Hiatus and Digression

In Thinking About Food on June 26, 2010 at 8:07 pm

Weeks 18 and 19

So, I’ve been m.i.a. for a couple weeks, but with good cause: I’m pregnant, suckas!

Thusly, I’ve had zero interest in cooking. Or really in doing anything other than lying on the couch watching reruns of The Office and taking gigantic three-hour naps. (Although I think once you get past 90 minutes it technically becomes what one calls “sleep.”)

But in between work, my nap-a-thons, copious fruit eating, and altogether-too-frequent bouts of ordering Thai food, I’ve been thinking a lot about food, and the gastronomic mythology that surrounds pregnant ladies. Granted, I’m no expert; I’ve neither studied nutrition, been pregnant before, nor talked to any of my pregnant friends in any great depth about their dietary quirks and habits, but frankly, I’m not buying into this whole making your husband go to the 7-11 in the middle of the night so you can make a pickle-and-ice-cream sandwich bullshit. Stuff like that gives women a bad name, and it seems to me to reinforce a dangerous, misogynistic archetype: the hormone-crazed, moody, hysterical mom-to-be who terrorizes her exasperated-yet-doting husband for nine straight months.

Seriously: am I supposed to act like a tastebudless maniac who makes The Husband cater to my every whim? Because I didn’t get that memo. (And The Husband’s an incredibly nice and patient guy, but if I want ice cream in the middle of the night, odds are pretty good that I’m the one walking my ass to the convenience store.)

When I’m not thinking about ridiculously demeaning pregnancy stereotypes, I’m thinking about how freaked out people get about food when they’re pregnant. In the time that I’ve worked in specialty foods retail, I’ve had innumerable customers tell me that they can’t eat raw milk cheese. And inevitably I look into their cart and they’ve got a wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano or a chunk of gruyere in there. When I point out that Parm and gruyere are both raw milk cheeses, the customers almost always recoil, throw the cheese back onto the counter, and say something like, “You’re kidding! Oh, no! I’ve been eating this all along!”

Honestly, I almost never engage customers in conversation on this point — because who am I to override their doctor’s orders? I’m just a cheesemonger — but if they want my opinion on the matter, which they occasionally do, I’ll give it to them. (Parm’s been around since the 13th century; pasteurization’s been around since 1864. You can do the math yourself, but I’m going to side with longevity on this one.) But nine times out of ten I’ll just recommend some stupid pasteurized cheeses and silently fume over the unnecessary stress pregnant women face when making menu choices. (I even wrote one of my famous song paraphrasings about it, to the tune of Def Leppard’s Hysteria; try it out: “Will I get bacteria, listeria, if I eat soft cheeses? If I eat cold lunch meat? My doc’s hysterical: listeria.”)

So I guess I should’ve been prepared when the midwife read me the riot act over raw milk cheeses at my first appointment. She did not, however, say a word about ready-to-eat meats, which according to my extensive (though highly unscientific) research have caused far more listeria outbreaks than raw-milk cheese. In fact, it’s usually improperly processed soft cheeses that are responsible for incidents of listeriosis — and most soft cheeses sold in the U.S. are aged less than 60 days, and legally have to be made from pasteurized milk. But, I digress.

The midwife gave me an enormous pamphlet of prenatal care FAQs; I, of course, flipped immediately to Section 5: What Should I Eat?. This title turned out to be a total misnomer, since there was way more emphasis on what I should not eat. Foods we pregnant ladies should avoid include hot dogs, salami, bologna and all other deli meats; liver, pates and other meat spreads; unpasteurized milk and unpasteurized milk products; soft cheeses such as Brie, feta, Camembert, blue cheeses and Mexican cheeses like quesos fresco, blanco, de hoja, de crema and asadero; raw eggs; apple cider; unpasteurized juices; sprouts; and/or more than three servings of fish per week.

(It is okay, however, to use artificial sweeteners such as aspartame or sucralose. So I can’t eat parm or drink Kombucha, but I can knock back a couple Diet Cokes? Stay classy, Section Five.)

When I got home from the midwife’s office, I went to the Center of Science in the Public Interest’s website, and searched for pregnancy + listeria. I clicked on the first search result, a pamphlet terrifyingly titled Protect Your Unborn Baby: Important Food Safety Information to Help Prevent Miscarriage. It echoed the sentiments in the other pamphlet, and added a few more foods to the verboten list: raw unwashed fruits and vegetables, raw shellfish, rare meat and poultry, cold ready-to-eat meats (ham, sausage, etc.), cold ready-to-eat seafood (i.e., smoked salmon), raw eggs and raw egg products (Caesar salad dressing, raw cookie dough, homemade ice cream, etc.), cold leftovers.

