This story is from Meatpaper magazine, issue twelve
The Afterlife of Afterbirth: Notes on eating human placenta, story by Cynthia Mitchell, illustration by Emily L. Eibel
A COUPLE OF MONTHS AGO, my roommate asked me if we could host a placenta dinner.
A San Francisco–based group called Adventures in Dining had a placenta donor (an anonymous one; I never learned her name) and needed a location for their adventure.
I said yes. How could I not? Admittedly, I was more intrigued by the mise en scène than by the primary ingredient of the proposed meal. What types of people attend placenta dinners? Is it a somber occasion? Formal? I imagined women in long gowns, chic yet ceremonial, sipping wine and murmuring quietly about their mysteries. I thought it would be magic without being dorky, something a style magazine might call “metro-Wiccan.”
All mammals except camels and kangaroos eat their placentas, which made me think ancient
humans probably did, too.
The dinner was canceled. We were told, rather cryptically, that the designated placenta had been tainted with formaldehyde. I suspected a hospital worker — someone unaccustomed to women wanting their placenta food grade. I knew a kid in high school who smoked formaldehyde for its PCP-like effect. The thought of ladies smoking placenta and moonwalking around my living room was oddly appealing, but getting high was not the point.
Once I realized my curiosity over the nature of placenta diners would not be satisfied, it struck me that I didn’t really know what a placenta was. I’d imagined some kind of moist, translucent fetus wrapper. When I saw a photo of one, I was shocked. A placenta is a huge thing, one-sixth the size of a newborn, and it looks like a handbag made of blood. In case I’m not the only one unfamiliar with procreative miracles, a placenta is an organ that grows inside a woman, connecting the fetus to her uterine wall and allowing the developing creature to feed and eliminate waste through the mother’s bloodstream. That may seem obvious and natural, but I can’t help feeling that it’s weird to suddenly grow a disposable organ in which to keep a person you’ve never met.
In the United States, placentas are typically treated as medical waste. Some hospitals hold them for a couple of days, but most throw them out immediately, which struck me as a reasonable thing to do with a used sack of blood. Then I began to read about people around the world who believe these organs contain powerful, protective, and sometimes dangerous spirits. That we throw such organs in the garbage along with hypodermic needles, cheek swabs, and tongue depressors was starting to seem sad and lame. After all, placentas have been eaten; buried; burned; marched in parades; sung to; dressed in clothing; entombed in pyramids (of their own!); floated down rivers; stolen; sold; used to curse, bless, cure, and beautify; been talked to; not talked in front of; taken on trips; given gifts of pens and needles; taken to school; fed; stabbed; used to make art prints; turned into teddy bears; tied to the heads of children; and probably a host of other things too strange or mundane to record.
Plus, all mammals except camels and kangaroos eat their placentas, which made me think ancient humans probably did, too.
In Deuteronomy, God threatens the Israelites for 54 chapters. He says a woman “will begrudge the husband she loves and her own son or daughter the afterbirth from her womb and the children she bears. For she intends to eat them secretly during the siege and in the distress that your enemy will inflict on you in your cities.”
The Compendium of Materia Medica, a tome by the famous 16th-century Chinese physician and pharmacologist Li Shih Chen, recommended a mixture of human milk and placenta as a treatment for chi exhaustion, a condition characterized by cold sexual organs and premature ejaculation.
Despite these examples and claims on numerous maternity websites that placenta eating is an ancient custom, there is little documented evidence of what doctors and academics call “placentophagy” until the mid-19th century, according to Dr. William B. Ober, author of Notes on Placentophagy. After that, anthropologists, doctors and nurses, missionaries, and writers noted a long list of cultures ingesting placenta.
Placentas have been eaten, buried, burned, marched in parades, sung to, dressed in clothing, entombed in pyramids, floated down rivers, and probably a host of other things too strange or mundane to record.
The Kurtachi of the Solomon Islands preserved placenta in a pot with lime powder to flavor areca nuts. In Jamaica, placenta tea was given to infants who were being bothered by ghosts. In Peru, chewing the umbilical was said to prevent illness. The Araucanian Indians of Argentina gave it in a powdered form to sick children. The Chaga of Tanzania dried it for two months and then ground it with plants to be eaten by the child’s elderly female relatives as porridge. The Kol tribe in central India believed that if an infertile woman stole a placenta and ate it, she would become fertile, but an injury would occur in the family from which it was taken. In Hungary, women tired of childbearing would burn it and secretly feed the ashes to their husbands. In Java, Moravia, and Morocco, placenta was eaten to increase fertility. The Chinese used placenta to hasten labor. In Italy, it was thought to induce women’s milk flow and reduce pain. Austrians considered it a cure for epilepsy and sold it in pharmacies. In the 1960s, Czechoslovakian nurses reported that Vietnamese immigrants ate placentas fried with onions after giving birth. In Romania, eating it was said to keep away the cold. And Germans reportedly mixed placenta with butter.
In 1983, Mothering Magazine published a series of placenta recipes, including ground placenta pizza. Right now, women are eating their placentas in YouTube videos of home births. Even vegans eat it, though not without some controversy.
