On Generic Foods, Infant Formula, and Other Random Memories This Morning

This year my daughter’s week-long spring break coincided with my medical leave. Between my continued recovery from back surgery and her goal of catching up on slumber, this week we have primarily indulged in what Van Morrison would call heavy rest.

My daughter was born in the Puget Sound area of Washington, and I suspect that her natural circadian rhythm matches Pacific Time, despite that she lived there for such a short time. If I let her wake naturally, she will arise late in the morning in Eastern time. As I type this post at 9 in the morning, she shows no signs of awakening any time soon.

As I follow random thoughts about motherhood, I fall back to a memory of the very end of the 70’s, when my younger brother was almost brand new and we lived in suburban Indianapolis. In my mind’s eye I can see my mother doing five things at once in the kitchen. She is making a pizza, heating water to warm my brother’s bottle, tutoring my sister in phonetic reading and reassuring me that, yes, my drawing of the letter A in red is wonderful.

I remember the flick of her wrist as she turned on the burner to heat the water and how she pulled out a weighty tin of olive oil embossed with a Rococo-looking design and poured a bit of it to grease the sheet pan for our dinner pizza. On the third burner was a drained pound of hamburger that would dot most of the pizza, with a little left over in the skillet for Dad to pick and savor, the meaty taste unfettered in the small remainder of grease that seems impossible to drain completely.

In the flurry of all of this cooking, Mom would listen to my sister read aloud from the kitchen table. My older sister has dyslexia, and I’d be in awe of all of work she and Mom did as she solidified her reading skills. What an epic battle that was for my sister, to be a dyslexic student when that mode of perceiving the world was so little understood by the very people who were supposed to be teaching her at school!

This is why I have memories of my sister reading from the kitchen table as my mom readied our dinners. I secretly liked it when Mom would chime in to pronounce a few of the words, especially the word grass (“gr-ass”). Since I’d sit rapt at the dinner table as my sister was tutored, I knew how to read when I started school.

On that particular evening, I watched Mom fetch my brother’s bottle from its water bath on the stove and test a few drops of the formula on the inside of her wrist to see if it was the right temperature. Next she slid the homemade pizza into the oven and fed my brother as the pizza cooked. He finished the bottle and was burped just in time for the pizza to be done just right.

More than 30 years later, I am still mystified at how well my mother timed out all of these tasks. When my daughter was a baby, I’d feel totally flustered at juggling her feeding with cooking dinner, and I had just one child.

I ended up bottle feeding, too, despite all the best intentions at nursing my baby as nature intended. Even though I had the assistance of a doula and multiple lactation consultants, my milk did not flow much beyond the initial colostrum. I’m not entirely sure why this happened. Maybe after all the sciatica, anemia, protracted labor, and a surgical birth, my body refused to yield to what I think of as the fourth trimester of pregnancy.

So like many mothers I surrendered to artificial feeding, but I took time to read on the subject. I think I retrieved most of the white papers available online at the time on infant formulas, understanding at best half of their contents but fascinated nonetheless. I also become aware of how controversial infant formula can be, especially in the developing world where a consistent clean water supply is not dependable. I learned that though I felt like I was poor back then, the fact that I could safely fail at nursing and depend on formula for my baby was a sign of privilege.

I also wondered about the history of infant formula. The promo materials on formula circa my daughter’s birth made it sound as if these products were growing ever closer to mimicking the benefits of breast milk, and I imagined that such products started in a form that needed improvement. I called Mom and asked her what baby formula was like when she was growing up in the 50’s, and she said it was boiled evaporated milk diluted to an amount that was doctor prescribed and specific to the heartiness of the individual infant, with vitamin drops added.

Most of these babies thrived despite this distant imitation of breast milk, which is a living substance that cannot be cloned even with today’s technology.

I have just one antique that I have added to my home. During a visit to Kentucky, I found an old infant formula tin:

I am still stunned at the radically generic title of this product, Soluble Food, despite that it has a brand name (Canrick’s). It takes me back to another moment of my childhood, in the early 80’s when I was depressed at the recession phenomena of generic food with white labels and block letters plainly proclaiming the contents inside, free of the taint of any brand at all. For instance, peanut butter was laid bare, with no maternal slogans or elves to lull one into thinking it was more exciting than itself. I recall a brief food stamp interlude during that recession when my mom made sure we had enough by filling her grocery cart to the brim with such generic items. All but the produce, milk, and fresh meat had black-and-white labels with Helvetica letters in caps on them. I felt like we had hit rock bottom.

By the way, I don’t believe the hype that the economic downfall of the Rust Belt is anything new. I remember when the factories starting closing and the work began drying up, back in the ’70s and ’80s. My family lost it all for a while, and I discovered that government cheese and generic peanut butter make a dynamo sandwich pair.

Back to my infant formula tin, I hope that the product inside did as it claimed to do, sustain infants, invalids, and dyspeptics alike. It reminds me of how those of use who are most vulnerable sometime must rely the most on processed food. I also think of how vital it is that we have standards in product claims and purity.

And now my mind wanders again in looking at the side of the tin with instructions translated to German. When I was doing family research this year, I heard that some of my now-departed relatives of German ancestry still retained traces of a foreign accent into the Depression era, despite that their families had been in this country for two centuries. This product label from the early twentieth century could be a reflection of immigration in that time or the retention of that language in German-American communities. I wonder how many generations that language endured in this country in some of my family lines.

Over time, my maiden name transformed from Schütz to Schutz to Schitz to Sheets. I would guess that this line forsake German around the 1840’s when they became Sheets. When my siblings and I were growing up, each one of us was nicknamed Shits at various times, and the latest child who dreamed of this would have that look of astonishment on his face, as if he were the first person on the planet to have ever considered how close Sheets is to Shits.

When I first looked at the Sheets family history, I told my brother and sister that if I were to make one of those customer printed family tree books, it would have the following title in gold leaf on the cover, We Were Schitz!.

And now I will close this post, as I really should wake up my daughter. It is time to get up, even in the Pacific time of her birth.

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