Karen Berman is a writer and editor who specializes in food and lifestyle topics. After graduating from Mount Holyoke, she worked as a newspaper reporter in Connecticut, covering local government and politics, the environment, consumer affairs (she twice won the National Press Club Award for Consumer Journalism)—anything but food. But when she became the paper’s lifestyles editor, she was intrigued. A year later, she quit her job and went to Paris to study at Le Cordon Bleu. She returned home with a culinary certificate and began freelancing and since then, has authored four cookbooks, including Friday Night Bites: Kick Off the Weekend with Recipes and Crafts for the Whole Family and Easy Peasy: Snacks and Treats to Make and Eat, published by Running Press in 2009 and 2012 respectively. She is currently managing editor of NYFoodstory: The Journal of the Culinary Historians of New York and blogs about food and books for booktrib.com. She lives in Connecticut with her daughter, who is now eleven. In her spare time, she serves as poetry editor of The Lyon Review.
Is Chinese baby formula dairy or soy based? The question occurred to me so suddenly and with such force that I had to check myself to make sure that I hadn’t blurted it aloud. But no. The other parents-to-be sitting in the meeting room in the offices of Spence-Chapin, the venerable New York City adoption agency, were listening undisturbed to our social worker, who was explaining yet another item in the mountain of paperwork we had to complete before we would be put on a waiting list that would eventually result in a trip to China to meet our longed-for daughters. I tried to listen, too, and to take notes, but I couldn’t help picturing an innocent babe, placed into my arms fresh from the orphanage, the only home she’d ever known. Would she like the formula that I’d bring from America for her? Would she recoil at its unfamiliar scent? Oh, God, what if she hated it? What if, in our first hours and days together, when she’d be assaulted by newness at every turn, I couldn’t offer her the comfort of a familiar mouthful of food?
I pictured my baby wailing and hungry and wondered what on earth I would do if that picture became a reality. Resuming my note-taking, I tried to focus on the form under discussion. But the questions stayed with me, and at the end of the session I approached the social worker.
“Is Chinese formula dairy or soy-based?” I asked. “Which should we bring? Will our babies take to American formula?”
“The Chinese formula is dairy based, and most of the babies drink the American just fine,” she answered. “But if your child doesn’t, you can buy formula there and mix it with the formula you bring with you. Then you can gradually reduce the amount of the Chinese. That way she’ll get used to it. By the time you come home, she’ll probably be completely happy with the American brand.”
So much for that mom-to-be anxiety attack. But it got me to thinking: If an infant has been taking a particular kind of nourishment for her whole, albeit short, life, what happens when you change that form of nourishment suddenly? To put it in another way, do babies have comfort food?
So much has been made of that term in recent years. Meat loaf and mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese have been rhapsodized and eulogized so often, you’d think they were ambrosia. Of course, what’s comfort to one palate is exotic—or appalling—to another. My Argentinean friend speaks lovingly of the blood sausage and tripe, but he gags at the mere mention of root beer, my childhood favorite. For some souls out there on this small planet, comfort food is the roasted, carefully browned rat that I saw for sale at a street market outside Bangkok. (A case of chacun a son goût if ever there was one.) But while the foodstuff might vary, the idea is the same no matter where you go—comfort food is the food of home. It’s what we ate in our earliest experience of the restorative powers of the table, before, well, whatever came afterward.
I thought about this as I drove home from the agency with my folders of paperwork: Do babies develop food preferences? Can they form taste memories even as their first teeth are coming in? In short, can they have comfort food?
A few months later in China, my child answered my question—and it had nothing to do with baby formula. It happened on the third night after I got Jessica. We were settled into our hotel in the capital city of the province where she was born, waiting for all the official paperwork necessary to finalize her adoption. On that evening, my sister (who had accompanied me to China) and I went down to a late supper in the hotel dining room, with baby Jessica in her stroller. We were dining late because my newly acquired eight-month-old had had a late nap. When she woke up, I had fumbled my way through a diaper change and her dinner—a bottle of formula mixed with rice cereal, some puréed peas and mashed bananas—which, despite my lack of finesse, she seemed to enjoy. The peas necessitated a thorough sponge bath, and when that was done, we dressed her again and set off for our own meal. It was after nine. By that time, we didn’t feel like anything complicated, so we just ordered big bowls of noodle soup.
The dining room was tranquil and nearly empty, and the three of us sat companionably waiting for the food, Jessica content with a full tummy, or so I thought. But when the waitress came to our table with two steaming bowls, my tiny baby let out a series of large, loud screams.
Our few fellow diners turned to stare. In the three days I had known this child, such a thing had never happened. Was she suddenly sick? In pain? Just cranky? After a few moments of new-mommy terror, I realized the obvious. She wanted the soup. A one-page “bio” of my baby that had come from her orphanage had mentioned that her diet included soup, but the information had been sketchy, and I was a strict and nervous follower of my baby books. These advised introducing single foods, not blends; the better to identify the cause in case Baby had an allergic reaction. So Jessica had been drinking formula mixed with rice cereal and eating simple baby-food purées and mashed bananas.
My heart was overflowing. This tiny being, so trusting and innocent in the face of everything new—new mommy, new auntie; a new crib after so many months spent in the orphanage issue; the new surroundings of the hotel, with its shiny brass fixtures and mirrored halls; rides in elevators with doors that opened and closed; rides on buses with their smells of diesel fuel; a new stroller with belts and buckles; forays in that stroller over bumpy sidewalks to vast green parks and bustling department stores; new clothes and new diapers; new toys—almost everything she had encountered over the past three days was cosmically different from what she had experienced for the first months of her life. Yet, she had greeted each new phenomenon with smiles and coos. And now she smelled soup and saw the big bowls, and she knew what it was, and she wanted it.
I blew on it to cool it and spooned a bit into her mouth. Instantly, she was calm. We shared the rest of the bowl. How powerful, I thought, was the appeal of something delicious, even for so tiny a person.
When we came home to Connecticut, I made a big pot of my mother’s chicken noodle soup—my own comfort food, but not so very different from the noodle soup we’d shared in China. My daughter dove in, eating the noodles with her fingers.
And now I know: babies surely do have comfort food. For mine, it was soup. And not age or language or nationality—nothing—could stop her from trying to taste it.