Finally, Fermentation: Making Yogurt at Home

When I was reworking the template for this site, trying to make it a little more blog-y and a little less Angelfire/Geocities, I added the subtitle “Family // Fermentation // Faith” mostly because those are the things I like to spend my time thinking about and doing, and also alliteration. But while I’ve written a lot about family and a little about faith, I haven’t touched on fermentation, which is completely nuts because HAVE YOU MET ME?

At one point a couple weeks ago, we had a sourdough starter, lacto-fermented red cabbage kraut, yogurt, goat cheese, and plum vinegar all fermenting in the kitchen, plus all manner of pickles hogging counter space, a whole heap of homebrew supplies occupying the top of the fridge, not to mention the fermented and fermentables we buy from other people: sour beers and pet-nat wines and raw milk cheese and shrubs and ciders and miso and and and and. We’re not even the most ferment-obsessed people we know.

I’m actually not particularly skilled at the “set it and forget it” variety of fermentation–chop some cabbage, toss with salt, weigh down, and boom! kraut! or mix up some flour and water and leave in a corner of your kitchen, feeding with more flour and water, and boom! starter!– mostly because those are the exact two steps I am able to do: 1) Set it; and 2) Forget it; with primary emphasis on the second step, and zero attention paid to the unwritten third step which is 3) Unforget it, because you actually need to check on it, oh whoops, now your starter is covered in some crap called hooch and your kraut wasn’t submerged enough and has become a giant slime pile that smells like the annual convention of all farts ever to have existed in the world.

Somehow, though, the 30-minute-squeeze-into-naptime-after-you-snarf-a-PBJ-and-maybe-take-a-shower-jk-about-that-shower project tends to typically work out, such that I’ve been able to consistently make yogurt and occasionally make cheese for us. Yogurt is a couple of ingredients, just a few steps, and lots of fun to make (I mean, for people like me who delight at milk being turned into other things, which I assume you are, too, if we’re friends.)

Here’s what you’ll need to get started:

  • Half-gallon of milk, not ultra-pasteurized
  • Half-cup of your favorite plain yogurt
  • Glass jars for storing yogurt
  • Double boiler or a metal bowl that can fit snugly atop a pot
  • Kitchen thermometer
  • Some kitchen towels or cloth napkins or those receiving blankets you brought home from the hospital because, seriously, what else are you using them for?
  • A warm spot (between 90°F and 110°F)– a gas oven with a pilot light works great, or you can start the preheating cycle on an electric oven at the lowest temp for a couple of minutes, turn it off, and shut the door. Other people have used crock pots, coolers, heating pads, lots of towels, etc., for incubating yogurt– just don’t start a fire or anything, and make sure your temp is around 100°F so that the cultures can incubate and thicken within a relatively safe time frame. 

A few notes:

There are only two ingredients in yogurt, so try to make them the best you can! Homemade yogurt is so much less expensive than store-bought that you can afford to go schmancy on the milk. Also, full fat, for the love of God. This is not 1985.

Unstrained, the yield is pretty close to 1:1 milk to yogurt, meaning that a half-gallon of milk will yield close to half-gallon of yogurt.  You can easily cut the recipe in half, if you don’t go through yogurt like I do, which is akin to the yogurt intake of a professional yogurt eating team in spring training.

You can use any plain yogurt with live cultures to culture your yogurt, whether it’s strained/Greek or not, but I like to choose something I like the flavor and texture of unstrained, because it’s a more clear indication of how your own yogurt will turn out unstrained.

Okay, on with the show!

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Make sure everything you’re using– jars, lids, pot, bowl, double boiler, any spoons or spatulas, thermometer probe, etc– are all cleaned and sterilized.  Since you’re trying to grow microbes in your yogurt, you want to get rid of anything extraneous–your kitchen has plenty of microbes that can cause wonky stuff in your finished yogurt, but those things are easily controlled with a good wash and sanitizing routine. I wash with hot and soapy water, and then sterilize either in boiling water or according to the package instructions on something like Star San Sanitizer, which you can use if you homebrew, too.