A surprising number of modern women and even a few men espouse the benefits of placenta eating. In 2006, Tom Cruise told Diane Sawyer that he was planning to eat Katie Holmes’ placenta. Placenta-loving websites like momlogic.com and placentabenefits.com will tell you that placenta contains oxytocin, a hormone associated with pain relief, orgasm, pair bonding, and relaxation, sometimes called the “cuddle hormone.” Placenta is also said to contain progesterone and vitamin B6. It is believed to be good for preventing postpartum depression, stimulating milk flow, repairing the uterus, stopping hemorrhaging, and getting silkier hair. All these online testimonials made eating placenta seem like downright sensible nutrition. But I had yet to hear a first-person account from someone who’d eaten it.
Figuring the modern incarnation of this practice must have caught on in the 1970s, I called Jacqueline Darrigrand of San Francisco, a self-described feminist who wrote her master’s thesis on witches, did a back-to-the-land stint, and doesn’t flinch at organ meats.
“Hi Mom. Did you or any of your friends eat placenta?”
“What? I’m walking down the street. I can’t hear you very well.”
“PLA-CEN-TA. Did anyone you know eat placenta?”
“Oh! Ha! No one I know did it, but I heard about it happening. It’s supposed to be very nutritious.”
“Did you want to eat our placentas?”
“I can’t say that I was tempted, no. Anyway, I don’t think that was offered to me as an option.”
“Do you think it’s gross?”
“Nothing is grosser than giving birth.”
I called Sean Uyehara, a San Francisco film programmer whom I knew had a child.
“Did you eat your kid’s placenta?”
“No. The hospital kept it. I think they ate it themselves.”
“You think they made Jell-O?”
“Probably some kind of headcheese.”
Finally, I was given the phone number for a known placenta eater. When I talked to Kim, a professional photographer from Massachusetts, she sounded personable, open, and humorous, not really my idea of an auto-cannibalizing pagan. She said that after giving birth, she had lost a lot of blood and was feeling weak. Her midwife asked if she would like to eat some placenta. She agreed, and her midwife sautéed it and served it on a plate with onions and eggs. “At the time, I was kind of delirious from blood loss and delivery,” she said. “Mostly I look back and am grateful for how it made me feel after a hard labor and how surprisingly normal it felt.” Of the flavor, she said only that it was “not strong.”
Paul Reller, an acupuncturist in San Francisco, told me that he ate placenta while in acupuncture school. “A lot of the other students were freaked out, but I ate some,” he said. “It was dried and shaped like a little flat cookie. It was extremely tasty, sort of sweet.”
I heard that Christina Buckingham, a performance artist sometimes known as “Chaos Kitty,” had eaten hers, so I called her too.
“Hi, I know we haven’t talked for a while, but I have kind of a funny question. Did you eat your placenta?”
“I was going to, but I got too grossed out. I think maybe I overcooked it. I slow-cooked it all day and the smell was nauseating.”
“What was the smell?”
“Like old yak meat, kind of gamey. I think maybe I shouldn’t have frozen it first.”
“Who were you going to feed it to? Were you going to have a dinner?”
“I wanted to feed it to my husband, but he wasn’t interested. It’s hard to do things like that when you have a cynical husband.”
In the background, I heard the high-pitched voice of a toddler and then my friend saying, “I wasn’t going to eat you! I might eat you now, though!” Then a little voice laughing, “But I’m full of bones!”
From what I could gather, making a tasty placenta dish is not easy. The recipes I found online and in books were mostly Italian-American family dishes like lasagna, calzones, and spaghetti. To my mind, cooking placenta in a sloppy red sauce and adding cheese does not make it more appetizing. Here’s an example of a placenta lasagna recipe, this one I copied from a website called mothers35plus.com:
1 fresh, ground, or minced placenta
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 sliced cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/2 diced onion
2 tablespoons tomato paste, or 1 whole tomato
Use a recipe for lasagna and substitute this mixture for one layer of cheese. Quickly sauté all the ingredients in olive oil. Serve. Enjoy!
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, a chef from the U.K., scandalized the country in 1998 by making placenta pâté and serving it on his TV show Cook on the Wild Side. According to BBC News, the placenta donor’s husband had 17 helpings but the other guests were less enthusiastic.
The descriptions I read and heard of placenta’s taste were wildly diverse, everything from sweet to salty, like liver, not like liver, like filet mignon, textured like heart but more spongy, like offal, like eating a plateful of garden earth.
Even though I never got the opportunity to host a placenta dinner, all this talk of flavors and organ meat had me wondering about an appropriate wine pairing. I asked Gus Vahlkamp, sommelier for the Slanted Door, a renowned restaurant in San Francisco known for its iconoclastic wine list. He responded in an email:
“After a couple of conversations with my peers (and people who have handled placenta, though never eaten it), we think the best all-around recommendation would be a red wine with minimal oak, high acidity and pronounced mineral overtones, rather than ripe, primary fruit flavors. If we were going for complementary pairing, the best choice I think would be a wine made from mencía, a grape variety indigenous to northwestern Spain; mencía is vinified in many different styles, but the best ones for our purposes come from Bierzo, where the wines are known for their earthy, sauvage notes and fairly rugged character. Jon Bonne from the San Francisco Chronicle has written that these wines actually remind him of blood.”
CYNTHIA MITCHELL makes moving pictures, still pictures, and pictures with words. She lives in San Francisco.