Here's the story. My wife just got back from Berkeley where she helped a friend give birth — and of course it all happened at home, in some kind of tub, underwater, with violins playing and midwives hovering about. Here's what she says happened next. Out came the afterbirth, which was carefully collected in a pot and put in the fridge to keep cool. Through the day, various vegetarians who dropped by to pay their respects asked about the placenta. My wife inquired, and was told that a certain stripe of high-minded vegetarian eagerly prepares and devours placenta stew, the placenta being the only form of meat that does not involve the slaughter of some innocent animal. Can this be true? And if it is, why isn't some shrewd entrepreneur bagging cow and ewe placenta and selling it at the Jewel?
I want to be told this was a tall story.
Illustration by Slug Signorino
Love to accommodate you, Ripster, but once again we find ourselves outgunned by reality. Having investigated the matter with my customary thoroughness, no small achievement under the circumstances, I can report the following facts: (1) chowing down on placenta doesn’t happen often, but (2) it happens. May God have mercy on our heathen souls.
My principal source on this is a physician who has attended roughly a thousand births in the San Francisco Bay area over the years, more than two-thirds of them at home. In all this time he has encountered placenta stew exactly once, in Berkeley in the early 1970s. The father was a professional cook who concocted his own tasty recipe for placenta stew, complete with potatoes and onions, which he served to his hard-core veggie friends.
The doctor, suffering an embarrassing failure of nerve, did not sample the stew himself, but says it smelled something like liver. The veggies munched away gamely but didn’t look very happy. One woman, in fact, became nauseated, which the doctor attributes to a lack of exposure to organ meats. Having seen a few miracle-of-childbirth movies in high school, however, I’d say there’s a simpler explanation.
There are those who wax eloquent about the joy of placenta cuisine. In Hygieia: A Woman’s Herbal (Berkeley, 1978), Jeannine Parvati describes her experience: “[It] was after a very powerful birthing. The mother ate some raw first; and then let me take some into the kitchen for fixing. My experience of this slab of meat was amazing. I had never felt such life-force present in meat before …. This meat still felt very much alive to me as I began to slice it and saute it in garlic and oil …. By the time the placenta was tender, the birthday party members were very hungry, and exhausted. After the supper, eaten in a glowing silence, everyone was energized, very much re-vitalized …. Notwithstanding, the first time I ate placenta has also been my last time …. Guess I just lost [the] taste.”
I’ll bet. She goes on: “When you first encounter the meat, remember to pause — placenta can be sacred food, if you let the meat tell you how to prepare it for the fire …. Chew slowly, till the placenta becomes a liquid, ambrosia. Placenta is a rare privilege for most of us.”
The rationale for placenta eating, apart from the fact that it doesn’t entail snuffing animals, is that since it nurtures the child during pregnancy it must contain all sorts of valuable nutrients. My medical informant knows of no research supporting this view, but it’s not implausible. Mama cats and dogs eat their placentas, and some say that a chemical in the stuff stimulates contractions of the uterus. Luckily for humans, breastfeeding and the drug Pitocin do the same thing. Parvati says some American Indian tribes had placenta rituals, although none of them apparently went so far as to eat the stuff. Leave it to the white man to get ridiculous about it.
The supper table is only one potential destination for the postpartum placenta. Although few new mothers realize it, many hospitals save placentas for eventual pharmaceutical use. A driver for one placenta-collection firm, Bio-Med-Hu of Louisville, Kentucky, told me his firm ships placentas to Europe for use in cosmetics. A spokesman for Bio-Med-Hu denies this, but says he’s heard there are companies that do it. Hot on the trail, I called up the makers of Placentique, a skin potion that’s been advertised in the newspapers lately. They claimed to use only cow placentas. I am still pursuing the matter, however. We’ll get to the bottom of this yet.
Placenta stew: Another helping
Sorry, but you’ve been scooped on the placenta story. The use of placenta in cosmetics was featured in the Chicago Tribune in a 1980 article entitled “Beauty May Be Only Placenta Deep.” The writer interviewed the owner of RITA Organics, a company in Crystal Lake, Illinois, that makes freeze-dried extract from human placenta. They get the frozen organs individually wrapped, packed 40 to a box. The final product sells for $3,500 to $5,500 per pound.
The Straight Dope never gets scooped, Tom. However, we freely concede that the daily newspapers can provide a useful supplement to our work. The Tribune reported that RITA once upon a time purchased frozen placentas from hospitals (the going rate was 50 to 75 cents each), which it thawed, sliced, and filtered. The end product was a white powder that RITA sold to cosmetics companies. Products containing placenta supposedly accounted for 5 percent of all protein-based beauty aids. I’ve learned RITA has since gotten out of the business, but the Merieux Institute of Lyons, France, may still be at it.
In other placenta news, I have received a Stern Warning to Youth from Richard Reich, MD, of Madison, Wisconsin. Reich warns that placentophagia — that’s placenta eating for you rustics — can help spread AIDS and hepatitis. Cecil therefore solemnly advises his readers, next time they’re invited to a placenta party, to thoroughly inspect mother and child for signs of transmissible disease. As for Dr. Reich — come on, doc, let’s chill. The stuff kept you alive for nine months, didn’t it?
Finally, David English of Somerville, Massachusetts, has thoughtfully sent me a copy of the script for a censored Saturday Night Live skit featuring — you’d better sit down for this — Placenta Helper. “Placenta Helper lets you stretch your placenta into a tasty casserole,” it sez here. “Like Placenta Romanoff — a zesty blend of cheeses makes for the zingy sauce that Russian czars commanded at palace feasts,” etc. The last line was supposed to have been a voice-over from Don Pardo: “Placenta Helper — make a rare occasion, a rare occasion.” Very tasteful. Why it got cut we’ll never know.
To the Teeming Millions:
A friend has sent me recipes from the summer 1983 issue of Mothering magazine for the following mouth-watering dishes: placenta cocktail (1/4 raw placenta, 8 ounces of V-8 juice, 2 ice cubes, 1/2 carrot, blend for 10 seconds at high speed), placenta lasagna, placenta spaghetti sauce, placenta stew, and placenta pizza. The last one will definitely stop conversation at your next Super Bowl party, and since you’re not likely to be able to order it from Domino’s, here’s what you have to do:
“Grind placenta. Saute in 2T olive oil w/4 garlic cloves, then add 1/4 tsp. fennel, 1/4 tsp. pepper, 1/4 tsp. paprika, 1/4 tsp. salt, 1/2 tsp. onion, minced, 1/2 tsp. oregano, 1/4 tsp. thyme and 1/4 cup wine. Allow to stand 30 min., then use with your favorite homemade pizza recipe. It’s a fine placenta sausage topping!”
Be sure to let me know how it comes out.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.