If you go with cream-top or unhomogenized milk, you can either leave the hunk o’cream in the milk as you warm it, or scoop it out and use it in your coffee or spread it on bread or something equally delicious, which is what I usually do.  Sometimes that extra butterfat doesn’t totally integrate into the yogurt once it’s chilled, and leaves little unincorporated globs of fat on the top of the yogurt.  Not the worst thing in the world, but I prefer to use it elsewhere.

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Fill the bottom of a double boiler or a stockpot with hot water (no need to go with cold from the tap, since you’re just using the water to heat) and place over high heat. Fill the top of the double boiler or the metal bowl atop your pot with milk.

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Heat the milk to between 180°F and 195°F.  You’re essentially re-pasteurizing the milk (or pasteurizing it for the first time, if you’re starting with raw), not because you hate raw milk and its proponents, but because you’re going to introduce live cultures and leave them at a temperature at which you want them to get comfy and grow– so you only want the cultures you’re introducing to grow, not any random hangers-on.  This step creates a blank canvas for your yogurt.  It also serves to denature some of the proteins in the milk (similar to the way that heat helps to denature proteins in whey when making ricotta), which will help the yogurt coagulate later.

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Remove the top of the double boiler or the bowl containing your milk and set to cool on a trivet or heat-safe surface.  If you’d like to speed up the cooling process, you can place the bowl of milk in a container of cool water and stir gently.

Cool the milk to between 100°F and 115°F and gently stir in your yogurt. Stir up and down, back and forth, and around, so that the yogurt is evenly distributed throughout the milk. Pour the milk and yogurt mixture into your jars, and place the lids on top. Wrap with kitchen towels/cloth napkins/receiving blankets/cloth diapers (jk, kind of), and place in your oven with pilot light or other warm place. We keep a thermometer in our oven so that I can tell what temp it is, which I highly recommend.

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I like to stick the jars on a sheet pan so that they don’t wobble too much when pulling the rack in and out of the oven.

Leave the jars in the oven for six to eight hours.  If I’m making yogurt during the day, I’ll check it after six hours to see if some whey has started to separate, if it’s thickened, and if it’s as tart as I’d like, and if not, I’ll let it keep culturing for another couple hours.  If I’m letting it culture overnight, though, I’ll just put it in the oven before bed, and check it when I’m up (assuming that’s a full eight hours and Winnie didn’t wake up at 4:30 am again.)  When you check the texture, keep in mind that it will continue to thicken once cooled in the fridge.

During this incubation period, the second transformation (following the transformation through heat that we initiated earlier) is taking place: the live cultures in the scoop of yogurt you added are eating the lactose in the milk, and converting the lactose to lactic acid.  Then, the lactic acid is changing the structure of the proteins in the milk, breaking them apart and reforming them, thickening the milk into yogurt. It’s the same sort of thing that happens in creme fraiche, and it’s one of the beginning steps of cheesemaking, too.

I’ve recommended six to eight hours because that’s what’s worked for me, but you could experiment with shorter or longer culturing times, as well– keeping in mind that longer times may carry a small food safety risk, since you’re keeping a high-moisture product in the temperature “danger zone” for a longer period of time, though acid production would mitigate the risk on some level.  Anyway, you do you, and your yogurt, too.

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When your yogurt is done, you’ll notice a little bit of yellow-ish, clear whey starting to separate.  You can either pour this off, strain it out (I like a fine mesh strainer as opposed to butter muslin or cheesecloth– easier to clean), or stir it in.  Your yogurt, your call.

Homemade yogurt with Blenheim apricots, dried wild Maine blueberries, and a drizzle of raw honey

 

Make sure to scoop out a smidge while it’s still warm– it’s one of the singular delights of making your own yogurt at home.

Check out these resources for other methods and more info:

Homemade Yogurt | David Lebovitz 

The Science of Great Yogurt | Brod & Taylor

Interview with Sandor Katz | The Splendid Table

Fermenting Yogurt at Home | National Center for Home Food Preservation

Happy yogurting!

Hello again, Maine

Golden, dreamy September, I remember you.  Your days were longer than your ol’ pal December’s (heyyy there pineal gland— joke’s on you!).

