Into the Mouths of Babes

FOR ME, it's Orange Crush.

That's the very first taste I can remember, that first step down the road to gourmandise, that first heady awareness of the fifth sense. In fact, it's my first memory, period. The blue plaid motor rug on the grounds of the Seminaire St-Joseph, where my father was playing softball, my mother’s long legs, the wide, wide field, and the wider sky. Daddy gave me a slurp of his Orange Crush between innings. I loved the stuff.

For you, it may be chocolate pudding or Nonna’s sweet milk and rice porridge, essential to the future well-being of every bambino. Lyle’s Golden Syrup, maybe, or an arrowroot cookie. I still remember the exquisite agony of my first ice cream headache -- no one had warned me not to inhale a chocolate milkshake. The First Taste may not make a real Madeleine Moment for everyone; in fact in my polling sample, I am the only person who can actually set the scene. But then, I was the lucky child who was offered an Orange Crush.

I recall the intoxication of that fizzy orange stuff, but draw a blank on every sip or bite that preceded it. I ought to remember that authentic first taste, the real first memory: sucking up my mother's milk, or the manufactured equivalent. But I don't. And it was my only food for almost a year! Imagine if, as an adult with working tastebuds, your diet were to be restricted to one thing only for several months. You would remember that Osetra until your deathbed, and leave a last request that it not be served at your wake.

What does it taste like, this miracle drink that sustains us until we're ready for rice cereal and strained liver? And how would our palates have developed if strained liver had been the first thing?

Oh, Little Muffie is so Sweet!

The liver would have been a non-starter. According to the eponymous pediatrician at Ask Dr. Sears, "Babies are born with a natural preference for sweets (breastmilk is very sweet)." Yes, Muffie was sweet. And so was her infant diet.

Disclaimer: I flunked Earth Mother 101. The best I ever did at breastfeeding was a gentleman's (36) C. But I bit the bullet, endured the truly stunning pain (the bullet wasn’t the only thing that was being bitten), and did the right thing. Those two months seemed longer than my pregnancy. When I realized that the bonding moment was becoming an event as eagerly awaited as visit to my periodontist, I caved. My daughter took her morning airing over to the grocery store where I invested in Similac, baby bottles, and rubber nipples. Rubber nipples take much longer to crack than the real things.

How had my mother fed chubby blonde Baby Muffie?

I picked up the phone and called the Font of All Knowledge. We have in common: bunions, a fondness for bacon, and a bunch of lipsticks not quite the right shade. Add breastfeeding angst to the list.

My mother’s delivery is somewhere between Dorothy Parker and Roseanne Barr. I took notes.

"God, Muffie! In fifties Quebec, every store was ferme le dimanche. I remember your poor Daddy spent forever trying to find an open pharmacy because I needed nipple shields. You almost starved that day. I started bottle feeding you at about two months, and life got better immediately. Which was good -- I barely had time for bridge anymore. "

"Huh?"

"All I did was boil. I had to boil containers so I could boil other things in them! The pot in which the bottles and nipples were sterilized had to be boiled before the bottles went in. The can opener had to be boiled. The formula-mixing jug -- it looked a little like a pregnant tummy -- had to be boiled. The measuring cup had to be boiled."

Mummy continued: You could never, ever, skip a step, because if a woman was known to be a little lax in her boiling, her girlfriends just knew why her baby was running a temperature. Eyebrows would be raised. They would whisper to each other behind gloved hands: Sloppy Boiling. Unfit mother.

I directed the topic to things gastronomical, about which my mother knows more than she knows about chic. Which is a lot.

"What kind of formula did you use?"

My mother is master of the pause-for-effect.

"Formula? There wasn’t any formula. It was always a la minute. The recipe was short, but I rang more changes on those three ingredients than the mother of a pre-schooler who won’t eat anything but boiled rice, mashed potatoes and ginger ale.

"And the ingredients were?"

"Carnation Condensed Milk and corn syrup diluted with water. Boiled water."

Now that’s sweet stuff. "Do you remember the proportions?"

Mummy has an unladylike snort that precedes her guffaw. "That’s the a la minute part, kid. We had to report to the pediatrician daily on stool, gas, slobbering, mewling, and puking. The proportions could change any time. When your siblings came along it was a little easier, because of SMA powder. We still had to boil like Billy-be-Damned but we also had bottle heaters -- ever see one? They looked a bit like a hot roller set without the rollers. They heated the formula to the correct temperature. Of course, we still tested a drop on the inside of the wrist."

I remembered doing that.

"And remember, dear, that no middle class woman in the fifties breast-fed. Poor women breast-fed. It was a tad common, as your Nana might have said -- like not shaving your armpits. But she was a believer -- and the reason I tried at all. Lord, how I tried."

Yeah, I tried too, Mummy, and I tried in the late seventies, when not to breast feed was considered common. Uneducated women used the bottle. I may still hold the no-Barbie rule against you, but the bottle thing? You are so off the hook.

After a short discussion about lamb shanks, we hung up.

Carnation Condensed Milk, corn syrup, and water. A whole generation of Boomers suckled on what sound like the beginning of a recipe for fudge. But, hey -- I’m still here. I’m not obese and I rarely have sugar cravings. Sure, I have enough experience in the dentist's chair to perform my own root canals, but I could blame that on the local water supply. Fluoride was considered Godless in my town.

They Suck

What does that first suck taste like? Is it really that sweet? I decided to hold a horizontal tasting at the kitchen table. I would ignore any glass with a stem. Spending extra on a bottle and nipples in order to get the correct mouthfeel and traces of rubber would be out of the question. I would boil absolutely nothing. My mother had boiled enough for both of us.

