Placenta: Our First Food

Had to give it a try

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By David Hammond

Though a New Age ritual, consuming the placenta of a newborn is nothing new. For millennia, both human beings and other members of the animal kingdom have been eating the afterbirth. Relatively recently, however, placentophagy fell out of favor…probably because it seems kind of gross to wolf down the bloody birth sac.

Visiting Oakland, California, I was surprised to find that my daughter Abigail Grimes, who recently gave birth to my second grandchild, was offered the child's placenta, prepared by a placenta processor/doula in several formats: a tincture (alcohol with a hunk of placenta floating in it), pills containing dried/powdered placenta, and cubes of frozen placenta broth. As an added bonus, Abigail was also given a print of the placenta that was created by flopping the organ on a piece of paper right after the birth. All of these post-childbirth gift bag items are in the picture above.

The placenta processor/doula suggested that it would be well for the mother and child and perhaps even the father to ingest some of the placental products during the weeks immediately following the birth and beyond (it's supposed to also help women during menopause)

Placenta tissue, the time-honored theory goes, contains naturally occurring substances that counteract excessive post-partum depression and bleeding, increase breast milk production, and help regulate hormones (even for the dad, who it's believed may experience some hormonal shocks following the trauma of childbirth – and believe me, if you've ever witnessed a childbirth, you understand what a terrible beauty it is ). At the very least, the placenta contains lots of nutrients; it is, after all, the launching pad for new life.

According to the inestimable Cecil "Straight Dope" Adams of the "Chicago Reader," placentophagy has been going on in another bay city, Berkeley, for some time.  According to Adams, it has even been relished by vegetarians (!), who have savored the organ as it does not involve the murder of an animal. Still, during those rare periods of my life when I've eaten a strictly vegetarian diet, the idea of eating meat was not attractive – I can't see how eating a blood-dripping organ would be appealing to one committed to a plant-based diet.

An article from last year's "Archives of Women's Health" concluded that the benefits of afterbirth-eating require "further investigation." So like every History Channel special on Bigfoot or ancient astronauts, the findings regarding the nutritional/spiritual value of placentophagy are "inconclusive."

Alleged health benefits aside, the thought of eating placenta was at first quite repulsive, not the least because it seems as though eating a human product, an organ, would be tantamount to cannibalism. I wasn't sure whether eating the organ of a family member would be better or worse than eating the organ of a stranger. 

And yet…I felt I had to give it a try. When, I wondered, would I get another chance?

Aggressively omnivorous, I believe that if people anywhere consume a food somewhere, I will give it a try, however off-putting it might seem (to put this point in action, I've eaten – though I can't say enjoyed – many animal parts, a number of different bugs, and just once, an eyeball).

So, how would I eat it?

The placental tincture wasn't ready yet (it takes a few weeks for the organ's essence to infuse into the alcohol), the pills seemed like no challenge at all, so I decided to sample the placental broth. My son in law, Ben Grimes, is an excellent cook, and he said that he figured the broth could be mixed in to any sauce or soup, but honestly, I didn't really want to savor spoonful-after-spoonful of the flavor, and I did want to taste this food with as little mediation as possible.

Thus it was, after a shot of liquid courage, I drank a small bowl of placenta broth, holding it on my tongue for just a moment to discern whatever flavors I might find in each sip.

How'd it taste?

The broth was very mild, which was kind of a let-down. I smelled it; nothing. I tasted it, and got just a slight tea-like note, likely due to ginger and other "warming herbs" added to the placenta when making the broth. I was expecting a deeply organ-like funk of liver/kidney/tripe, but, no, none of that. It was a little anti-climactic.

I ate this organ out of professional obligation, as mentioned, but why might others have done so in the past? The answer may be simple and obvious: hunger,

Tomorrow, Carolyn and I leave Oakland for Gallup, New Mexico, and specifically Chaco Valley, once the center of a vast indigenous civilization – up to 40,000 souls, larger than the population of London at the time – that dwindled dramatically in the twelfth century, CE.  In "Anasazi America," author David E. Stuart speculates that mother and child mortality in this somewhat hostile environment -- where crops grew moderately or not at all -- could have been well over 50%.  Life was tough. Starvation was not uncommon. Mothers are very hungry after giving birth (as my daughter recently reminded me), and as Native American mothers no doubt saw wolves and other beasts eating their own placentas,  I'm sure it occurred to them that placentophagy was a natural way to go, especially when more appetizing food was scarce.  In a life-death situation, there's no telling what we'll eat. Aside from other yet-to-be-proven benefits to placentophagy, when momma is hungry, she's going to eat whatever is edible. In this land of plenty, it may sometimes be challenging to remember how many people starved to get us here.

The placenta, though it may have provided a kind of primordial food for mothers, is most definitely the first source of nutrients for all of us. The placenta provides, literally, our first food.

Me, I'm glad I had a chance to sample it post-womb, though as with breast milk, I feel no compelling reason to try it again.

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Ada Johnson Tikkanen  

Posted: July 28th, 2016 6:08 PM

Seriously - is your next article going to be "I made tea out of niece's first menstruation." I understand the purported historical aspects and health benefits of placenta consumption. Apparently - mine was so great - the OB showed it to me after I delivered it. He proceeded to poke it with his ball point pen and said his grandfather in China would make good money on it. And I wouldn't be surprised if he actually sent it to him. That being said - b/c you obviously have clout in the food world - let's get placenta as the new kale. Or at the least, I hope you saved a bit so Andrew Zimmern can feature it on one of his shows.

Ada Johnson Tikkanen  

Posted: July 28th, 2016 5:29 PM

okay - you have officially pushed me over the edge that I need to get out of Oak Park as soon as my kids graduate from high school. Enough with this stuff. It's a freakin' dining column and your talking about eating your daughter's placenta. I am actually going to post this so my friends who don't live in areas like Oak Park get a better understanding of....I don't even know what to say. Utterly speechless.

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