Our second child was born in Baltimore and when it was time for weaning we followed what people around us, mainly other paediatricians in training, did, ie, we went to the supermarket and bought those little bottles of “baby food”, filled with sweet potato or tapioca.
That was what you did in those days, in those countries. But I always used to boast that, in my country, people gave their babies real food, food from their parent’s plates, table food or “from the pot” as the Jamaicans like to say, and when I read Cajanus, the monthly magazine produced by the Caribbean Food & Nutrition Institute, I was encouraged in this thinking. Feed babies breast milk first for some months and then feed them bits and pieces of what their mothers and fathers eat.
To my shock, on arriving in T&T in the 70s I found the thing to do, the “modern” thing, was the exact opposite. Everybody and their aunty were feeding their babies bottled food and so proud of it. The first time I told the family of a nine-month-old child that she could eat callalloo, breadfruit, peas, and rice, they looked at me as if I was mad. They still do.
It’s taken many, many years to turn that attitude around somewhat and part of the problem has been the number of doctors who continue to recommend bottled food for infants and the lack of a policy statement on infant nutrition from the Ministry of Health. The babies do their level best to eat what their parents are eating by begging from around six months but too often that is considered old-fashioned!
It’s embarrassing to hear parents say they don’t know what to feed their six-month-old because “we eh have no good baby food down here” and in the States “it have pears and apple and grape and tapioca and ting” but surprise, surprise, tapioca is cassava and the baby should be eating mango from the Julie tree in the backyard. Big, hardback men who love their blue food never think of giving it to their babies. It’s perfect as a first “baby” food.
Take breadfruit for example. Not blue in colour but blue in spirit. I grew up in the shade of a breadfruit tree that was not in my yard but in the house in front. Its branches almost reached over the street to our house. It’s a fruit that has given many names to the sounds it makes as it falls. We became accustomed hearing the bang of the fruit falling on to the galvanized roof or the biff as it hit the ground and split.
One time, returning from a hike to Paria and leading the way with a companion, we stepped over what looked like a squashed breadfruit on the ground until it began to move and turned out to be a coiled mappipire taking sun. Pandemonium ensued, women and men, scaling trees and so on.
There seem to be more breadfruit trees up the islands. Grenada, Barbados and especially St Vincent. Breadfruit was brought to the Caribbean by the Europeans as cheap food for their slaves but it never seems to have really caught on. Food for slaves, you see. Yet, the sight of so many towering, green trees filled with free, tasty food never fails to delight me. When the breakdown comes, the babies will have something to eat.
It was fascinating to read in last week’s Sunday Guardian about a group, “Made in TT” whose motto is “Plant a tree, Eat for free”. Concerned about our food import bill, $6 billion a year and rising, they propose to plant 1,000 breadfruit trees throughout T&T. A breadfruit tree can live up to 50 years, thrives on any type of soil and needs little care. After five years a mature tree produces up to 300 fruit a year. It’s local, it’s nutritious, it’s ours. We could do worse.