After our inaugural trip to Portland, Maine, this summer, we were itching to get back up north.  On our way out of town in June, we stopped in at the inimitable Rabelais Books and picked up some incredible tomes/life-advice/lunch recs/suggestion to attend the Common Ground Fair, produced by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

And that is how, being not a farmer nor much of a gardener nor a Mainer, I ended up as a card-carrying member of MOFGA.

Not all that sure what we were getting ourselves into (I signed us up for talks on working cattle in a woodlot, goat hoof trimming, backyard grain growing, foraging wild plants, and a whole heap of cider chats), we packed up our camping gear, bundled up the babe, and hit the road.

We planned on hitting the road a little later in the day, and so we booked an Airbnb for our first night, rather than trying to set up a campsite late at night.  We lucked into a spot in an old farmhouse on a working farm, where Winnie met goats, chickens, a couple of calves, some horses, pigs, and her favorite— the turkeys!

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It turned out that our hosts were pals with fermentation guru Sandor Katz (known to our hosts as Sandy, because duh), and that Katz wrote a good portion of his wildly important (get it?!) fermentation book at the farm.  MAYBE EVEN IN THE ROOM WHERE WE STAYED, Y’ALL.  Also, there was a composting toilet (which made Mike unspeakably happy, marital surprise number 37), the first of MANY on our trip (traveling surprise number 426).

We sat in the most delightful traffic jam of my life (somehow the folks on their way to see blacksmithing demos and friction fire classes were way less aggro than Brooklyn drivers), inching down winding roads tucked in fields of wildflowers (the number of Priuses sent it into twee overdrive) before parking the car and starting the picturesque walk into the fair through a low-impact common woodlot (also there were really cute composting toilet outhouses on this walk—no joke).

I’m pretty much living my life on the lookout for draft animals, so this was no big stretch:

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Just outside the path through the woodlot stood a coffee cart that served one kind of coffee (hot, no decaf, correct), brewed using a stockpot of boiling water set on a burner built into the cart, ground by hand over the cart’s tire, and brewed via no-fuss no-frills pourover system.  Not pictured: the ring of mismatched chairs next to the cart with a sign defining them as the “Euro-style café”.

In case you’re wondering, Coffeeman is relegated to the area just outside of the fair, as the fair only allows the sale of goods grown and produced in Maine.  A coffee climate, it is not, and man cannot live by roasted dandelion root and hot cider alone.

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A note:  naturally, since we were headed out on a vacation with tons of natural light, a cute kid, and furry animals, we forgot the camera at home.  You’re going to have to trudge through over-filtered iPhone snaps, and for that I am truly sorry.

Winnie was over the moon with all of the snacks and plants and grass in which to run around in.  Also, kid can rock a double layer of fleece like no one I know.

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Given that I was deep in Cider Week planning mode, the weekend was heavy on apples, so as to assuage my guilt for working remotely from a foresty wonderland.

See!  Tiny tots working the apple press.  Watch those little fingers, kiddos, and drink that stuff before it’s bubbly.

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One of the major highlights of the weekend was meeting the legendary preservation pomologist (how’s that for a job title?) John Bunker.  I had heard whispers of Bunker as the “apple hunter”, identifying wild and rare apple varieties found growing in backyards, on abandoned farm plots, and the like.

Bunker’s booth at the fair was incredible— a visual illustration of the biodiversity present in apples, alongside what must be the world’s greatest wanted posters.*  People approached the apple hunter with apples bundled in handkerchiefs, noting they had just bought some land downeast and had noticed the gangly fruit borne on what appeared to be apple trees— had John seen this kind before?  After a visual inspection and a taste, of course, he pegged the variety, and grew the greenhorns’ knowledge base a little more.

*Each of those four words links to a different wanted apple poster, which you can’t tell with this quirky layout, sorry!

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Winnie was most excited about animals at a distance, particularly large ruminants, at whom she was more than happy to shout “MOOOOOO!  BAAAA!  NEIGH! MEGGHRRRHHHGG (goat)!” from about 10 yards away, but whose size rendered her speechless any closer.

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But when it came to poultry, of course, Winnie was game.

(I’m sorry.)

This gal loves her chickens.  She squatted down beside these ladies for at least 20 minutes, quietly bock-bocking in conversation, monitoring the behavior of other young ones around their pen, and then requesting that we visit the rest of the chickens, turkeys, and ducks inside the poultry barn (this request went like, “mo’ bock bock, mommy? mo’? mo’?”)