I had a good line on breast milk, something that's tricky to score unless you work in a maternity ward or belong to the Young Mothers Club. I'm a member of neither group, but my niece (let’s call her Mary) is. She possesses two additional qualifications: First, she knows her Auntie Margaret is, let’s say, Eccentric. Second, she has a master's degree in animal science from Penn State, and once wrote recipes for, well, for cows. She’s a scientist, and completely unsqueamish about mammalian lactation. Mary is also nursing a baby.

I even had plans for some serious science. I would ask her to keep notes on what she had eaten on two consecutive days so that I could judge if and how her diet affected the flavor of her milk. Plus, I might get a hint of that Dubuque terroir.

I knew that she and her family would be in town soon, and decided to give her a call. "Hi, Sweetie, it’s your Aunt Margaret. (Exchange of usual pleasantries.) Hey, you and the kids are going to your Mom’s for Easter, right? Could I ask for a favor that might sound a little creepy?"

Pause.

"Sure, Auntie Margaret."

Pause.

I blurted: "I need to know what breast milk tastes like for this article I’m writing. I know this is a big favor, but could you pump me a couple of little samples and bring them with you? Is this too weird? " I held my breath.

Pause.

"No, that’s not weird, Auntie Margaret, but I can’t do it. I weaned him last month."

Well, I had tried. Short of approaching protective young mothers in playgrounds and malls, understandably apprehensive women who would not hold me in bemused affection, I had no way to convey the primal varietal to the tasting table.

At the grocery I realized one of the most compelling arguments for nursing a baby: formula is expensive! A thirteen-ounce can of formula costs about three-and-a-half bucks. Diluted half again with water, a can would provide, maybe, two servings. I chose these three whites: Enfamil Lactofree (Peter Rabbit on the label), Similac with Iron (Teddy Bear with Blankie), and Carnation Good Start (pencil crayon drawing of two hearts.) The nutritional labels were almost identical. And so was the warning to Mothers: Breast Feeding is Recommended. First the warning labels on wine during your pregnancy, now the caveat on the can of formula for your baby! You can’t win, Mommy.

I trundled toward the checkout, jazzing on the sin in the junk food aisle. The flashing fluorescents were a welcome blast of energy after the soporific snuggliness of the baby section. Wow! Fresca! Talk about chemical overtones. Oh, to be sixteen again, when Fresca was my biggest vice. I dreamily tossed a few items in the cart; a bag of fried here, a can of cholesterol there. And I couldn’t resist a bottle or three of bubbly.

Back home, I set out five Ikea juice glasses, the only five matching glasses I own. At the back of the baking cabinet, I found a can of Carnation condensed milk and the prized fifteen-year-old corn syrup, still tasting uncorked and unmaderized. I chose a sixty/forty proportion of milk and tap water, and stirred in a tablespoon of the clear, sweet goop. Into the next three glasses I poured, left to right: a quarter cup of Good Start, Enfamil, and Similac. To this I added, per the recipes on the labels, a quarter cup of water. I was not looking forward to this particular tasting.

The Carnation/corn syrup concoction resembled 2% milk. The Enfamil and Similac looked similar; on a paint chip their color would be called "Baby Biscuit," a very pale tan. The Carnation Good Start could have passed for a glass of whole milk.

Here are my tasting notes. I will not attempt wine vocabulary because I don’t know it very well, and comparing Similac to Syrah is a capital crime.

Condensed milk and corn syrup: No surprises here. Milky and very sweet. Not bad.

Good Start: Thicker than milk, mildly sweet, with a persistent malty aftertaste. It tasted like a vanilla malt spiked with aluminum. The first four ingredients on the label read: Water, Enzymatically Hydrolized Reduced Minerals, Whey Protein Concentrate (From Cow’s Milk), Vegetable oils (Palm Olein, Soy, Coconut, High-Oleic Sunflower), Lactose.

Enfamil: Sweeter than the Carnation, with a nutty aftertaste. A nasty nutty aftertaste, like geriatric filberts. Ingredients: Water, Corn Syrup Solids (ah hah!) the same vegetable oils in the same order, Milk Protein Isolate.

Similac: The sweetest of all. It napped the tongue slightly--shudder. No noticeable aftertaste, thank God, because the nutty and malty were not sitting well on the tastebuds. Ingredients: Water, Nonfat milk, Lactose, Oils (High-Oliec safflower oil, Coconut Oil, Soy Oil), Whey Protein Concentrate.

My mother had it nailed -- gastronomically speaking, of course. The condensed milk and corn syrup libation was the only kiddy cocktail of the four that was not actively nauseating. The aftertastes and the coated tongue were lingering way past the afternoon feeding. Babies don’t know any better, poor little things. This is what’s available, and it fills up a tiny tummy that’s on a three-hour feeding schedule.

As I, with some guilt, poured the dregs down the sink (There are starving children who need this!), it occurred to me to pour a little into a saucer. Hey, it’s sweet and milky! Willow-the-cat can have a little afternoon treat. She sniffed it. She took one lick. Then she backed away from the saucer and scratched the surrounding floor. Any cat owner will tell you that this is the universal kitty gesture for hiding something foul. No fooling this feline.

Clearing the counter and wondering if I had some restaurant giveaway mints cluttering the bottom of my purse (anything to get rid of the nasty aftertaste), I noticed the fifth juice-glass, the empty one. How could I have forgotten? I tore open the fridge, grabbed that day-glo bottle, and poured myself six ounces of Orange Crush. I didn’t check for the iron content, and I didn't give a damn about lactose intolerance. But a woman just back from three days in the Kalahari couldn't have pounded it down faster.

Friday, May 16, 2003