I stopped and did a mental dietary inventory: in the three months that I’ve been pregnant, I’ve eaten virtually everything on the list, some of it before I knew I was pregnant but most of it after. (Plus sushi.) I’m not trying to invite disaster, and I hope you don’t find all of this hubristic, but: seriously: let’s calm the hell down already.

Look: I’m not discounting the seriousness of food-borne illnesses, nor am I trivializing the utter tragedy of babies lost to listeria (and many, many other bacterial-related sicknesses). But I think we need a healthy dose of common sense here. After reading Nina Planck’s Real Food for book club, I picked up her companion book, Real Food for Mother and Baby, which debunks conventional wisdom on eating while pregnant and instead provides thoughtful, scientific, realistic advice on how, and what, to choose. (If you’re interested in the short version, the whole book basically boils down to this succinct PDF, simply and non-terrifyingly titled “Eating for Two.”)

Oh, are you curious about what I can eat? Four quarts of dairy products daily. (Though I can substitute soy milk if I want. I guess they haven’t read the research about soy milk being a known disrupter of hormonal balance. Or the soy milk label, which lists evaporated cane juice — i.e., sugar — as its second ingredient.)

Seriously: four quarts! God, I hope that’s a typo. Otherwise, that’s 128 ounces of dairy per day. (By contrast, the pamphlet recommends 64 to 80 ounces of water per day.) But those dairy products should be limited to skim milk, no-fat yogurt, and low- or no-fat cheese. I should trim all fat that I see on meats; I should remove the skin from poultry and throw it away (emphasis mine). The pamphlet finds no fault with high-fiber and high-iron foods, though, so at least I’ve got that going for me. Which is, you know, nice.

So I’m just going to do this: I’m not going to read any more terrifying pamphlets, and I’m not going to read any more books. I’m going to listen to my body and eat when and what it tells me to eat. It’s been doing a remarkably good job so far, and I actually lost eight pounds sometime between February and June. I literally can’t get enough fruit: pineapple, super-cold grapes, smoothies, strawberry-ginger-lemon kombucha. Sometimes I’ll want a steak, so I’ll eat one; I figure I need iron and protein. Other times, I’ll eat a gigantic bowl of kale sauteed with garlic, ginger and chile flakes in sesame oil, and nothing else, and chalk it up to my body asking for Vitamins A, C and K. If I smell brownies baking at the store and I want one, even though I almost never want brownies, I’ll go buy one, because research has shown that pregnant women who eat chocolate have happier babies. (This article prompted The Husband to go out and buy me a gigantic brick of dark chocolate.) When I want ice cream, I eat it; when I feel like taking a long walk and drinking a gallon of water, I do it.

My job right now is to eat well, and I’m up for it. With all of the awesome produce in our CSA boxes, I might even get around to writing about cooking again; last week we tried out tatsoi and garlic scapes, so stay tuned, though understand if I’m not posting, I’m probably sleeping (or irritably googling listeria + outbreak + deli meat).

Now if you’ll excuse me, the doorbell’s ringing; my Thai food’s here.

  1. Great post, and thanks for the book reference. I think “science” or “doctors” have simplified the research into some basic over-reaching rules for the average person. And a lot of people can be prone to hysteria over making sure they are always doing what is absolutely best for their baby (nevermind for themselves). Some of the best advice I received was to avoid anything from restaurants and cafes that is under a heat lamp or sitting out in plain sight (ie, Subway). I’ve also tightened up my food handling at home, putting leftovers away asap and freezing them if I am not going to eat them the next day. Since I started doing this, I have had a lot fewer incidents of upset stomach, etc. But this should apply to everyone, not just the pregnant women. People seem to be happy to put up with food poisoning for some reason.

  2. I’m with you, Sunny. I did avoid sushi while pregnant – even though I felt like I could have eaten it if I really wanted to (seriously, what do you think pregnant women in Japan eat?). I also had a glass of wine every so often if I wanted one (though I did get ugly looks from waiters for that). For the most part I just let my body tell me what I needed and what I should avoid and tried to stay super hydrated all the time. I hope that you’re feeling good and enjoying the pregnancy!

  3. Sunny, I took some on your classes at Wholefoods and finally made it around to checking out your blog (took long enough). But none the less, CONGRATS, that is so exciting for you. I look forward to hearing what you learn and I hope your pregnancy goes well!

  4. […] pregnant but I ate a deli ham cuban sandwich (stop scaring pregnant women!) […]

  5. […] that someone searched for ‘def leppard hysteria listeria’ — word of my awesome anti-anti-raw-milk-cheese-paranoia song must’ve spread — and pleased that so many of the ingredients that puzzled me are […]

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