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We stopped off to buy provisions near our campsite in Freeport (aside: we camped at a spot called Desert of Maine, which is basically like a historical monument to the dangers of monocropping and overgrazing), and while I got a forgotten prescription refilled (WTG, mom), Mike spent some pretty quality time with our babe.

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Our little campsite with our little camper:

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Thing we knew about our baby before we went to Maine: gal loves beans.  Thing we did not know about our baby before we went to Maine: OH MY GOD DOES THIS GIRL EVER LOVE BEANS.

On our way to the fair the next day, we stopped at Rolly’s Diner in Auburn, a really delightful diner with a colorful early-bird crowd and the Platonic ideal of diner food with some French Canadian flair thrown in.  We ordered Winnie pancakes with Maine blueberries and Maine maple syrup (because duh) but she wasn’t interested because I had something far better on my plate— a cup piled high with steaming baked beans.  Winnie finished the entire thing before moving on to a few pancake nibbles.

Throughout the weekend, Mike and I were continually impressed with the food culture of Maine, and not just in a new-American-farm-to-table sort of way (though certainly there are excellent pockets of that culture) but also with the foodways of Maine.  The iron cauldrons full of simmering beans then buried in a stone-lined pit under glowing coals, a tradition known as beanhole, was among the most heart-and-gut-warming of the weekend.  The next day, a couple of burly dudes dug those pots out, hoisted them up, and began dishing out tiny, hot cups of porky, maple sweetened beans.

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When we walked by the smoldering coals earlier in the weekend, we explained to Winnie that beans would be buried there, and while she slept through the unearthing, she woke up immediately after we got our hands on those sweet, sweet beans.

She was so overwhelmed when she woke up with the prospect of beans (and also, daylight, consciousness, the rain, etc) that she immediately burst into tears and sobbed for a solid three minutes before silently digging into her beans with singular focus.

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What an adorable little weirdo.

There were tons of families and educational resources in each section of the fair, and I fell in love with these books:

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Mike and I will always be cheese people, forever and ever, and it turns out so will the folks at the Common Ground Fair.  We stood in a long, snaking line to gain entrance to the “cheese tent” and saw tons of incredible fresh and fermented dairy products all over.  We were particularly enamored with the Balfour Farm cultured cream and yogurts (we fed Winnie cultured cream in place of yogurt for a week, which was really hard because I had to taste it and make sure it was, ya know, up to par every time I made her breakfast), as well every single cheese from Tide Mill Creamery, whose sweet little bloomies boasted delicate, paper thin rinds encasing a supple, custardy paste with all the cruciferous funk of Camembert, but clean-clean-clean as could be on the finish.  With every bite I blurted out, “Seriously.  Seriously, Mike.  Seriously,” which I can only assume means they were seriously, seriously delicious.

Also of note: Thirty Acre Farm’s lacto-fermented veggies, which might be the best fermented thing I’ve ever put in my mouth, which is saying something since the best things I put in my mouth are always fermented.  So, you know, lots of competition.

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We left the fair laden down with gallons of maple syrup, pounds upon pounds upon pounds of wild blueberries, several kinds of sauerkraut, several cheeses, raw milk and fresh cider, and a bunch of books.  Also, we all knew a lot more about blacksmithing than we did when we arrived.

The Monday after the fair, we decided to hang around in Portland for the day to catch Rowan Jacobsen chat about the biodiversity of apples and his book Apples of Uncommon Character at Space Gallery.  During the day, I worked from a coffee shop in Downtown Portland while Mike and Winnie packed up the campsite.

I took a break for oysters, naturally.

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We managed to squeeze in a few other meals and tooling around, and we took Winnie to the Portland Public Library to play, while I worked in the afternoon. If you know me, you know I LOVE PUBLIC LIBRARIES SO MUCH and the Portland Public Library is like, top five public libraries of my life and THAT INCLUDES PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARIES IT IS THAT GREAT.  Here are some other spots we loved on this trip and last that I didn’t manage to work into either of the Maine posts:

Pai Men Miyake— Killer ramen, great beer selection, prices that reminded us that we weren’t in New York anymore, in the best way possible.

