So Saturday night I was at a fabulous New York dinner party when one couple presented two, seemingly unrelated, questions. They needed ideas for how to best dispose of their frozen home-birthed placenta and a really original recipe for a Super Bowl chili cook-off.
You can imagine where I’m going with this.
We tried to keep the conversation as polite as possible given the lovingly prepared cassoulet in front of us. Rather than focus on the marinating, tenderizing and the overall making palatable of the organ, we wondered:
Would it actually be legal to drop a little after-birth in with the stewing pinto beans?
In 1998, chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall cooked a placenta— fried with shallots and garlic, flambéed, puréed and served as a pate–on his British cooking show and served it at a dinner party to celebrate the birth of the baby previously joined to said placenta. The television network was was severely reprimanded by the UK Broadcasting Standards Commission. But, no charges were pressed as the practice is legal. According to an old Daily Mail story, Tom Cruise said he planned to eat the placenta, after his daughter as born. I’m afraid I don’t know whether he achieved his goal. But if anyone could make something like this happen, it’s him.
Though some consider it cannibalism– it is the eating of human flesh– others do not. The placenta is a disposable organ. It is ejected naturally. No one was harmed or hunted. It’s not illegal to eat the placenta, though it’s damn hard to get one out of a hospital these days. Mostly women eat their own placentas, which is slightly different form offering it to others. Serving human blood and flesh to people without their consent is, in my opinion, unethical. There is the question of passing along disease or infection, though I doubt this is a serious risk.
In my line of work, as a childbirth educator and modern day “witch,” a term recently and affectionately bestowed upon me by one of New York’s most promising young female writers, I have met and enjoyed talking to several individuals who have partaken of their own expelled flesh.
I explained to the dinner party guests, as I will to you now: The reasoning behind ingesting the placenta is that since other mammals (and very rarely, humans) eat their own placentas, there must be some health perks to the practice. The placenta is full of hormones and nutrients new mothers can theoretically benefit from. There’s lots of oxytocin which can help prevent hemorrhaging and help with breastfeeding. Some claim eating the placenta can even prevent postpartum depression.
To get these wonderful natural hormones without actually chewing on the organ–also, apparently cooking it can zap the placenta of its miracle properties– a process called placenta encapsulation has been invented. The placenta is somehow reduced to a potent powder, encapsulated and ingested by the mother. There are placenta encapsulators. You can hire them.
Now, I know I sound a bit skeptical, but it’s not because I am disgusted with women’s bodies or birth or even big, vascular organs in general. I suck on my own blood when I cut my finger and I quite like the taste. I’m a fan of placentas and all that animal stuff. I love birth and meat. I’m a witch, for heaven’s sake.
It’s just that my belief in the normal physiological process of birth doesn’t include the compulsory ingestion of the placenta. If I were a cave woman and starving out on the savanna, I’d have eaten my own. Or at least offered it up to my starving cave women friends. I’m sure if you hadn’t eaten in weeks, this bloody hunk of flesh would look quite appetizing. The other thing to remember is that animals might eat the placenta to hide the scent from predators. Rather than helping herself, maybe this act is a mother’s first sacrifice?
But here in Brooklyn, with a steaming cassoulet before me and no foxes hiding behind sofas, there doesn’t seem to be the need for any of this. And when it comes to postpartum depression: Boy, I wish there was one capsule that could solve the crushing emotional predicament 10-20% of new mothers find themselves in. But I have a feeling the problem is much more complex and requires more thought, more support and perhaps capsules with more potent contents.
Still, I often find myself very moved by rituals of burying and otherwise paying homage to the placenta. It’s a remarkable organ. Perhaps so remarkable that tossing chunks of it into a Superbowl chili would be an act of profound disrespect. The unnamed couple in question have decided to bury their daughter’s placenta by a tree in the spring. And they have settled on a nice chili recipe made of only the most lovingly grass-fed farm animals and bloodless chipotles.
Nevertheless, if you’re still interested in the possibilities, here’s a video of a man cooking up his daughter’s palcenta. The verdict: “It’s a bit liver-y. But nice.”