Food, Flavors, and Babies

Little did I know, I would grow to love my mother's homemade ravioli and many other ingredients I could not stand to look at as a child.
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One of my first memories as a child - I may have been 7 or 8 - is when my mother made ravioli filled with ricotta and spinach, served with a simple tomato sauce. At that age, I hated mozzarella, soft cheeses, and ricotta - except when my father mixed it with sugar and coffee or chocolate powder. That day, my parents insisted that at least I taste the ravioli before refusing to eat it. I clearly remember the disgust at the texture and flavor, my stomach churning, and the big tears that seasoned it all. Little did I know, I would grow to love my mother's homemade ravioli and many other ingredients I could not stand to look at as a child, including celery or basil leaves floating in soups or sauces, liver and offal in all forms, and fat in sliced prosciutto. Some things don't change though: I still experience utter horror when I see a layer of film forming on boiling milk. Oh well...

These memories came back to me as I was reading Amy Bentley's new book Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet, which she will present at The New School on March 5, 2015. Professor Bentley teaches food history at New York University and, among other things, edited the Modern Age volume in the six-volume Cultural History of Food of which I was general editor together with Peter Scholliers. She has also written extensively about food in connection with gender and family issues. Her first book Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity looked at how victory gardens became places for women to participate in the war effort and to bring patriotism into the everyday life of Americans.

Her new book, as she succinctly states, "tells for the first time the story of the industrialization of baby food in the United States" and how those changes impacted the taste of Americans, determining a strong preference for sweet and salty flavors. The success of baby food is part of larger trends that saw convenient and affordable products acquire popularity in the past one hundred years or so, but at the same time deeply influenced what women thought about their experience as mothers and their ability to provide good care for their children. The medicalization of motherhood, shifting ideas about nutrition and health, as well as innovations in the production systems all contributed to something that we now take for granted.

Reading Professor Bentley's book, which points out how weaning processes are the result of cultural and social dynamics, I became curious about my own experience in Italy, to verify whether it was radically different from what my American peers may have experienced. Of course, I cannot remember anything about it, so I asked my mother. Not a scientific approach, but an emotionally satisfying one. She recalls she breastfed me until I was eight months old, but in the last two months she would alternate her milk with meals based on vegetable stock mixed with freeze-dried fish or meat powder and rice flour, some store-bought baby food (which apparently was already widely available in Italy in the early 1960s), as well as cooked vegetables and fruit that she would make into a mush. Shortly after, pasta, olive oil, and grated parmigiano cheese were added to the meals, reflecting cultural preferences for those ingredients.

I also asked Italian friends of my generation and younger about how they fed their children, and I was surprised to find out that not much has changed over five decades. The exceptions are the addition of salt later in the baby's weaning process, the avoidance until the end of first year of foods that are now considered as causes of allergies and intolerances, such as eggs or tomatoes, and the growing preference for organic products - considered a guarantee of quality and safety.

Overall, mass-produced and store-bought baby food does not seem prevalent in Italy, though common and overall considered safe. However, Italian mothers seem willing to put the extra work in to make sure their children get food that introduces them to the grown-ups' diet. This is not surprising, considering that in Italy restaurants (with the exception of fast-food chains) do not have kids' menus, and that children are expected to share their meals with the adults as soon as possible.

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