Translated by Johanna González Ingelberg
In China, any product of nature is likely to become food. For decades there were urban legends of restaurants selling dishes that were surreptitiously made of placenta or the fetuses of pregnant mammals. Aficionados searched for dishes made with mother’s milk. The practice reached its greatest notoriety when a restaurant offered 108 different dishes made with breast milk (which was bought, by the way, through generous payment to donor mothers). The banquet ended when locals protested, claiming it was wrong to exploit a resource that was originally intended for consumption by children.
Surely some people are offended or disgusted by this story. But before judgement, it is worth considering that it’s not only the Chinese who have sampled but almost all mothers around the world get curious while breastfeeding. Those who have pumped breast milk to bottle for later use by the nanny or Grandma to use while off at work often taste the milk to ensure its flavor.
For a mother, every drop of milk is gold and there are few that think it is a crime to waste surplus by letting it go down the drain. As strange as it might sound, mothers like Abi Blake prefer to use their own milk to make pies and lasagna. Her family wasn’t shocked nor does she feel remorse. “Why do people prefer to drink milk from a cow instead of enjoying a more healthy and hygenic milk?” asks Blake.
If your cultural sensibilities haven’t already driven you off in disgust, consider the fact that humans are the only animals that drink the milk of other animals, be they cows, goats, sheep, buffaloes or even horses. What makes more sense: to drink milk from our own species or to drink milk that has been designed for a calf that weighs twice as much as us and has multiple stomachs?
Chef Hans Locher is the owner of the restaurant Storchen in Iberg, Switzerland. Having experimented with the milk of his wife in various homemade preparations, he decided to introduce breast milk to his menu in dishes including soup, lamb curry and steak with a Chantarella cognac sauce. His plan received a lot of positive anticipatory reactions but was cut short when he asked for donors through an ad in the newspaper. While Locher received favorable responses from women donors, the Swiss authorities did not concur and they threatened to sue him.
Curiously, they never spoke of any ethical issues raised from cooking with breast milk. The object was purely formal because the product is not regulated by food and health legislation. Unable to guarantee the hygiene of the milk and the security of its procurement and storage, it was considered a potentially hazardous food.
The case of Daniel Angerer of Klee Brasserie in Manhattan, was slightly different. In mid-2010, Angerer started publishing recipes on his personal blog of dishes he created at home using his wife’s milk. The curious and the skeptics all began commenting on his blog, asking him to share samples of these recipes in his restaurant. He created a canapé of breast milk cheese with figs and Hungarian peppers. The diners’ critiques were quite favorable although some readers of the blog continued to express disgust. However, while U.S. regulations do not prohibit the practice, health officials urged him to stop giving away the samples. To avoid controversy, Angerer has quit preparing food with breast milk for the public but, with the full support and supply of his wife, wants to taste test their own ice cream before daughter, Arabella, stops breastfeeding.
Examination of this story would not be complete without contemplating the rights of the animals from whom we take milk. PETA, the international organization for animal rights, called upon famous ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s to desist from using cow’s milk in its products. It recommended the use of breast milk but this widespread implementation of “lactivism” is considered, even by the most conscientious consumer, to be ridiculous.
There is no doubt that breastmilk is the perfect food. In natural disasters, wars or epidemics, we use human milk banks to feed the most vulnerable. Today, millions of dollars are spent on research to discover other uses. Already, it is known that mother’s milk contains stem cells capable of regenerating tissue. There are even experiments that propose it as a base for combating certain types of cancer.
The question and the taboo is still in the air. Compared with milk formulas and other animals, breast milk remains the most perfect food for humans, the most generous and the origin of our own taste vocabulary. So why do adults still frown upon it?
A bit of history
In the twentieth century there were a host of medical advances that freed humans from many mental cobwebs, especially those related to sexuality and education. However, these developments also generated new taboos in the western world. It resulted in a sanitization and rationalization of ideas leftover from the myths, instincts and intuition of our more primitive and animalistic times.
While men fought in the two World Wars, the industrialized economies needed labor. It was then that the woman lunged, almost forcibly, into the workplace. After the first half of the century, female won some autonomy from the patriarchal system. This required the modification of social roles and the concept of the female body, its function, its identity.
One aspect that was in the midst of women’s liberation debate was breastfeeding. In developed countries, medical protocols (in an advantageous agreement in the food industry) promoted the use of a bottle and reduced the time that mothers should breastfeed so that they would not miss the opportunity to grow professionally. This resulted in a disqualification of breastfeeding in order to encourage the consumption of formula milk (one of the strongest gains of the pharmaceutical industry). Mothers who wanted to breastfeed in public were criticized as outdated and indecent and were restricted to using private rooms, bathrooms or nursing circles. Instead of being a social event, an act that represented the power of life, breastfeeding was marked as dirty and even barbaric. The breasts lost their symbolism of food and simply became objects that decorate and define a woman’s neckline.
