How Food Traditions Nourish New Moms – The New York Times

How Food Traditions Nourish New Moms – The New York Times

When Jennifer Chowdhury, a New York City-based journalist, gave birth to a baby girl three months ago, her Bangladeshi mother and maternal aunt fed her kalijira bhorta, or black cumin mash, in the immediate postpartum period. Kalijira bhorta is an aromatic and flavorful dish, often seasoned with garlic and mustard oil, and served with rice. Bengalis also believe it stimulates lochia, or postpartum vaginal discharge, and increases milk supply.

Kalijira bhorta, a cumin-based Bengali dish, is served to mothers during postpartum recovery.
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Dr. Sharon Okonkwo-Holmes is a family physician and an instructor of clinical science at the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine in Pasadena, Calif. When she became a parent, her Nigerian emigrant mother prepared pepper-leaf soup that Dr. Okonkwo-Holmes ate twice a day. “The soup, which came from her village, Oba, includes scent leaf, utazi, uda, uziza and ginger,” she said. “The cultural belief goes way back with the idea that the spices will help to restore the uterine genitourinary system — bringing everything back into place.”

When Shrooti Singh Nagal, an executive coach, had her first son, her mother-in-law temporarily moved from Delhi to New Jersey for 40 days, nourishing the new mom with, among other traditional Hariyali foods, panjiri, a warm, roasted whole-wheat pudding with dried fruits, seeds and nuts, and hydrating, spice-infused waters, made with carom or fennel seeds — another dish eaten to stimulate lactation.

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These mothers’ experiences aren’t uncommon in the United States, especially among new parents of color and those from immigrant families. Many cultures have special postnatal customs and there are notable similarities across cultures. A 2010 cross-cultural study published in the journal Archives of Women’s Mental Health found that the period of healing after childbirth is almost universally observed for 40 days, whether that is explicitly written into its name, such as the Latin American cuarentena, or quarantine, or in the Chinese zuo yue zi, or sitting the month. Moreover, traditional postpartum foods, regardless of their specifics, are prized for similar reasons: to “warm” the birth parent, aid in digestion, replenish minerals or increase milk supply.

“It doesn’t matter what culture you’re from, a lot of these themes emerge because there are very real and central medical truths to where they come from,” said Dr. Jennifer Conti, a Bay Area-based OB-GYN, adjunct clinical assistant professor at Stanford University School of Medicine and author of “The Vagina Book.”

“Women used to die all the time from labor and birth,” Dr. Conti said. “In the absence of modern medicine, if things you can do to keep a person alive are to keep them warm and out of the cold, keep them well-nourished, keep them rested, then it makes sense that those are types of support you provide and the types of foods you prescribe.”

Whether or not these foods and practices have proven nutritional or medicinal properties — and the science is not wholly conclusive — there is immeasurable value in nourishing the birth parent. The foods represent rest and assistance, necessary for physical and emotional healing. Ms. Chowdhury has no proof that kalijira bhorta had any effect on her milk supply, but she knows that her mother’s and aunt’s food offerings made her feel cared for and loved in this most vulnerable moment. “My mom and my mom’s sister were so excited about it,” she said. “It’s a bonding experience — all the good, happy hormones were flying about.”

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Although Dr. Conti, who is half Mexican-American, did not observe the strict postnatal customs that her second-generation immigrant mother did, her maternal grandmother brought her tamales, corn masa wrapped in corn husks before being steamed — a delicacy that is warming and easy to digest, according to her grandmother — after the births of her children. “To her, that’s the way she could provide safety to her family,” Dr. Conti explained.

Unsurprisingly, these culinary traditions are often preserved by family matriarchs. Until recently in the United States, with the publication of community cookbooks like “From Mothers to Mothers: A Collection of Traditional Asian Postpartum Recipes” or culturally specific websites offering recipes and support practices, such know-how was usually shared orally or through observation. Food startups like Nouri Mama, a pregnancy and postpartum meal delivery service in New York City, are aiming to bridge the cultural gap for those who may be living far from their grandmothers and aunts, and even their native foods.

“The idea of staying in a postpartum hotel or having a person dedicated to you, all of these other cultures have that, but that seems to be lost in translation once you’re in the States,” said the nutritionist and private chef Jennifer Jolorte Doro, Nouri Mama’s co-founder, along with Irene Liu. The company’s offerings are rooted in the tenets of postpartum traditional Chinese medicine and employ Asian cooking techniques and ingredients, such as white fungus, mung beans and sesame oil, though the dishes are more modern in their sensibility.

In Indigenous cultures where colonization disrupted the passing down of traditions, doulas and birth workers are reclaiming, reviving and recording food traditions for new parents in their communities. Camie Jae Goldhammer is a Seattle-based member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton tribe, creator of Indigenous Breastfeeding Counselor training and a doula at Daybreak Star Doulas, which provides free services to pregnant women living in King County, Wash., who identify as American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. “We have this really diverse, huge Native population here, and I always think about the family we’re serving,” she said. “I’m not going to serve my Navajo client salmon chowder” — a traditional dish of Natives in the Pacific Northwest — “but I’m going to call my midwife friend in Arizona and ask her to send me blue cornmeal to make mush. I’m always researching things for our families.” She harvests nettle in the spring to make tea, which is recommended as a milk-maker.

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Ms. Goldhammer, whose training is in social work and intergenerational trauma in Native communities, also suggests that treating the postpartum period as a sacred time leads to healthier and happier people overall. “Reclaiming and relearning and reintegrating traditional practices into our communities will heal us and that trauma,” she said.

Dr. Okonkwo-Holmes pointed to the importance of giving women time, emotional support and supplemental nutrition to recover postpartum — a period when anxiety, depression and general overwhelm can crop up. “Postpartum nourishment for mothers also goes to the concept of self-awareness and mindfulness,” Dr. Okonkwo-Holmes said. “All women should be afforded the time to have a decent postpartum period because they need time to heal their body and mind.”

Given that the United States offers no mandated parental leave, traditional healing periods and foods are a balm to those women whose cultures prioritize them. “I felt so well-taken care of, and that I was being conditioned to take care of myself first,” Ms. Singh Nagal said. “Having the wisdom of somebody who’s been through it is also so important. This is what motherhood should always be about; why is it only for 40 days?”

Pooja Makhijani is a New Jersey-based writer and editor.

Published at Thu, 25 Feb 2021 10:00:19 +0000

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