Before our son, Graham, was born, I started daydreaming about his culinary education. His first course always seemed obvious: My firstborn would be a boob man from the start. Yes, I’d teach it myself, with equipment provided and fuel replenished by nature. Only it never occurred to me in all the hours spent obsessing over what foods he might prefer later, or whether he’d be unreasonably picky, that there might be a glitch—like being born unable to eat.

When Graham showed up almost two months early, we knew we were fortunate because he had good lungs and a willingness to fight the e. coli infection that sent me into labor. And (be still my beating heart) he apparently inherited my rock-solid digestive system. There was just one minor detail: he’d skipped the part of fetal development in which we learn to suck and swallow. So instead of waiting until toddlerhood, when kids typically begin refusing any food whose assembly they don’t personally witness, Graham decided we needed to fret over what he did or didn’t ingest from day one. For seven weeks, we watched our child learn to do what most kids are born doing.

Graham spent the first week of his life in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), then the next two weeks at a similar but slightly less scary ward called the Infant Special Care Unit (ISCU), both at Seattle’s Swedish Hospital. If you’ve never had the pleasure of visiting these places twice daily for weeks on end, you’ll find a close approximation, minus the cow sounds, at your nearest feed lot. Here, in I’d say half the cases, small but otherwise healthy children are nourished through a tube, their every nutritional need calculated and analyzed, prioritized, and criticized. There are charts and protocols and many, many syringes. Lactation consultants—nipple nazis, we called them—float from cribside to cribside, encouraging new moms to pump breast milk for their babies, touting it as nature’s perfect food. New mothers hide behind curtains, hooked up like modest, half-clothed heifers, but most of the babies end up on formula, because it’s often the most effective way to get calories in—and in the ISCU, calories count for everything. In other words, the ISCU is where babies become veal.

In the NICU, we learned to love our little meat baby, tubes and all. We dreamed his legs would grow into little ham hocks, and imagined a day when his fat cheeks might rest right on his chest like fleshy jowls. But to the nurses, he was just another calf to fatten. There in room 11B—a corner of a room, really, where he was literally tethered to the wall with cords—Graham was creatively tagged Baby Boy A. I found it strange that after all the naming shenanigans my husband and I put ourselves through, the hospital refused to use the one we’d actually picked. As if they’d decided they didn’t approve. Or maybe they just didn’t want to get too attached. You know, before the slaughter.

From the get-go, Graham was an intestinal champ, scarfing down miniscule quantities of my breast milk with record-breaking regularity. Every day, we’d show up for his “feed times” like anxious children at a human zoo, gazing through his incubator’s Plexiglass until the nurse on duty informed us we had a fifteen minute window in which we could touch our son before his next feeding. I’ve heard so many women say there’s no feeling in the world like the moment someone puts your squirmy newborn into your arms. I missed that one, but watching your very little boy decide his very little stomach is ready for food must rank a close second. Day after day, we cheered for him to get fat.

It’s no accident that the NICU’s feeding process, the one by which premature babies take milk (or something like milk) through a tube that runs through the nose and into the stomach, is called gavage. Gavage is the French term used to describe the systematic overstuffing of ducks and geese for foie gras, and save the honking, the processes are essentially the same—only with birds you’re plumping to kill and with preemies you’re not planning to eat them. That’s what we assumed, anyway.

Eight times a day, for three weeks, Graham was gavaged. And eight times a day, almost every single time, he digested it all. Talk to any devout foie gras eater, and he’ll tell you the geese come running over when the food and funnel come out. I’m not sure that’s the case, but after watching gavage after gavage, I will tell you this: Graham really did seem to like it. After being fed, his eyes would flutter and roll, and he’d collapse in the same heap of satisfaction I reserve for the almost post-coital period that follows a really excellent Sunday brunch buffet. By the end of our stay at Swedish, I’d made a mental note to order foie gras more regularly. And honestly, I sort of wondered what it would be like to have that full belly feeling without actually having to chew and swallow. Some days, that sounded sort of nice.

A problem arose when Graham was upgraded from Sensitive Teeny Baby to Less Sensitive Growing Baby. Unbeknownst to us, it was determined that he qualified for an engine additive. In his case, a powdery substance called Human Milk Fortifier (HMF) would be added to my carefully expressed breast milk at every meal, with the goal of increasing its energy content from 20 to 24 calories per ounce. We noticed something different one day at the 12 p.m. feeding: our normally iron-clad little Graham began yakking up half his meals and failing to completely digest what stayed inside. When I asked the nurse for an explanation, she waved away my worry, saying some babies just don’t take to the HMF well. I wasn’t satisfied. Why was only half the amount of my super-charged breast milk preferable to a full dose of the natural stuff? “This is the way we do it,” she said. I thought of my beloved veal piccata, and wondered if cow mamas get pissed off when their calves’ milk supply is altered with whatever petrifying array of chemicals the beef industry might add. One more checkmark for natural milk-fed veal.

