I so related to Little Bump’s post, “Pour me a glass of red wine — or not”! Dietary restrictions for pregnant women are more than understandable…but are they all justified? Here’s what I found out (from a piece I originally posted on my old blog in December, 2013):
Holidays in the danger zone
The beef smelled delicious, its perfectly seasoned perfume making my mouth water as I gratefully took my plate and set it down in front of me. My portion was red inside, and swimming in traces of blood — just like I like it.
Normally. But this Christmas, things were different.
“This looks great,” I told my mother-in-law, “but I think I have to microwave it till it’s not pink anymore.”
Although she’s almost ridiculously excited about her future grandchild, my mother-in-law threw up her hands, deeply offended. My father-in-law, ever the peacemaker, gently reminded her that it didn’t mean the meat wasn’t good; I just had to be careful. Trying to avoid the daggers coming out of her eyes, I quietly got up and slipped over to the microwave. It’s not that I wanted to do this at all — I love rare meat, and my mother-in-law is a great cook who knows how to get the maximum amount of flavor out of each dish. But visions of toxoplasmosis and listeriosis were dancing in my head. The microwave pinged and I sat back down at the table. Now the meat on my plate was dull and brown, the mushrooms around it slightly dried out.
After the main course came the cheese plate. There are over 400 varieties of cheese in France, and my mother-in-law always finds unusual and/or pricey ones for us to taste. This year, the star was brie de Savarin (Brillat-savarin), which she told us had been her grandfather’s favorite holiday treat. I took some, carefully removing the rind, as pregnant women are told to do. The cheese tasted buttery and light as air. I took some more.
….A few generous helpings later, I suddenly stopped. “Is this cheese pasteurized?”
My mother-in-law looked at the label. “Yes,” she told me, “it’s fine.”
But when I looked later, nothing on the label indicated it was pasteurized or not.
I realized then that, despite my in-laws’ intense enthusiasm for their future grandchild, I was in a culinary danger zone.
My mother-in-law is one of those people who manifests her love through her cooking. I used to think I did this, too, but then I met her and realized my own homemade cuisine is but a squeaky voice to her culinary, motherly lioness roar. Because of this love-food connection, she believes everyone eats everything without any kind of problem or issue. I’ve been able to hide the fact that I’m an exception to this sacred rule in the past, in various ways, including a shameful incident where a bundle of farm fresh eggplants was secretly thrown into a compost heap in the park behind our apartment. But here, on her turf, this was about far more than my least favorite vegetable.
The crazy thing is, when it comes to pregnancy dietary restrictions, of the two of us, my mother-in-law may actually have been the more reasonable one.
Here’s a short list of some things that most American and French health professionals will tell you not to consume (or, in some cases, to consume only in very limited qualities) when you’re pregnant:
The rinds of soft cheeses
By some cruel coincidence, these are all major elements of French holiday meals.
In many ways, I’m pretty lucky — a non-smoker, not a big drinker, no penchant for unpasteurized dairy products (unlike my husband, who worships wheels of camembert au lait cru) or foie gras and its far more ethical cousin, pâté. But there are some things it’s hard to turn down. Although I’m not a huge seafood fan, buttered toast with fish eggs or smoked salmon on top has become my favorite non-dessert food to eat at holiday time. I never would have thought such a thing would be so delicious to my not-very-refined palette, but oh, do I wait eagerly for the holidays each year, just to gorge myself on toasts — and this year, I couldn’t.
Or maybe I could?
The most frustrating part of the pregnancy diet (and medication restrictions, as well) is that so much of it is based on theory and probability, not necessarily on concrete evidence. Smoked salmon is a great example of this. While you’d naturally think, well, it’s not raw, it’s also not thoroughly cooked, which means it can contain listeria bacteria. Listeria doesn’t usually harm most people, but when you’re pregnant, it can flat-out kill your unborn kid.
