I left.
As viewers, we know that Sherlock was actually very busy fighting off an exotic attacker while John was gone, something he curiously never seems to share with John. The show winkingly implies that Sherlock often feigns laziness or indifference when it comes to household chores so that he can secretly work on cases, leaving the mundane shopping and cleaning instead to John (or Mrs. Hudson).
The show does such a great job illustrating John and Sherlock’s lopsided domestic arrangement that we implicitly understand John’s shock when he and Sherlock have this conversation in “The Great Game,” the first season finale:
JOHN: I won’t be in for tea. I’m going to Sarah’s. There’s still some of that risotto left in the fridge.
JOHN: Uh, milk. We need milk.
SHERLOCK: I’ll get some.
Of course, again, we as viewers are in on the joke that Sherlock agrees to do the shopping to get John out of the flat so he can play a dangerous game with Moriarty. It’s another time Sherlock chooses not to share his plans with John and deflects further inquiries by talking about the shopping but all in all, it’s a small moment.
Well, essentially right away. This is a character detail and in-joke that dates back to the very beginning of the BBC Sherlock Fandom.
Don’t believe us? Irisbleufic published her fic titled “Only Human” on August 6 2010 – not two weeks after the first episode aired – and here’s a quote from it:
“And what do you do with the milk, anyway? I’ve never seen you put it in your tea.”
“Well spotted,” said Sherlock, in a tone that suggested John was beginning to try his patience. “That’s because I don’t. If you must know, I’ve been running some experiments that require it as a neutralizer.”
The milk dispute stuck with people – probably because it was one of the first details we got about John and Sherlock’s curious home life.
Oh, yes. This milk gag was actually the show’s very first meta reference.
Here’s the deal:
Way back when the show first began airing, the BBC maintained some official websites that were mentioned in the show including Sherlock’s own website, The Science of Deduction, and John Watson’s blog where he wrote up his summaries of Sherlock’s cases. This extra content was ignored by the majority of fans – which is perhaps why they’re no longer being maintained – but it made for a great place for the show creators to throw in some fan service and meta references without affecting the show.
Dedicated fans who checked the websites and read the comment threads were treated to some hilarious bonus banter between John and Sherlock, which included snarky comments about…you guessed it, more milk!
From the forum posts on Sherlock’s website, The Science of Deduction:
From the comments on John Watson’s blog entry about A Study in Pink:
These BBC-written comment exchanges – can we call them epistolary fanfics? – are an official part of the BBC Sherlock canon, and make the fan-service milk joke the Sherlock fandom’s very first meta reference!
The blog even implies that Sherlock DOES actually do the shopping occasionally as a way of apologizing to John for some offense or another:
Fans loved the milk gag and quickly started making dairy-themed jokes of their own. In this humorous photo series by Cumberbatch Holmes, John asks “How many Sherlocks does it take to get the milk?” and when Sherlock responds that he doesn’t know, adds “Me neither, ’cause you’ve never fucking done it.”
Sadyna created this gorgeous fanart piece, John Watson with his Nokia n97, depicting John typing on a giant Nokia phone (or a tiny John typing on a normal Nokia phone), texting Sherlock that he’ll bring milk when he gets home.
Tumblr user shockingblankets imagined that Sherlock would let John know about the whole not actually-being-dead thing at the beginning of Season 3 by showing up at 221B with some milk:
In her beloved fanart Now You Will Never Have to Leave Jawn Artist @sherlockwillneverdie on tumblr imagined that Sherlock could solve the milk problem by obtaining a pet cow:
There are well-known fan accounts like @ContactSH on Twitter, who shared the following important update in January 2017:
It looks like this is a meme that’s here to stay. It’s developed into more of a character detail and relationship quirk than in joke, and can be found throughout the Sherlock fandom, from crackfics to stunning fan comics. It adds a nice touch to character studies and quieter stories that focus on the day-to-day life at 221B.
In “Fortunately the Milk,” which is inspired by Neil Gaiman’s story of the same name, author khorazir kicks the story off with this exchange:
“Why is there no milk?” he asked the universe in general. “I bought four pints just yesterday.”
The recipient part of the universe was currently residing in his own armchair typing on his phone. He made a grumbling noise.
John grabbed the empty container, shut the fridge and turned in the direction of the grumble. “What did you do with the milk? Poured it down the drain just to annoy me? Or is there another mould experiment lurking somewhere in the flat I should be aware of?”
Johnlock fans will frequently find milk jokes in their fics thanks to its potential to create some “domestic disputes.” In “The One Time Sherlock Went to Get the Milk,” author Casual-Laurie creates some drama imagining what might happen if Sherlock left a dangerous experiment running while he went to fetch the milk after a fight with John:
“I tell you what. I am sick and tired of going shopping three times a day because you couldn’t be bothered to go and get your own stuff. I tell you what. You want milk? You can get off your arse and go and get your own bloody milk.”
Regardless of the reason for its popularity, the few scraps of Sherlock dialogue about milk stuck with fans and sparked a meme that still persists today. This is one of the few memes that started as canon, got taken into fandom and then back into Sherlock canon material and certainly one of the oldest Sherlock in-jokes out there.
Now that you’ve got the lowdown on the milk situation at 221B, stay tuned for more lactose-free posts:
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