Friday, September 13, 2013

Eating While Pregnant

Dear Boo,

Though you'd never know it from my presence here (or lack thereof), the last few (lets say six) months have been an absolute bear, full of activity, stress, excitement, deadlines, to-do lists, and lots of growth (in more ways than one). All of a sudden, I turn around and here I am, sitting on an inflatable "birth ball" at my desk, nine whole months pregnant, unemployed, with a quiet internal clock tick tocking away at all times in the back of my head counting down the time until life changes forever.

It's been quite a ride.

Six months. And I thought I was big THEN.
One of the very first things you hear upon visiting the doctor and finding out that yes, indeed, you do have a little passenger along for this ride and no, you're not the one in a million who took not one but two defective pregnancy tests from different brands that you made your husband go out in the middle of the night to Duane Reade to get where he ran into your mother, naturally, and had to pretend he was there on an urgent mission for tin foil, is that there are certain things you must not eat for the next 10 months. These include but are not limited to: alcohol, raw fish, cured meats, deli meat, pate, some fish, most soft cheeses, anything unpasteurized, runny egg yolks, and organ meats. I leapt with joy (as much as I was able, being as exhausted and in caffeine withdrawal as I was) when my doctor actually suggested caffeine as a way to treat headaches while I couldn't have painkillers. Turns out a cup a day is no big thing, thank the lord.

Almost all of these "don'ts" have mixed evidence to support their ban (this woman just wrote a whole book about debunking some of this conventional wisdom), and my doctor has been reassuringly relaxed about the whole thing: "If it didn't make you sick before, it probably won't make you sick now. Just be smart and don't get cold cuts from some disgusting deli on the corner." She even permitted a glass of wine a week after the sensitive first trimester. Which is great, because all of this fear-mongering, worst case scenario-ing, tsk-tsking, it's not about you anymore, right when you're trying to come to terms with what this all means for YOU and your LIFE and your PARTNER, especially for someone who takes comfort and pleasure and finds community and even identity through food, is a real bummer. I remember early on, reading a blog post by someone bemoaning this whole restrictive, shaming approach to pregnancy eating and claiming that the amount of stress it induced in her was likely more harmful to her baby than just having a damn sip of wine or a piece of salmon sushi. I remember scoffing at it, thinking I would never be that wound up pregnant lady and that I could hold off on a few of life's pleasures for a few months, no problem. Cut to me, six months pregnant, in Spain on our babymoon, wiping tears away as I talked to my doctor on the phone, convinced after getting violently but temporarily ill that I had contracted Listeriosis and threatened the life of our baby from the cured ham I ate at the bar the night before. (This, mind you, after asking my doctor explicitly about this before our trip and being told by her, "I ate proscuitto all through my pregnancy. Have some ham, you're going to Spain.") Turns out it was more likely the churros for breakfast, cod fritters for lunch, and cream-filled pastry for dessert that did it than some rogue bacteria. Overeating is overeating, pregnant or no.

oh, but those churros were worth it.
The point is, I've been thinking about my experience eating during pregnancy a lot lately, mostly because a) thinking about eating is what I do, pregnant or not, and b) because pretty much the second most popular question I'm asked after, "how do you feel?" is "have you had any weird cravings?" and I've realized a few things.

First, the pregnant stomach is a decisive stomach. At least in my experience. While normally, my plague of indecisiveness hits hard at dinner time, when ordering in versus eating what we have in our fridge, pad thai versus arepas versus a turkey burger takes on epic proportions, since housing a demanding and frequently hungry guest with her own set of taste buds, things have become much simpler. I wake up from a nap and want lasagna. Nothing but lasagna. One trip to the store and a short time later, I am waddling out of the kitchen barefoot with a casserole dish, an image you and the Husband got a lot of mileage out of. A group of friends is debating where to go for dinner, and wisely and sensitively, ask the pregnant lady what she would like. Instantly, the milling about on the sidewalk ends as I declare we will be eating burgers and take off down the block. In a sea of, is this okay? is this normal? is the baby okay? am I okay? how will I know what to do? I'm never going to know what to do. I have to resolve all of my issues in the next six months before I am fit to parent, the clarity with which my body has approached eating is a relief. It's as if my stomach is reminding me, we know what to do. Don't waste your precious time. Trust your instincts. From what I've heard, pregnancy is a great precursor to the endless stream of advice and opinions and judgment one gets from every possible source as a parent. Strangers, grandparents, newspaper articles, doctors, celebrities, everyone will have an absolute truth about the right and wrong way to do things, and from what I can tell, it is a parent's job to sift through this, say thank you, and check in with one's own gut, one's own child, and one's own values and intelligence to decide what is right for each of us. For me, this process has started with eating during pregnancy. This welcome decisiveness of my body with regards to what it wants and needs has been a necessary antidote to the noise.

