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Emily Pittinos: Pre-chewed food for thought

By Emily Pittinos, Columnist
Published January 30, 2013

In December, I was sitting at the dinner table with extended family when my Nona, the most elegant Italian woman I know, asked us, “So, what do you think about pre-chewing your kid’s food?”

My cousin nearly choked on his ham and cheese hoagie.

“Is that a thing?” I asked her, imagining a glob of chicken-flavored cud dropped into a teething mouth.

“They call it pre-mastication,” she said. “It’s big on the West Coast.” My aunt and uncle apparently knew a guy in San Francisco who pre-chewed his daughter’s peas and carrots instead of buying jarred baby mush.

“Haven’t they heard of a blender?” my cousin and I asked at once, and high-fived.

“Probably, but it’s supposed to help wean a baby off breast milk.”

The logistics of this lifestyle were called into question. Does the parent take a bite of turkey and then baby-bird-it directly into the kid’s mouth? What if they host a dinner party — would they store a wad of roast beef in Tupperware and then spoon feed it to the child with guests at the table?

Of course, I found myself cringing as we carried on the conversation, partly because mouths gross me out in general. I hate the sticky, juicy, smacking noises they make, and a few bad kissing experiences in high school led me to fear excess saliva. I can hardly imagine coyly slipping a piece of gum into my bedfellow’s mouth, let alone sticking chewed food into that of a tiny human.

My mouth hang-up aside — future lovers take note: It’s more of an endearing quirk than a full-blown phobia — why did I, and everyone at the table, jump to “that’s nasty” when pre-mastication came up?

My family has historically supported breastfeeding because the contact could create a bond between mother and child, even in the 1960s when the practice was out of style. By that same logic, we should have welcomed this other form of familial intimacy, so why didn’t we?

Maybe it was too intimate for our tastes. It’s possible that my progressive family hasn’t entirely escaped our culture’s Puritan roots, and the idea of such close contact between parent and child past the breastfeeding stage made us feel icky. Or maybe the little psychoanalyst in each of us wondered if pre-chewing would create dependency issues that could lead to Norman Bates-like behavior.

I wanted to know what others thought, so that night, while all the other Pittinos family members were tucked safely into bed, I did a little reconnaissance. To my amusement, I discovered that Alicia Silverstone has become a super vegan since her highly influential role as Cher in "Clueless", and is the number-one celebrity advocate for pre-mastication. She has her own blog dedicated to living a “kind” lifestyle and not too long ago she posted a video of herself feeding her son, Bear Blu, some mochi straight from her mouth.

As to be expected, some of the comments under the video were negative. A few said this method of feeding was just veiled domineering, and one commenter even stooped to compare the act to “licking up her babies vomit.” However, the overwhelming majority of the comments were positive and full of stories about mothers going through this “beautiful” process with their own children and how they became the world’s most perfect kids, etc. While one person did accuse Silverstone of deleting most of the harsher feedback, these glowing responses made me wonder if there was something more to this methodology than hippy superstition.

Upon further research I found that the antibody generators in a parent’s saliva can help a baby build up its immune system. Also, the digestive enzymes in that same parental spit can ease the symptoms of colic by giving the baby a head start on breaking down foods. Plus, I’d argue that pre-mastication could invite the co-parent to take part in an intimacy that is typically reserved for breastfeeding. Participating in early feeding could potentially make not-mom feel closer to the baby and more confident in a parental role.

However, with all that good stuff in mind, it’s still likely that seeing this baby-bird behavior take place in the flesh might be too much for passersby. If parents believe in the benefits of the old chew-and-feed, it’d probably be best to give the rest of us some time to educate ourselves before taking the show to a local Starbucks or Chuck E. Cheese.

Emily Pittinos can be reached at pittinos@umich.edu.