North Star Journey

The universal love language of postpartum cultural dishes

Alexia Franco Pettersen poses for a portrait
Alexia Franco Pettersen poses for a portrait on March 7 in St. Paul. Alexia Franco Pettersen is a birth and postpartum doula, childbirth educator, and lactation counselor in Minneapolis.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Mother’s Day celebrates a special human bond. Food plays an integral role in most mother-child relationships, especially in the very first days after birth as a mother recovers. 

Cultures around the world celebrate this special time in different ways. This Mother’s Day, we explore how three cultures focus on the mother during postpartum recovery and how their foods reflect wisdom and lessons passed down the generations.

Mexico: ‘I feel like my grandmother is with me again’

On an early March afternoon, chef Alexia Pettersen cooked in her client Allison Alexander’s kitchen in St. Paul. Pettersen is also a doula. In that double role, she prepared dozens of freezer meals ahead of the due date for Alexander’s second child.  

The two women cooked traditional recipes Pettersen and her mother learned from her abuela, her grandmother. She remembers when she was a girl when her abuela would visit their south metro home from Mexico. 

“And every day she was in the kitchen making food, and my mother learned from my grandmother so she can make these foods for my dad and our family,” Pettersen said. “I learned a lot of that from her, but it was also learning a lot from my grandmother and she passed away just before we got married and had kids. So all of this just reminds me of her in so many beautiful ways.”

Two person prepare a meal
Alexia Franco Pettersen (left) and Allison Alexander (right) prepare postpartum meals together on March 7 in St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Now she passes on that legacy to a new generation of mothers.

“I think there is a little bit of that grandmother or mother’s touch that we all have in one way or the other that makes food just taste better,” Pettersen said. “So even if we try to recreate some of these recipes, it may not always taste the same because it was created with love by someone else.”

Pettersen started her business Hola Postpartum in 2017. She makes meals in her clients homes to make sure they’re well-nourished, because as she put it “moms are really good at caring for other people before they start caring for themselves.”

On this day, Alexander learned about staples of Mexican cuisine she had never tried.  She watched as Petterson chopped nopales or cactus pads for risotto. The doula said they are good for rehydration and essential for post-pregnancy.  

Allison Alexander poses for a portrait
Allison Alexander poses for a portrait in front of the prepared postpartum meals on March 7 in St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

This time, Alexander feels more prepared for postpartum recovery with Pettersen as her doula. She said people underestimate the importance of good nutrition.

“Everything from going to the bathroom, to sleeping, to your mood, to emotions… even when you think of postpartum depression,” she said. “I think that nutrition plays a huge role and how we’re taking care of our bodies, and that’s why I think what Alexia is doing is so amazing to support moms at every stage of the process.”

Just weeks after this freezer-filling session, Alexander welcomed her newborn into the family on March 27. 

Alexia prepares a meal
Alexia Pettersen prepares a number of meals on March 7 in St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Pettersen said her own postpartum recovery left her feeling isolated.  In Mexico, usually the women in her family would come and support the new mother during labor and after. But she was in Minnesota and most of her family still lived in Mexico, making travel plans difficult and expensive. 

However she remained connected to her roots, and her abuela, through the food she ate.

She remembers eating caldos, broths with floating bones. Also dishes of chiles and vegetables, barley horchata, sopas, albondigas, tacos and more. She said they helped her heal physically and emotionally. 

“It was like this continuation of this generation that feels sometimes a little lost being kind of in Minnesota, and not having all my family around me all the time,” she said. “In that way, and having that culture, and it’s a part of who I am that I miss often.”

NSJ Postpartum
Claire Lukens and Lukas Carlson, with their newborn son Crosby Lukens on March 8 in Minnetonka.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Across the metro in Minnetonka, two other of Pettersen’s clients — Claire Lukens and Lukas Carlson — are adjusting to the arrival of their newborn son, Crosby. During Lukens’ first pregnancy, she suffered from postpartum anxiety and didn’t focus on her own wellbeing.  

