By Jess Kelley
Her six-month birthday came before I was ready. At six months we were to start feeding our daughter solid foods. Suddenly it seemed, ready or not, that egg yolk was heading into her mouth. The mother in me wondered, what if she immediately goes into anaphylactic shock? (She didn’t.) The nutrition therapist in me wondered, is that egg yolk the absolute best egg yolk I could find? (I wasn’t 100% sure.) So her first bite sparked what became an OCD pursuit of trying to source the most nutrient-dense varieties of baby food ingredients – 67% of which ended up on the floor – I could possibly find. A hunt that kept me within 20 miles of home, and yielded foods that ended up surpassing my standard of nothing but the best for my little girl, Pepper.
Modern research-based nutrition suggests baby’s first foods should include pastured egg yolks, grass-fed and -finished bone marrow and broth, fermented cod liver oil, organic bananas, sweet potatoes, carrots, squashes, apples, and avocados. But here’s where it gets thorny: the bagged organic orange carrots from California are nowhere near as nutrient-dense as the Cosmic Purple carrots grown at Rohwer’s farm in Pleasant View. In fact, the disease-fighting anthocyanins (pigments responsible for the red, purple, and blue colors of certain fruits and vegetables) have been bred out of orange carrots. Local carrots it was.
There are, of course, the palpable economic and environmental reasons for buying locally-sourced plants and animals. But when I started comparing the nutrient densities of the organic New Zealand apple vs. the smaller crabapples I snagged off the ground in the park, there was a stark difference. When produce doesn’t have to travel, it isn’t subjected to a) Pre-ripe harvesting that prevents nutrient levels from peaking, b) Aspiration (nutrient depletion) that begins the instant of harvest, and c) Ethylene gases used to promote ripening during transit. Lucky for Pepper, farming in La Plata County is as trendy as tattoos and horn-rimmed glasses in Southern California.
So as I mentioned, egg yolks were her first food. Research supports this choice because they contain high amounts of healthy fat and protein, which a baby can digest, and zinc and choline which are critical for brain development. (Babies do not develop the enzymes needed to break down grains until between 1 year and 18 months. Sorry, Cheerios.) I wanted unequivocally to make sure the egg she consumed did not come from chickens fed genetically-modified feed as research is now proving that GMO foods are contributing to the autism epidemic, among other diseases (Entropy Journal, April 2013 “Glyphosate’s Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases” by Anthony Samsel and Stephanie Seneff). But outside of the health food store’s eight-dollar carton of pastured eggs from Texas, finding a non-GMO egg was tough. The great egg hunt unfolded in the most dazzling way…. I discovered duck eggs at Old Orchard Farm, four miles down the road from my house.
Started by an enthusiastic group of 20-somethings, Old Orchard Farm is resurrected farmland complete with egg-laying ducks. I bought a six-pack of these large white beauties after farmer Austin Gorton informed me they were more nutritious than chicken eggs. Ummm, did this bespectacled junior just school the nutrition therapist? Yes. I confirmed his claim after scouring a USDA nutrient database for comparative amino acid and lipid profiles. An added bonus is that those who are allergic to chicken eggs can often tolerate duck eggs. Second score for local food. Now, benefits aside, these were weird, so I fed them to Pepper first. And since she actually opened her mouth for them, they have made their way into my baking projects – the extra protein gives a needed lift to grain-free breads. It’s said that kids will teach you as much as you teach them. I always thought that was a dumb thing to say, but now it appears I’m eating my words in a duck egg frittata.
As many a new mom in Durango might tell you, there is not much else to do with an infant beyond watching daytime TV and stroller cruising the Animas River Trail. As summer turned to fall and Pepper and I were logging what felt like our 2,885th mile, I noticed something. Apple trees. Apples on the ground. Free apples on the ground. Those with the least bumps and bruises were quickly shoved into the undercarriage of the Bob stroller.
Planted by the City of Durango approximately 10 years ago, these crabapples were from a flowering breed called the Almey (Malus hybrida). As luck would have it, Malus hybrid apples are more nutrient-dense than the Malus Domestica species, which we’ve bred to be bigger and sweeter. In fact, the Almey’s Nepalese cousin, Malus Sikkimensis, boasts nearly one hundred times more phytonutrients than our beloved Fuji (Malus Domestica). Beyond corrective pruning, the Almey tree I found along the Opie Reems Nature Trail section has not been treated with chemicals at all. Organic? “Pretty much,” confirmed Ron Stoner, City Arborist for the City of Durango.
So I had found perfect, bursting-with-nutrients apples to make applesauce with. I thought I was really smart until I got home and stared at this huge pile of really small apples. This is going to take way too much time, I thought. I’m weeks behind on my emails, and about the same with the dirty laundry. Are these apples really that much better than the organic jar at the health food store? The answer, of course, is yes; research has shown that you would have to eat at least two long-stored apples to get the nutrient benefits of one freshly-picked apple. I started peeling. Pepper threw the final product on the floor.
I needed the next food for Pepper, as every three to four days you can introduce a new food. This created a lot of creative pressure, especially on the meat front. First, when it comes to animal or animal by-products, organic simply isn’t good enough anymore. Organic can simply mean that cows are fed organic corn and soy. Which we all know is not their natural diet. Beyond that, many products might claim grass-fed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean grass finished, and research has shown that even 30 days of grain eating can completely change the fatty acid composition of the meat so it becomes more inflammatory (Nutrition Journal, 2010 “A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef” by Daley, Abbott, Doyle, Nader, Larson). Since we don’t have access to the ocean (read: fresh wild-caught salmon), we went with the next best source of protein containing omega-3 fatty acids: grass-fed and -finished beef. James Ranch. We had ordered a quarter of beef last spring, and picked up our loot one brilliant fall afternoon right before the first deep frost of the season. They threw in an extra liver when I said I’d be feeding it to Pepper. Yes, liver is absolutely a super food for babies. She loves it. I am embarrassed to admit I haven’t mustered the courage to try it yet. Odd smell.
After duck eggs, crabapples, and grass-fed beef liver, the quest continued. We found local pumpkins so deeply tasteful, that when mixed with coconut milk and cinnamon, Pepper couldn’t seem to get enough. And then there were the Red Ace beets from Stubborn Farm that transformed her face into that of a little vampire. The Purple Majesty potatoes (also from Rohwer’s Farm) that are substantially lower in sugar, higher in protein and antioxidants, were without the fungicides, insecticides and sprout inhibitors that come with the grocery store’s sweet potatoes. So far, Pepper has eaten pretty well, and no anaphylactic shock. So sorry if I haven’t emailed you back. Turns out feeding, and cleaning up after, my 21-pound experiment has been pretty time consuming.