Nursery Food

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

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Nursery Food is a phrase with a double meaning in English usage. It is that fed to infants and children in their proper realms, the nursery and the schoolroom. Alternatively, it is bland food consumed with relish by adults (usually male) for its pricking of the memory of infant bliss. In America, it is more matter-of-factly called comfort food.

The first food of infants is human milk but much effort has been expended to lessen the dependence of the child on its mother (see Fildes, 1988). The clever biological trick that protects nursing women from pregnancy might result in birth intervals of more than three years in foraging societies; agriculture and more available food would reduce this period, hence the rise in population that occurred once we turned from hunter-gathering. However, patriarchy and the desire for women to re-engage in sexual relations (as well as, in early modern Europe for example, the medical view that feeding the colostrum immediately after birth was a bad thing) encouraged the practice of wet nursing in many societies, ancient and modern. Wet nursing, it might be observed, was not invariably practised on the young alone. Pantaleone da Confienza, the 15th-century writer on cheese, advised that human milk be used as a regular food, and the Cambridge humanist John Caius (of Gonville and Caius College) ‘is said to have lived the last few years of his life on human milk’ (Albala, 2002). Further distancing of mother and infant occurred with the adoption of formula milks developed by Justus von Liebig in 1860 and Henri Nestlé in 1867 and, later, with the invention of evaporated and condensed milk. Weaning from liquid nourishment to solid is an event that has occurred ever earlier in the child’s life. In 18th-century Montpellier, girls were weaned at 18 months and boys at 24. Today, the norm is about 6 months. First foods are usually pap, porridge, gruel, or mush, either premasticated by mother herself (especially in gathering societies, but also noted by many Tudor medical writers), or made from cereals and water, whey, or milk—though weak beer was thought more healthful for the 6-year-old Prince Henry of England in 1273. This was the beginning of a generally bland and undemanding diet that neither exercised the jaws—though breakfast for the Earl of Northumberland’s children in 1513 included boiled mutton bones—nor assaulted fledgling palates. Many recall the regimen with horror, as did the Victorian novelist Charlotte M. Yonge, ‘Breakfast and supper were alike dry bread and milk. I so much disliked the hot bowl of boiled milk and cubes of bread that I was allowed to have mine separately, but butter was thought unwholesome. … As to eggs, ham, jam and all the rest, no one dreamt of giving them to children.’ Such a diet, certainly from the Renaissance onwards, was endorsed and prescribed by a medical opinion obsessed by the functioning of the digestion, much to the detriment of infant contentment.