Pettersen prepared meals to help Lukens recover her strength and keep her family fed. It is support Lukens doesn’t take lightly. 

“Being able to benefit from the generations, centuries of wisdom that has been passed down is really humbling and having a baby, there’s something very basic and primal that makes you feel connected to all the moms that have come before you and that’s really humbling as well,” she said. 

And cooking these meals and sharing them with her clients still powers Pettersen in other ways.  

“Every time I’m able to make these foods for my clients, I just feel like my grandmother is with me again,” she says. “This food is just as healing to me to make in their homes because it’s like this continuation of this family tradition.”

Hmong: ‘What do you want to pass onto them?’

In Inver Grove Heights, a hot pot bubbled on the stove in Juechee Yang’s kitchen. She started with cornish hens, seasoned with lime leaves, and lemongrass frozen from last summer’s harvest.  She was recovering after giving birth to her new daughter in February. 

Yang poses with her newborn baby
Juechee Yang poses with her newborn baby on Friday, March 8, 2024, in Inver Grove Heights.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

While cooking the soup, Yang flipped through the pages of a book on Hmong herbs written by her aunt. 

Ko taw os liab, which translates to ‘red-duck feet,’” she reads aloud. “And this one just kind of helps apparently to regain strength and endurance and works on menstrual and liver disorders, and increases appetite in people with no energy. It purifies the body to expel and have a clear full flow to gain uterus muscle strength.”

Before her daughter’s arrival, Yang prepared by freezing bags of chicken meat so she could cook them quickly in soup with steamed rice.

The Hmong tradition is to eat this same meal every day for the first month after giving birth. It’s known as the “chicken diet” to the Hmong people. It’s a holistic soup recipe made from herbs and fresh young chicken that’s been passed down through the generations.  It’s considered the epitome of home cooking and a comfort dish.

There’s no formal recipe or standard measurements, Yang said. Even though chicken soup with Hmong herbs is well-known within the Hmong community, it can be different even among families. Some prefer the taste of fresh chicken slaughtered and dressed that morning. Others like the convenience of going to the grocery store and picking up frozen cornish hens. 

Prepared meals for postpartum
Prepared meals for postpartum by Juechee Yang is seen on Friday, March 8, 2024, in Inver Grove Heights.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Yang says there are more than 30 herbs used to add flavor to the soup. She prefers those known as white duck feet, red duck feet, Hmong shrub and, perhaps her favorite, Flick plant. 

“This one, I kind of eat,” she adds. “You can eat these or just let it soak into the liquid as well. But this one, I don’t mind eating. It’s really good.”

While she cooked, Yang said this knowledge of postpartum care is important to pass down to new generations of Hmong who are growing up in America. As a new mother she thinks about it often. 

“As my daughter, way way down the line when she gets older, when she does have children, I would want her to follow the same diet or purification” she said. “How to eat, what to eat and how to treat her body when she gives birth.” 

Eating the same food every day for a month can feel overbearing, Yang says. But, she learned it’s an unspoken love language that comes from a place of care. She now makes this soup often for her children. 

“Sharing your love,” she adds. “Sharing that love that you have for your family. Sharing your love that you have [and] going above and beyond. Not being stingy about your love and sharing it equally among everyone.”

Dakota and Ojibwe: ‘Letting them love up on me’

At a doula gathering at the Division of Indian Work in Minneapolis a big pot of whitefish bone broth which simmered on the stove for several hours. 

“After you filet your fish and freeze them, take those bones and make fish bone broth,” said Linda Black Elk of the North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems Educational Programming and Community Outreach. “It has tons of collagen, which is great for muscles and bones and great for like if you are pregnant and you have morning sickness. Bone broth should be a regular thing that you sip on because you’re getting hydrated and you’re getting all the nutrients you need.”

A person fills a jar with fish bought
Linda Black Elk, an Indigenous health leader, food sovereignty activist, and teacher specializing in traditional plant uses, gardening, and food preservation, fills a jar with fish bought at the Division of Indian Work on March 30 in Minneapolis.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Black Elk stressed the importance of adding vinegar to the white fish to break down the bones and release that collagen. She added celery, onions, carrots, salt, pepper, bay leaves and garlic into the simmering soup. 