Urban Farm Fermentory— Delightful kombucha, cider, and mead, housed in a super cool food collaboration center.

Novare Res Bier Cafe— I cannot overstate how great this spot is, from the incredible bottle list to the well-curated rotating draft list to the massive outdoor deck to the CORNHOLE housed on said deck.  I took more than one conference call on that deck, and they were the best conference calls of my life.

Fore Street— EVERYTHING HERE IS THE BEST.  Really, every bite I took was like a standing ovation to Maine’s farmers and fishermen.

The Standard Baking Co.— The bakery outpost of Fore Street, above. Chewy, crackly-crusted loaves and decadent baked goods, so obviously you should live here.

Portland Farmers Market— Right, so, of course the most populous city in the state whose food culture I’ve been raving about has a great farmers market.  Also, year round!

Rosemont Market— It’s not a vacation for Mike and me unless we manage to visit some grocery stores, so Rosemont was on our must-do list.  We loved these little markets around town.

Maine Beer Company— Obviously.

The Holy Donut— Maine potato donuts with flavors like Allen’s Coffee Brandy, Dark Chocolate Sea Salt, and Ginger Glazed Sweet Potato.

J’s Oyster— The day we visited J’s Oyster (which is literally on the harbor, as in, you can probably see the lobster that’s about to go on your plate swimming in the ocean when you walk up) they were being featured in a lobster roll throwdown on the Steve Harvey show.  Boy, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard a bunch of Mainers say “Harvey”— excuse me, HAAAA-vey— about three dozen times.

Susan’s Fish And Chips— I want to eat everything fried from here all day, every day, but that would require way more cardio than I am currently willing to commit to.  But oh, those fried clams.

Treehouse Toys— Fantastic selection of what I’d deem “play focused” toys— that is, toys that require that children play with them rather than doing the playing on their own (in other words, lots of pretend play, puzzles, instruments, puppets, and then like).  Mike and I were both really impressed with the merchandising, and Winnie was really impressed with the fact that a thing called a toy store exists.

Portland Head Light/Fort Williams Park— On our first trip, we stayed in South Portland, just down the road from Cape Elizabeth and the Portland Head Light.  Fort Williams Park is gorgeous, and the head light is so picturesque.  We were stuffed when we arrived, and thus missed out on Bite Into Maine, the lobster roll food truck located in the park, but we heard raves about it for the remainder of the trip, so I consider it to be a major life regret.

Anyway, we’ll be back again, southern Maine— before the lupines bloom next, I’d say.

In which I reference the fact that I teach about cheese and also lactate

Read this first: New Study Finds Link Between Breastfeeding, Always Knowing What’s Right For Everyone

Mike and I have made our careers in milk— carefully fermented milk, actually— and we’ve learned a lot about the molecular structure of milk and about the lactation cycles of various ruminants.  I’ve read books about what makes a good milker, about how to assess an udder, about the volume and butterfat content of differing breeds of cows and goats.  I’ve made pie charts and bar graphs and cleverly captioned pictures of babies to illustrate how and why an animal comes into milk, and what makes certain milk good for cheese.  I’ve attended multiple hours-long lectures identifying defects in milk.  None of this was lost on me as my due date grew closer and the fact that I, a human, a grown woman with opposable thumbs and language skills, was going to make all of the food my baby would need for a whole six months.  FROM MY BODY.  So weird and so, so awesome.

I was so excited to breastfeed, and I wanted to do everything I could to make it happen.  Not everyone can, or wants to, breastfeed, but I desperately wanted to, and I am so glad I dug into that conviction early on, because it wasn’t without some struggle.  Just after she was born, Winnie went straight on my chest, and began nursing within minutes (my mind is still blown by how these teeny babes are wired for survival— check out this Breast Crawl video to see how many feeding skills they have at just moments old!).  The lactation consultant happened to be doing her rounds right as I was moving from the birthing room to the maternity room our first day, and she helped boost my confidence and gave me some pointers, and our daytime nursing staff was such an amazing source of support, as well.  Things shifted our second night.  I’m going to qualify this story by noting that our hospital was, on the whole, great, that our doctors were amazing, most of our nurses incredible, and the staff was kind and competent— also, we were new parents, and sleep deprived, and also I had just gone through the craziest exertion of my life.  That said, I think my understanding of what happened was pretty accurate, so here it is.

