It tastes just like cereal milk
The foods of breakfast loom large in my early memories. Little paper cups of butter stand proud next to golden stacks of diner pancakes. Three colors of powdered sugar doughnuts peek from the cellophane windows of Entenmann's boxes. The parade of cereal mascots offer prizes, an alphabet of vitamins, and a sugar blast. But does the place of breakfast as a nostalgia food trace even deeper than conscious memories of childhood? While I wouldn’t say anything to undermine the profundity of my experiences with Count Chocula, this year I became a mother and realized that the love of breakfast is primal, predating both refined sugar and marketing. Human babies eat breakfast almost exclusively for the first year of life.
As if anticipating the great breakfast buffet that the first year out of the womb would represent, my son expressed his leanings toward that morning meal long before he made his appearance. He did so first by ruining all the other meals of the day. At the beginning of pregnancy, the nausea precluded strong flavors and smells. I had to double up on breakfast at home because the ambient smells of my coworkers’ lunches made the break room unbearable and lunch inedible. By the time the nausea had passed, it was the restrictions on alcohol that took a toll on dinner. Without a glass of wine or a beer, I became a cranky, defeatist cook and an expedient eater.
I began to wake each morning ravenous. For the first time in my adult life, I ate breakfast before showering. I bought mangoes by the case. I dumped an entire carton of blueberries onto my cereal each morning. Hardboiled eggs, granola, and pancakes crept later into the day and claimed other mealtimes. Though I never had any of the food cravings that people describe during pregnancy (no pickles, no ice cubes) I was constantly craving the sweet, mild flavors of breakfast.
Once Henry was born, those were the tastes he continued to enjoy. Though he wouldn’t eat any solid food for months, the breastmilk that he drank was a varied menu of flavors infused in a starchy thick, sugared protein shake. For the first week or so, what I produced was custard yellow and resembled condensed milk squeezed out of a tres leches cake. After that, the milk thinned and whitened, but still tasted far different than cow’s milk. It was very sweet, like the sugary final sips of the cereal bowl. (Whether or not Momofuku Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi was thinking of breast milk when she isolated the Proustian miracle of cereal milk, she was not the only one thinking of dairy’s subliminal connections to infancy: Den Fujita, founder of McDonald’s Japan, insists that milkshake straws maximize pleasure when they mete out beverage at the rate of the nursing breast.
But the sugar content of the milk is not even the most breakfast-y thing about breast milk. If you’ve ever eaten Indian food and wondered the next day why you smell as if you were made out of pancakes, then you have experienced one of the most interesting side effects of the well-known galactogogue, fenugreek. Though it sounds like something from space camp, a galactogogue is a homeopathic remedy that is thought to increase the milk supply in a nursing mother. There is no scientific consensus about the actual reason that fenugreek works to increase milk production. Though it is possible that it has an effect on a woman’s prolactin, the milk-producing hormone, or dilates blood vessels, I wonder whether the maple taste is the true impetus. As milk production generally works on a supply-and-demand basis, perhaps the syrupy sweet nudges a fussy baby to nurse all the more ravenously, thus spurring extra letdown. So while you may remember chocolate and strawberry milk from your childhood, pancake milk is a treat buried deep in subconscious infancy.
When it was time for Henry to finally start eating solids to supplement all that cereal milk he was guzzling, the doctor, of course, suggested cereal. He had Rice Krispies, oatmeal, Cheerios. To that menu, I added bananas, peaches, pears, berries, yogurt, and eventually the combo in the smoothie. From the first eruption of a tooth, Henry was interested in gumming on bread, but not much got eaten until I offered him french toast and pancakes, mush-mouth friendly carbs. Those he happily filed under his previous experience with maple flavor. Now, almost one year old, he carefully uses his pincer grasp to collect finger foods like beans, tortillas, and lumps of scramble: a plate of huevos rancheros is his domain. Bacon is really the only breakfast workhorse he has yet to try, but there’s no hurry. If trying all the foods of a complete and balanced breakfast takes a year, let’s remember that he is breaking a pretty serious, cosmic fast and lining his stomach for a life full of those other meals.