Luke Black Elk of the Cheyenne River Sioux Nation walked the doulas through his cooking process, telling them the broths they make are both healthy and sustainable as it teaches them to use all food.

“One of the things I like to do is to char the vegetables before I put them in. It just adds a little depth of flavor to everything. You can also char the bones a little bit if you want to. We didn't do that this time, but I've done that with beef bones before, buffalo bones,” Luke added, “And then you just boil it. But you can just use the scraps that people don't want, most people would just throw away, you can just throw them into a big pot and let them boil.”

Linda showed a jar of calendula flowers and other spices around. She said while some consider spices as just adding flavor, for Indigenous people they add medicinal properties. 

“Staghorn sumac has amazing medicine and is so good with fish because it has this citrusy, lemony flavor to it which pairs really well with fish, and the other thing we’re going to add is a little bit of calendula flower,” she says. “Let’s say you’re pregnant and you constantly have acid reflux, you can make bone broth specifically designed to help with your acid reflux and indigestion. This fish broth is going to be so beautiful because it’s going to coat your esophagus and your whole digestive system in medicine and it’s so calming.”

A person prepares a food
Luke Black Elk, an Indigenous health leader, food sovereignty activist, and teacher specializing in traditional plant uses, gardening, and food preservation, prepare fish bought at the Division of Indian Work on March 30 in Minneapolis.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Ninde Doula Project Coordinator Valentina Zaragoza remembers eating these medicinal bone broths during her postpartum recovery. During her first pregnancy she struggled with depression and mastitis. 

“We’re connected to the land,” she says. “For each tribe, or each region, there’s specific plants that grow in each area that match our DNA. It’s intended for us that’s the perfect thing, that’s what it’s made for. That’s what it’s intended for. I think about bone broth, what we talked about today and the vegetables and how important it is for that collagen for women and during postpartum and how we feel, it’s very important.”

An enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe in North Dakota, Zaragoza said family and community made all the difference in her motherhood journey, especially her most recent birth. She felt better prepared this time around. 

“Really, just kind of allowing people to love up on me,” she said. “There’s something in soup that’s so comforting. Also with teas, and just like liquids in general, like those kinds of things that I didn’t pay enough attention to early on, that was the difference this time around.”

Zaragoza supports doulas bringing back traditional concepts of interconnection and community. The Division of Indian Work hosts workshops so doulas can learn how to make medicinal bone broths and teas to better support their clients. 

“Feeding someone, that's a way that we took care of each other,” she said. “I think across all cultures you did those things. You had respect and honor for your elders, and your women, and your children. As doulas, we get to step into those roles, take care of other women, families, and these babies and nourish them through food, care or just letting them rest.”

And it shows expressions of love can come in so many forms, including as sopas, tacos, chicken soup and bone broth.

Take a closer look at how these dishes are made

Chayote, chickpea and carrot guisado over farro

Alexia prepares a meal
Alexia Pettersen prepares a meal on March 7 in St. Paul. Pettersen is a birth and postpartum doula, childbirth educator, and lactation counselor in Minneapolis.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Chayote is a staple in Mexican cuisine. In this postpartum guisado (aka stew), chayotes are used for their antioxidants to reduce postpartum inflammation, high in vitamin C for wound healing and boosting immunity, high in fiber to aid the postpartum “go” and high in folate to support baby’s brain development as well as reduce the occurrence of postpartum mood disorders.

Paired with chickpeas, a well known lactogenic legume, and farro for protein, more fiber and folate, and lots of trace minerals to support the healing postpartum body. 

