My breasts were engorged on the night I ate colostrum ice cream. My group and I were about five hours into our tasting menu at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York, meaning it had been about six or seven hours since I last pumped — I was still nursing my five-month-old baby at the time — and it would be two hours before I could pump again.
Colostrum, the first milk produced by a cow after she gives birth, was just another delicacy in a long evening of delights to my tablemates, who readily dug in. But I hesitated.
To many new parents, the word colostrum is loaded. Often called “liquid gold,” it’s the milk created during pregnancy that is so chock full of antibodies, fat, and protein that it’s crucial newborns get some as soon after birth as possible. Babies survive off of small quantities of colostrum while they wait the day or two for the mother’s “mature” everyday milk to come in. To many new moms, the word alone brings back the stress of early breastfeeding and those fraught first moments after birth.
Sitting in the warm glow of the exquisite Blue Hill dining room, I felt the aching reminder in my chest that I had given birth so recently, that I had so recently obsessed over the colostrum I was giving to my son. I had flashbacks to desperate moments trying to get him to latch, of 24 hours of seemingly constant visits from the nurses and lactation consultants to my hospital room asking me how much he’d gotten, poking and prodding me, angling and repositioning him.
Knowing how crucial that first milk is, how specially designed it is for newborns, and how finite it is, I found it mildly disturbing to consume it as part of a $250/head tasting menu at an upscale restaurant for wealthy gourmands.
By the looks of the Instagram responses to Blue Hill chef and owner Dan Barber’s recent post about making colostrum ice cream, I wasn’t the only one. But Barber tells me we shouldn’t worry about those baby cows not getting enough. Cows produce more than enough for their calves — they’d be sick if they ate it all, he says — and dairy farms often have freezers full of colostrum. He is happy to be able to expose his customers to a novel ingredient (it tastes like a mild cheese) while paying the farmer for a product he doesn’t usually have a market for.
It’s not a common ingredient on even the most stringent farm-to-table restaurants (I couldn’t find it on many menus outside of Blue Hill and Sweden’s Fäviken) because a chef would need to have a strong connection to a dairy farm. But colostrum is a traditional ingredient in many dairy-centric cultures in India, Iceland, England, and beyond. There, it’s used in spas, in Ayurvedic medicines, and dried into dietary supplements.
Had I known all of that cultural context — that the baby cow got enough, that the ingredient is commonplace in various cultures, that health freaks and spa mavens are obsessed with it, that it’s not (just) some chef trying to be novel or clever — maybe I could have treated it like all standard dairy products.
But then again... probably not. Because it’s not just milk: It’s the first milk, the perfect food, the first thing you give to your offspring. Somehow, as a new mom I felt more uncomfortable eating colostrum than suckling pig, lamb, and dairy, not to mention all the un-sustainably sourced animal products I’ve consumed without second thought in over a decade of professional dining. It humanized the animals we eat to a degree I typically prefer to ignore.