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. --Rip Sewell, Chicago
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.
In Hygieia: A Woman's Herbal (Berkeley, 1978), Jeannine Parvati describes her experience with placenta eating: "[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, you know. Of course they eat Gainesburgers, too, so I wouldn't draw any hasty conclusions. 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.
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 rip the lid off this seamy business yet.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.