Our first day with Winnie was bliss, and our first night was, well, a different kind of bliss, one in which she woke up about every half hour to an hour to feed.  As I learned in our lactation class the next morning, this kind of cluster feeding was a totally normal way for a baby to help stimulate milk production and fill her teeny tiny belly with colostrum on the regular. A second lactation consultant came by to say hello that afternoon, and assured me everything was normal, and that Winnie’s latch was great, and that I was producing plenty for my little babe.  But it was concerning to hear those cries so often, not to mention exhausting. I must have made some comment to the night nurse about being concerned about my milk coming in, or my nursing skills, or something, because the second night, things started to go awry.  She started offering lots of unsolicited advice about my nursing practice (like, for example, not to allow Winnie to use me “as a pacifier”— always a favorite little phrase, since I’m pretty sure pacifiers are basically straight up nipple knockoffs). She started asking if I could hand express “anything” and asked me to do so until she “felt better about” my level of production (this is fewer than 48 hours postpartum).  She brought me a breast pump and showed me how to use it, to stimulate milk production.  I became concerned that I was only pumping a few drops, that my milk hadn’t come in (spoiler alert: it was TOTALLY NORMAL that it hadn’t come in, and it would, WITH GUSTO, the next day.)  I was pumping, and fretting, while Winnie napped on Mike’s chest, during which time I probably should have been getting some sleep, as well.

At around midnight, about 36 hours after Winnie was born, this same nurse came to take Winnie for her Hep B vaccine (which I had fully encouraged).  Winnie had been laying on Mike’s chest doing skin-to-skin under a blanket.  While moms’ bodies regulate temperature pretty perfectly for newborns, dads’ bodies can sometimes overheat— something we learned later, from about three different providers in the retelling of this story.  When Winnie was taken to receive her vaccine, her temperature was elevated (it was still under 100.4).  The nurse calmly explained this to us, and I explained that she had been toasting up under a blanket with dad, and asked if she could take the temperature again.  And here’s where things got weird.  She wouldn’t take the temperature again, and told us that she thought that Winnie was dehydrated, based on her temperature, and that because she believed Winnie to be dehydrated, she recommended we start formula right away.  I asked if there were any other indicators of dehydration (all the while I’m choking back tears and trying not to beat myself up for not taking care of my child, my hours old child!).  ”She’s lost a lot of weight,” she said.  This was news to me.  ”Really?!  How much?” I asked. “An ounce,” she said, “which is almost 7% of her body weight.”  That is, in case you were wondering, TOTALLY NORMAL.  And I knew that, because I had discussed this with my doctors before her birth, and read my books, and knew my shit— not in the way, of course, that a health care professional does, but such that I felt pretty okay advocating for myself and my child.  I should be clear, too, that I get her concern— I know that an elevated temperature in a newborn is a Big Deal, which is why my whole heart sank when she first mentioned Win’s temp.  But as the conversation progressed, my alarm bells started to go off, the first of my parental gut feelings became clear, and I dug in my heels (respectfully, and with every intention of re-evaluating my position.)

So back to our discussion about birth weight— really interesting stuff.  I replied that it was my understanding that anything under 10% weight loss was within normal in the first few days, and that didn’t seem like a reason for concern or an indicator of dehydration.  She countered that the AAP had recently revised their stance, and that newborn weight loss over 7% was no longer considered normal.  Huh.  That’s interesting, and also completely false.  Seven percent weight loss remains the average neonatal weight loss, meaning Winnie was actually below average.  Were there any other indicators of dehydration? Winnie was active, had plenty of wet diapers, I was producing, if not the buckets of milk she thought I should be, at least SOMETHING, and Winnie was nursing vigorously.  It was clear to all of us that we were at an impasse.  Mike was becoming increasingly frustrated.  I was exhausted and upset, feeling as though I had failed so soon.  The nurse repeated her recommendation to start formula, and told us that if we didn’t, and if Winnie’s temperature continued, that she would likely end up in the NICU.  I would like to think that her motivation for saying this was purely professional, from a place of concern— but my gut told me that we were locked in a power struggle, and that throwing out the NICU was a scare tactic.