That night, I opened Graham’s little refrigerator to find the nurse had added the powder to a full day’s supply of my pumped breast milk. I know formula is a wonderful alternative to breastfeeding if the boob’s not for you, but there in the beeping darkness, I felt like I was at the butt end of a backward interpretation of Deceptively Delicious, that Jessica Seinfeld cookbook that helps parents trick kids into eating their vegetables by sneaking, say, beets, into a batch of brownies. My mind whirled. My pride hurt. Might as well stir pulverized Cheetos into the milk while you’re at it, I thought. We demanded an audience with the nurse practitioner, who agreed to give him straight breast milk until doctors’ rounds the next day.

It’s worth mentioning here that the ISCU also doubles as a training camp for new mothers: The less I could control what happened to my son, the more guilt I felt. The minute my husband and I hit the elevators, I burst into tears. My kid’s diet had been taken out of my jurisdiction before he weighed five pounds. I know someday, someone will give him grape soda, and I won’t be there to stop him from guzzling, but T-minus six weeks seemed a bit early to face the issue. And more than anything, we just didn’t understand: Weren’t the nipple nazis telling us that breast milk is nature’s most perfect food? And who the hell was the crackpot who named it Human Milk Fortifier? Was he trying to freak out new parents? Was there a toy chemistry set hidden somewhere that had a menagerie of animal milk fortifiers? I wanted to prove my kid could grow on my milk alone, but I knew I might not get the chance.

The next day, I went all Michael Pollan on the ISCU docs, issuing my request to feed my baby real food. They rolled their eyes. Oh, she’s one of those. Finally, we were given an ultimatum: Graham would have to gain at least one ounce a day for five days, and pass lab tests assessing how well his body was accepting nutrients from my milk, or go back on the HMF, which apparently allows preemies to digest more nutrients than their bodies are naturally capable of doing at such a young age. (Moo, anyone?) We held our breath and watched the tube.

Graham grown

Between shifts at the hospital, I ate as well as I could, trying to pack enough of that love into my milk so the hospital could test it. I picked squid tacos, because someone told me squid is good for milk supply, and drank fenugreek tea. I envisioned nutrients flooding my body, and dutifully trapped them in miniature sterilized plastic bottles for Graham’s consumption. I pumped and I pumped, and then I pumped some more. I pumped so much milk I began to consider making breast cheese using the contents of what I now know was our appropriately named chest freezer. And each time we visited Swedish Hospital, we gave encouragement. Eat local, buddy, we pleaded. It doesn’t get any more local than this. When the time came, we passed the test—Graham was given permission to continue on plain breast milk.

Since then, he’s thrived. He learned to eat from a bottle—suck, swallow, breathe, we chanted—and did it frequently enough that he could be discharged. He came home and has mastered breastfeeding. His disengaging sounds like a bike pump being ripped off the valve stem at 100 psi.

In fact, Graham now has three chins and saddlebags, and we couldn’t be prouder. He’d be great to eat, I’m sure, if I was into that sort of thing. For now, though, I’ll stick to veal picatta and foie gras. My son will have his basic organic boob milkshake, until he’s big enough to start throwing his vegetables across the room. In public, I’ll whine appropriately with the other moms about how hard it is to feed a two-year-old. At home I’ll just smile, thrilled that Graham grew old enough and strong enough to choose what goes into his mouth.

About Jess Thomson

Jess Thomson is a Seattle-based freelance writer and cookbook author. Her work has appeared in various publications, including SunsetEdible Seattle, and Food & Wine. She’s the winner of the 2012 MFK Fisher Award for Excellence in Culinary Writing, and also the voice behind the food blog Hogwash. Her third cookbook, Dishing Up Washington, will be released in November 2012.

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  1. Chris G, those terms were meant to be scary and off-putting! My hope was that they portrayed how I felt treated in our NICU, now almost a decade ago. I’d hope that none of your patients feel or have ever felt that way in your ward.

  2. As a pediatric/neonatal nurse, I’m offended by some of your references to preemies. “Meat baby” and “going to slaughter,” especially for new parents not in the medical field. Your terms could be scary and off-putting.