Those that lost the most from this transition were the babies. According to WHO and UNICEF, the results of the campaign for infant formula has led to adult obesity, more allergies, a tendency to develop chronic degenerative diseases, decreased immunity and emotional damages that are difficult to quantify. To counteract this issue, there has been a rise of international groups such as La Lecha League International that support and inform mothers of the benefits of breastfeeding to help set aside the many taboos that have been built around this natural practice, a practice that reminds of us our place on the evolutionary scale.
The origin of taste vocabulary
Breast milk has many half truths surround it. One of the most widespread is that it has a sweet taste due to the large amount of lactose. It could be inferred that the primary taste we experience, then, is sweetness which then becomes the starting point to our understanding taste.
However, recent studies indicate otherwise: even if it is true that breast milk has a sweet base from the lactose, this is secondary. Unlike formula, which always tastes the same, breast milk tastes different every day as it contains a microdose of the food the mother eats. The baby’s body develops a physical tolerance and taste for such foods, which prevents the development of allergies in the future as they have already been exposed to the food. Breast milk, then, is the source of the broad vocabulary of taste. It familiarizes a child with the flavors of their home and the foods of their culture.
From this basis, formula milk as a food appears quite poor, simple in composition and with one single purpose: to feed, fill and increase a baby’s weight. It does nothing to provide the infant with immunization, a nutritious taste complexity and the connections required to achieve real maturity.
The “right” time
Another of the great taboos surrounding breastfeeding is the practice of weaning. Mothers who breastfeed on demand for a prolonged time (more than two years) are frowned upon and deemed to be spoiling their children, making them dependent and causing sexual or psychological stress. To date, no study supports these claims. By contrast, nearly all children that are breastfeed are more self aware, more mature and sociable than a child who did not make the necessary connections to their mother through nursing.
When is the “right” time for a children to stop taking milk from its mother? Weaning is the cultural side of a natural practice. Consider a country like Mongolia which promotes breastfeeding, in public places even, on demand up to the age the child decides to stop (sometimes until age seven or eight without any negative judgement). In her article, “Breastfeeding in Mangolia,” Canadian researcher Ruth Kamnitzer narrates the experience of breastfeeding her child in the Asian country as well as the topic of adult milk consumption there. “… every Mongolian I’ve asked has told me that he likes milk. The value of breast milk is so recognized, so firmly rooted in their culture, that it is not considered as something just for babies. Breast milk is commonly used medicinally, given to older people as a cure-all, (even) is used to treat infections (…) Above all, I think the Mongolians drink milk because they like the taste,” concludes Kamnitzer.
In India and other regions of the world, there is a similar school of thought. It is in the western world where taboos have been generated around weaning. These negative connotations may find their roots in the relationship that exists between the development of language, socialization and the training of self-consciousness in children that occurs in these westernized civilizations.
When a child learns to talk, he is not afraid to express what he likes and dislikes. He talks about his needs openly and understands that his mother’s breast is something that links them emotionally. Requests for breastfeeding are done without malice or false modesty, with no need to blush or redirect his gaze.
Is it perverse that a child ask her mother to breastfeed in front of others? Strictly speaking, no. The appearance of bad taste and discomfort is generated between the adults who witness the scene. Cultural conditioning in recent years has made us deny the food function of the breast and restrict their exposure to sexual intimacy, so you end up relating the act of breastfeeding as “dirty” (inheriting the sexual culpability principles of Judeo-Christian cultures), forcing it to be carried out in a secluded place, aware from the clean and civilized gaze of good conscience.
But above all these theories and cultural distinctions, it is important to note that when it comes to malnutrition, the WHO recommends that breastfeeding be prolonged to three years of age in developing countries as opposed to the fourteen months suggested for developed countries.
Straight from the package
Despite the aforementioned eroticism of the breast, you should not think that this phenomenon is recent. During the mores than ten centuries on record (visual and literary) of breasts or lactofilia erotica, sexual practice and breast milk is rarely discussed.
It is said that the pleasure women receive from nipple stimulation is enhanced during lactation, even to the point of reaching climax without intercourse. Another exploration of breast milk and sexuality occurs when a woman is sexually excited, her breast milk spills instinctively and can be shared between the couple as a practice that mixes tenderness, excitement and curiosity.
Regardless of the trigger, erotic lactation fantasies are among the most underground of adults, especially those who prefer to drink the milk straight from its source.