On tonight's menu: Placenta

Most women's afterbirth winds up in the trash. I fried mine with a little soy, garlic and ginger

Published June 24, 2010 12:24AM (EDT)

Before getting pregnant, the idea of eating my placenta had never occurred to me. My hippie aunt had buried hers under a tree. That sounded nice. But a month before my son was born, my doula (a birth assistant I hired to coach me during labor) asked, "Do you know what you want to do with your placenta? I have a great recipe."

My husband, who had been hesitant to hire what sounded like a New Age-y junior doctor, shot me a skeptical look across our kitchen table. I knew he was thinking, "Of course the doula has a great placenta recipe." But after a year's immersion in the halls of modern medicine, I was ready to absorb all the earthy wisdom I could. The world of science no longer held the answers it had promised, so I was open to a new perspective. Trying to conceive had been an anxiously deliberate process, involving ovulation thermometers, injections, surgery and a scheduled date with a test tube; in vitro fertilization loomed on the horizon. Our doctor told us we had a .0001 percent chance of getting pregnant on our own, so we had almost -- almost -- given up trying.

When two blue bars dawned across the pregnancy test stick, I burst into tears, a mixture of sweet relief and anguish that it could be a false positive. Six sticks later, I had enough proof to convince me I was actually, naturally pregnant, and we could cancel my rendezvous with the test tube.

"I really can't explain this," our fertility doctor told us when she saw my blood test. For weeks, I was flooded with humble awe. We had worked hard (overplanned, overanxious sex really does feel like work) and wished harder, but I knew there was more to be grateful for than our own perseverance. We're not religious people, but we felt as if we had slipped through some kind of cosmic loophole and couldn't take full credit for the mystery unfolding in my womb. The placenta was ground zero, and I wanted to get to know it better.

As my body calmly and quietly created a new human, I felt as if I were in the back seat while a mysterious driver piloted my organs. I was possessed by new appetites, pumped up with new fluids, and with no conscious instruction, my body had spun a miraculous pod for my baby, providing nourishment, shielding him from toxins, ferrying his waste and cushioning his body for the nine months that he lived inside me.

In the West, the majority of placentas are dumped in the trash. But the placenta is considered sacred by some cultures. And virtually all mammals, including herbivorous ones, eat their afterbirth. Placentophagy, as it's called, may be inspired by a new mother's need for extra nutrients or her desire to erase the trace of her birth in order to throw off predators; there is also a theory that the placenta contains a pain-deadening molecule. Most people are repulsed by the idea of eating their own flesh, particularly an excretion from the vagina. But one person's gross is another person's delicious, as we know from the fact that fresh monkey brains, fried roaches and dog scrotum are delicacies in various parts of the world. As anthropologists know, "yuck" is culturally constructed.

Esther, our doula, told me about the energy-restoring properties of the placenta, and how consuming it is an ancient practice, especially beneficial for warding off postpartum depression. She mentioned the growing movement in the natural birth community to encapsulate dehydrated placentas into pills, reputed to bestow mental and physical benefits to the mother over time. "But eating it is more fun," she said with a wink. Esther knew that I was vegetarian and hadn't sampled more than a tentative bite of flesh in 20 years. This was a rare chance to enjoy meat. Not just any meat: my meat.

I cringed to think what my mother and sister, both doctors, would think if they knew we were considering eating so-called medical waste. Intuitively, the idea of dumping my placenta in the trash was an unceremonious fate for the sophisticated nest that had protected my baby before I knew how. The word "placenta" comes from the Latin word for "cake" -- in German, the word is Mutterkuchen, meaning "mother cake" -- and I started to realize that consuming this architectural feat could be a symbolic tribute. I had spent nine months feeding the baby through this extraordinary two-way filter, and now it would feed me, completing a kind of nourishing cycle.

A week after my son's birth, Esther visited our house. I held our baby while she pulled a Pyrex dish from our fridge and tipped it onto a cutting board. The crimson mass flopped out like a fish. "This was the side that faced you," she said, gently lifting the meat to show me a honeycomb of thin white branches. "And this side faced the baby," as she lifted a thin membrane and turned the sac inside out. The slab was thick and juicy looking, about the size of a dinner plate. Esther used a paring knife to separate the fibrous, outer membranes from the dense interior. It was surprisingly porous, like a sea sponge squeezed tightly, crowded with passages. As I looked at the tiny channels, I thought about my pregnancy cravings for black beans and salsa, grapefruit and chocolate, and pictured little nutrient nuggets careening down the branches into my baby, wondering whether he had taken particular pleasure from the chocolate morsels, or begrudged the grapefruit. It seemed amazing that my body could produce meat -- and was meat -- even when it had been sustained on vegetables, grains and legumes, amazing in the same way that an infant can be sustained on breast milk alone, or a 1,000-pound horse on grass.

Esther marinated the placenta in a soy, sesame, garlic and ginger sauce. Then, she left us to do the rest. Following her recipe, we fried the steaks with mushrooms for five minutes on each side, turning when the flesh had browned. My kitchen filled with the heavy, primal scent of organ meat, a first in the five years we had lived there. We debated over the appropriate beverage. (Breast milk?) We finally chose a shiraz, following a lyrical logic that only a full-bodied wine could match the fruits of my full body's harvest. Finally, we plated the steaks with wild rice and vegetables and dug in. My husband and I traded our single steak knife back and forth. The meat was both porous and dense, with a texture like spongy volcanic rock, a compact network of cells permeated by thousands of tiny holes. "It's a lot like liver," my husband observed. He is an enthusiastic meat eater, but I noticed he was proceeding with caution. Apparently, I'm an acquired taste.

The meat felt heavy and chewy in my mouth, part sponge, part brick. I ate slowly and deliberately, taking deep breaths between bites.

"This is, um, challenging," I said, gulping my wine.

"You taste gooood, darling," my husband said, picking up speed.

"I do?" I tried to find a me-ness in the flavor, the way I look for myself in my son's face. Did I taste different from a carnivore? Did I need to eat animals' meat in order to enjoy my own meat? Would my future placentas taste different than this one? Was there a hint of chocolate?

I cut a large bite so that I'd finish sooner.

"Three bites down! Six more to go!" I celebrated, willing myself onward.

"Just leave it -- I'll finish it!" my husband volunteered, devouring his portion. But I was committed, eating it to love it. As a vegetarian, this was the closest I would get to carnivore-ism, let alone cannibalism. Perhaps the fact that my mother cake was an acquired taste proved that my body had better things to do -- growing a life -- than delighting my taste buds. It was a multifunctional organ; too smart to taste like pastry, too mysterious to taste like fruit.

I stacked an onion and a pepper on my fork, sandwiching the chunk of meat. "It's largely organic and free range," my husband said, all mock salesman. It occurred to me that this meat of mine was truly sustainable, a renewable resource created without killing. In a way, our culinary experiment was the ultimate act of consumption: eating life without taking life.

"Would you eat another woman's mother cake?" I asked my husband.

He paused and raised his fork. "Depends."

"Depends on what?"

"On how attractive she is."

I took that as a compliment.

Holly Kretschmar is a writer, mother and innovation consultant based in Los Angeles. She is birthing a second placenta (and a child) in September.

By Holly Kretschmar

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