Eating during pregnancy has also been the first experience I've had in balancing my needs with my baby's needs, an essential lesson for parenting, I can only assume. Sometimes I want a second piece of chocolate cake. Does my baby NEED this cake? Is a ton of refined sugar the best thing I could give her? Probably not. But is it dangerous? Nope. And sometimes a happy mother is what's best for her and sometimes that's what we go with. And then there are times when I'm not hungry, but the kick in my ribs tells me someone else probably is, and while I could happily get a milkshake and be done with it, I have a bowl of kale and an organic egg because she needs her greens and she needs her protein and that's important to both of us. As I obsess about my fears about losing my identity, how one can possibly balance being an artist and being a mother, and how the course of my future will be shaped by bringing this person into the world, I am already practicing how to maintain balance. How to take care of myself and of her. How to honor not only my needs but my desires, all while recognizing, meeting and protecting hers. All in a day's lunch.

And finally, that sweet tooth I thought I lost for good back about a decade ago? Turns out it was just lying dormant. No wild cravings to speak of, but my love for all things baked and sweet has returned with a vengeance. It feels like a throwback to my college days when a cookie the size of a dinner plate just wasn't big enough. Even sweet breakfasts, which I normally abhor--cold honey-dipped cereal, pancakes with syrup, muffins--have caught my eye again. What does it all mean? Who knows. Will it disappear again once this little one is on the outside, or were the past ten years just a salty blip? Who is to say. Chalk it all up to the great big mystery that is motherhood and life. I'm just along for the ride, trying to savor the uncertainty rather than spit it out.

In honor of my newly rediscovered taste for dessert and the special sweetness of this time, despite the panic, anxiety, and never-ending to-do list, I give you these brownies, which I have made about three times since getting pregnant and always to rave reviews. I love them because intensely sweet though they are, for the potato chip lover in me, they've also got a punch of salt. A sweet and salty balancing act, just like pregnancy. Also, while I absolutely adore Ina's Outrageous Brownies, I swear I end up spending like $50 on the ingredients each time I make them. This has all of the outrageousness at a more economical and manageable price, another welcome bonus for those of us rapidly hemorrhaging money and likely to continue doing so for the next 20 or so years.

36 weeks and counting! Tick, tock...


The Mouse

Photo courtesy of the Food Network. Each time I have made these, I've neglected to take a picture. Chalk it up to pregnancy brain and the fact that no one wants to stop eating them long enough to snap a shot. 

Salted Caramel Brownies
from The Barefoot Contessa: Foolproof

1/2 lb (2 sticks) unsalted butter
8 oz plus 6oz Hershey's semisweet chocolate chips
3 oz unsweetened chocolate
3 extra-large eggs
1.5 tablespoons instant coffee granules, such as Nescafe
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, divided
1.5 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
5 to 6 oz good caramel sauce (not dulce de leche, which has added milk or cream)
2 to 3 teaspoons flaked sea salt 

Preheat oven to 350. Butter and flour a 9x12x1.5 in baking pan.

Melt the butter, 8 oz of the chocolate chips, and the unsweetened chocolate together in a medium bowl set over simmering water. Allow to cool for 15 minutes. In a large bowl, stir (do not beat) together the eggs, coffee, vanilla, and sugar. Stir the chocolate mixture into the egg mixture and allow to cool to room temperature. Make sure not to skip this step or the chips will melt and ruin everything. :)

In a medium bowl, sift together 1/2 cup of flour, the baking powder, and salt and add to the choocolate mixture. Toss the remaining 6 oz of chocolate chips and the remaining 2 tablespoons of flour in a medium bowl and add them to the chocolate mixture. Spread evenly in the prepared pan. 

Bake for 35 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. As soon as the brownies are out of the oven, drizzle the caramel over the top of the brownies. If you need to, microwave the jar until its pourable and stir until smooth. Sprinkle the brownies with the sea salt. Cool completely before cutting.