Ingredients

  • Chopped onion

  • Grated ginger

  • Minced garlic

  • Carrots

  • Red bell peppers

  • Chayote or “mirliton squash”

  • Diced can tomatoes

  • Smoked paprika

  • Ground cumin

  • Ancho chili powder

  • Ground cinnamon

  • Salt and pepper to taste

  • Lemon juice

  • 2 14 oz cans of chickpeas

  • Fresh chopped cilantro

  • Farro

  • Bone broth

Instructions

Cook the farro in an Instant Pot or pressure cooker by mixing the farro and broth. Set it to 7 minutes on high pressure, and allow it to naturally release for seven minutes before quick release. Store in container and in the fridge to be served with stew. 

In the same pressure cooker, combine onion, ginger, garlic, carrots, bell pepper, tomatoes, broth, spices and chickpeas. Stir and combine. Lock the lid in place and set it to 6 minutes of high pressure. Quick or natural release, then open when pressure subsides. 

Using the saute function, stir in the lemon juice and cilantro and add salt and pepper for taste. 

Recipe provided by Alexia Pettersen, chef, doula and owner of Hola Postpartum. Check out her website for more recipes here. 

Chicken Soup with Hmong Herbs

Prepared meals for postpartum
Prepared meals for postpartum by Juechee Yang is seen on March 8 in Inver Grove Heights.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

This holistic soup is something that many in the Hmong community hold near and dear to their heart as a comforting dish. Juechee Yang says depending on accessibility and convenience, some prefer to butcher chickens themselves, but she opts to go to the grocery store to pick up some cornish hens. 

There’s more than 30 types of herbs that can be used depending on the need, but Yang says she prefers three focusing on postpartum recovery. It’s a recipe many in the community grow up eating and learning from their elders. For about a month, this meal is what the new mother eats in recovery. 

Ingredients

  • Chicken 

  • Water

  • Lemongrass

  • Lime Leaves

  • Salt/Black Pepper 

  • Hmong Herbs—(For Postpartum, Yang uses “white duck feet” (ko taw os dawg), “red duck feet” ( ko taw os liab), Hmong shrub (suv ntism), and Flick plant (ntiv)

  • Steamed rice

Instructions

First, boil the chicken in a pot of water. Then, scoop out impurities from the water once it starts boiling before reboiling the meat. Put in lemongrass and lime leaves. The chicken then boils for another 15 to 20 minutes on medium heat. Salt and black pepper are added to taste. 

Herbs are added and then stirred in on low heat for two to three minutes. Once finished, serve over steamed rice and enjoy. 

Recipe provided by Juechee Yang

White Fish Bone Broth

A perosn give a presentation
Linda and Luke Black Elk, Indigenous health leaders, food sovereignty activists, and teachers specializing in traditional plant uses, gardening, and food preservation, give a presentation about medicine soup at the Division of Indian Work on March 30 in Minneapolis.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Linda and Luke Black Elk taught doulas at the Division of Indian Work bone broth recipes to help support their clients going through pregnancy, birth and postpartum recovery. These medicinal soups are filled with protein, collagen, nutrients and hydrate the body. 

Luke said vinegar is one of the most important ingredients to add in the bone broth to help break down the collagen in the bones, which will help the skin, hair and nails. It’ll also help aid acid reflux and digestion. 

The dish has an abundance of collagen—which is good for muscles and bones—and if someone is pregnant and has morning sickness, Linda says bone broth “should be a regular thing to sip on” for hydration. 

“You’re getting all of the nutrients that you need,” she adds. 

Ingredients

  • White fish (Any)

  • Carrots

  • Celery

  • Onion

  • Garlic

  • Bay Leaves

  • Mushroom Powder

  • Apple Cider Vinegar 

  • Salt/Black Pepper to taste

  • Thyme

  • Staghorn Sumac

  • Calendula Flower

Instructions

Any white fish can be used. Sear the fish in a pan for five minutes with some olive oil. Add some water and other ingredients. Cover and simmer for several hours. Apple cider vinegar is very important to help break down the bones. 

There’s staghorn sumac that has a citrusy lemon flavor which pairs well with fish, and another with calendula flower which helps with acid reflux for pregnancy. If you want to add some extra flavor into the broth, charring the vegetables and the bones is also a good option. 

Recipe provided by Linda and Luke Black Elk 

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