I asked if we could wait and see, if we could continue to monitor Winnie’s temperature, and I assured her that we would take action should her elevated temperature continue.  ”Well, we’re going to have to take her temperature every hour then,” she said.  Great.  Please do!  Lord knows I love me some data.

Hey, here’s another spoiler alert: guess who had a normal temperature for the next, say, eight months or so?  Yep.  And I marathon nursed that night, determined to make this thing work.  At this point, I knew I could.  I have absolutely nothing against formula, and I know that there are plenty of mothers for whom breastfeeding isn’t possible or desired.  But that wasn’t the case for me, and no-way-no-how was anyone getting in my way.

The next morning, I was dead-tired, but I felt renewed and strong.  I saw a third (third!!) lactation consultant, spoke with her about the events of the previous evening, and recounted them to my OB-GYN, as well.  Both providers were shocked, apologetic, and completely understood my frustration.  My no-nonsense, data-driven, evidence-based OB looked me straight in the eye and told me I had learned a valuable lesson in going with my gut.

I had never been so excited to be home as I was when we arrived home with Winnie.  We slept and nursed and slept and nursed for the next few days.  We made it over that hump in the hospital, but nursing was by no means a breeze from there on out.  We struggled with latch, with cracks and bleeding, but by week three, we were through the worst of it, and in the groove.

At four months, I went back to work, and my heart ached.  I cried through every pumping session, looking at pictures of my baby girl.  Because of the demands my job at the time, my pumping sessions started to dwindle, as did my supply.  I was determined not to let my work interfere with my ability to feed my child, and so, when I couldn’t get away during the day to pump as often as I would need to, I would set a series of alarms at night, waking every two hours to pump overnight to make sure Winnie had enough breastmilk to take with her the next day. It was terrible, but in the end, maintaining my supply was absolutely worth it.

I left that job, thinking about all of the time I would save not commuting, not setting up a pump and washing bottles, and instead putting my babe to my breast when she was thirsty.  Of course, working from home with a child in said home was nearly impossible, so Win stayed with her awesome caretaker/surrogate grandmother/auntie Norma a few days a week, and stopped taking a bottle on her own.  She went to daycare, too, when Norma was away, and while she had a great time, she just didn’t want (my) milk while she was away.  So pumping was done, forever and ever (and maybe too soon, like the three times I’ve forgotten that I’m a nursing mom and found myself in a public bathroom hand expressing milk into a wad of one-ply Kimberly Clark).

Now, of course, I’m nursing a toddler, and those whispers of “If they can ask for it, that’s just weird!” or “If they’re walking and talking, they’re too old!” ring in my ears.  I know that the World Health Organization recommends nursing until the age of two, and that Winnie and I are in charge of this decision and no one else, but I can’t help but feel a little self-conscious when Winnie lisps, “NURSE, PLEASSSSSE!” at the playground and tugs at my shirt.  It’s fine, it’s Brooklyn, it’s my child for goodness sake, but there are lots of messages surrounding this relationship— “you MUST breastfeed your child— all good mothers do, of course—but not too much!  And not where others can see/be aware of it, unless you have tiny boobs and your baby loves eating under a blanket.  Never “whip” or “flop” or let anything just “hang out”, okay? Maybe just stay home?  And definitely wean before it gets too weird, you know, for others— you don’t want him attached to the boob in college do you?”

At 15 months, Winnie nurses morning, night, and lots in between when we’re together, and maybe three times a day when we’re not.  She drinks from a cup, eats EVERYTHING we put in front of her, and has an independent streak that I, as a grown woman, envy.  We’re both fine with the whole lot of it, and I can’t even express how euphoric I still get with each successful latch and contented sigh (that’s got to be oxytocin or something, right?). That said, if none of this nursing had ever happened—if Winnie had been on formula from the get-go, or a few months after the get-go, or whenever— we still would have built that bond.  I love nursing my daughter, but more than that I love feeding her, holding her, sustaining her, reassuring her that between the three of us in our little family, we’ll take care of each other.

So weird, and so, so awesome.