Interestingly, cases of listeria poisoning from smoked salmon are extremely rare — so rare, in fact, that the UK’s National Health Service says it’s perfectly all right for pregnant women to eat it. The US and France are more divided, though. In both countries, some medical specialists say you absolutely should not take the risk, no matter how small, while others feel it’s ridiculous to deprive oneself of a food that’s not only delicious, but also has a ton of health benefits for mother and fetus.
When you’re pregnant, there will always be someone — maybe even yourself — saying, “It’s not that big a risk, I’m going to go for it.” But another part of you will have this little nagging doubt, even so. What if this one drink does hurt my baby in some way? What if this piece of smoked salmon I’m about to eat is going to be one of those rare, one-in-a-million ones that’s contaminated with listeria?
Some pregnancy food restrictions come from misunderstandings. For example, I’d read on French medical websites that pregnant women shouldn’t eat lardons (thick smoked bacon bits). Although I’m not a huge fan, they can be hard to avoid, since they’re a major component of a lot of French dishes. I spent a few weeks carefully examining everything I was served at friends’ houses or restaurants, and then it occurred to me to ask why there was a restriction. After a lot of research, I found reputable sources that explained lardons are perfectly fine to eat cooked, just not raw. I was shocked — I’d never heard of anyone eating lardons raw. Other people must have also assumed that no one would eat them raw, and so they’d just spread the information that lardons in general were off-limits.
Another thing that shocks me is the fact that sometimes there are solutions or compromises for food restrictions, but that these are rarely suggested when you’re told what you can’t eat. For example, if the problem with smoked salmon is that it’s not cooked enough, I started to wonder why it, like that rare beef I’d been served, couldn’t just be zapped in the microwave. After a lot of research, I discovered that this actually was possible. The salmon (which also should be store-bought and pre-packaged, and kept refrigerated) should be microwaved until steam is rising from it, and this does give the fish a somewhat different texture and taste, but it’s better than nothing. And so, I was able to eat my beloved toasts au saumon fumé, or at least a modified version of them.
Why are things not made clearer, you might wonder, or why aren’t there more solutions that would allow pregnant women to find some way to eat the things they want, or at least a reasonable substitute? Throughout my pregnancy, I’ve found that there seems to be this undercurrent of belief — especially among people who’ve never been pregnant themselves — that whether you’re talking about dietary restrictions or health issues like rashes, pregnancy is all about suffering and sacrifice. While your unborn child should obviously be a priority, I can’t help but think that maybe this idea of the saintly mom-to-be taking one for the team…and then another…and then another… isn’t very reasonable or fair.
People think that being pregnant changes you. And it does, I can totally confirm. Obviously your body is different, and your appetite and responses to smells might change, too. And obviously you’re thinking about and bonding in some way with your “womb-mate”, as my sister likes to say. But fundamentally, you’re also you — a human being, not a mere vessel. Human beings generally don’t like to be uncomfortable or in pain or not allowed to do things that make them happy. Guess what? Pregnant women are no exception.
If you go on French pregnancy forums, what to eat for the holidays is often a big discussion. Many moms-to-be confess to just going for it and indulging a little, even if their doctors have told them not to. In a country where food is more a sign of the holidays than lights or carols, I can totally understand. At the same time, of course, you cringe, wondering if the woman who ate that foie gras at dinner last night wasn’t taking a terrible risk (turns out, she may not have been — prepackaged foie gras bought at a grocery store, rather than made at home or on a local farm, should be all right, according to an article I read recently).
As for me, I’m now back at our place, out of the culinary danger zone. Our cheeses are pasteurized, our meat is cooked — maybe over-cooked. But what’s still here is lingering worry. How much risk did my womb-mate run from that brie I ate? And would the amount of stress I’ve put into thinking about what to eat and not to eat — the stress it seems almost all expectant mothers have –be put to better use in finding concrete answers and solutions? Women have been kept down for centuries through strategies like lack of education. It’s sad to think that even in countries where we’re basically considered equal to men, these same things can make pregnancy more of an ordeal than it has to be. Maybe the danger zone isn’t my in-laws’ rural, traditional French kitchen after all, but society in general.