My friend Jillana was one of four pregnant women who went to Cafe Boost last week looking for relief. She was sick of being pregnant. She’d been carrying twins for nine months, her ankles were swollen, her back hurt, she had indigestion, and she frequently had to endure the surprise attacks of eight fetal limbs on her lungs, pubic bone, and hips. She was eager, as she put it, to get the party out of her stomach. She also feared that if labor didn’t start soon, her doctors would induce it chemically.

So instead of rushing to the hospital, which would have been her preference, she did what she believed was the next best thing: she rushed to Cafe Boost.

“Guess why I’m here?” she asked the woman behind the counter.

“The salad,” the woman replied matter-of-factly.

The salad–officially called Fancy Mixed Greens, unofficially called the labor salad–consists of a mesclun mix of seven greens, Gorgonzola cheese, plum tomatoes, toasted walnuts, and a lemon-balsamic vinaigrette. It’s rumored to naturally induce labor within 24 hours. “I think it might be the combination of the cheese and the balsamic vinegar,” says Madeline Khan-Roberts, who owns the Andersonville cafe with her husband, Steven.

Khan-Roberts endorses the labor salad, but with a disclaimer. “We just say, you know, if you’re ready this might help you.” She claims there’s no secret ingredient–but that doesn’t mean you could reproduce it at home. “Nothing is the same at home,” she says coyly.

Khan-Roberts first became aware of the salad’s alleged power about ten years ago, when she owned the now-defunct Dellwood Pickle on Balmoral just east of Clark. Back then, she says, the labor-inducing potential of balsamic vinegar was a hot topic. A pregnant customer came in one day and mentioned she’d come specifically for the salad because she was ready to have her baby. When she finished eating, Khan-Roberts says, “She was rubbing her stomach, and her husband helped her up from the chair. I said, ‘Let me know what happens.'” An hour after the couple left, she says, “they were on their way to the hospital.”

Khan-Roberts put the same salad on the menu when she opened Cafe Boost in 1998. In December 2000 a customer’s water broke in the restroom about ten minutes after she finished the salad. The woman was there with three other people, and one of them, Kelly Cassidy, was also expecting. “We decided we would test the theory when it came time,” Cassidy says. A few months later, she and her partner were back at Cafe Boost. “I had the salad,” she says, “and exactly 24 hours later, I was in the hospital.”

Not long ago, Cassidy was pregnant again, this time with twins. She’d been on bed rest, and was feeling awful. “Finally I said, ‘That’s it,'” she says. She went to Cafe Boost. Again, she says, labor began 24 hours later. The birth announcement she sent Khan-Roberts said “More balsamic babies.”

Cassidy began proselytizing. “I’ve been telling people that when you hit the wall, go to Boost,” she says. That’s what she told Jillana when they met at a twins breast-feeding group. Others must also be spreading the word–more pregnant women than ever are coming to Boost for the salad.

Maura Quinlan, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Chicago, has heard variations of the same story. “The California salad–romaine lettuce, Gorgonzola, balsamic vinegar–it’s a common myth,” she says.

Spicy foods, castor oil, red raspberry leaf tea, and nipple stimulation are also widely believed to be effective. But according to Quinlan, there are only two scientifically proven home remedies for inducing labor: intercourse–because the prostaglandins in semen help dilate and efface the cervix–and other kinds of physical activity. Women sometimes believe that whatever they did immediately before going into labor was directly responsible for activating the process, she says. “I have one patient who flips her mattress, and it’s worked every time.”

A medical explanation for births that follow a Boost salad will probably remain unknown. “Obstetrics is unlikely to do a randomly controlled study” on the labor salad, she says.

Does she think there could be a medical explanation? “It’s possible but unlikely, because there are so many women who try it and it doesn’t work.”

Khan-Roberts herself was one of them. “My son was 11 days late, and boy, I ate that salad,” she says. Jillana, too, was sorely disappointed. A week after she’d eaten it, she was still waiting uncomfortably for her twins.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.