Culture  /  Retrieval

In Defense of Eating Brains

While some in the West are squeamish, globally, it's more common than not.

In many parts of the world, people never forgot the value of eating brain. In South Asia, stir-fried maghaz is especially associated with the Muslim festival of Eid, prepared separately from the meat when a goat or sheep is slaughtered for the holiday feast. Mexicans use brains as the filling in tacos de sesos. Italians make cornmeal-dusted frittelle di cervello, and the Minangkabau people of Sumatra are known for gulai banak, brains stewed in coconut curry. The Chinese tofu pudding dòu fu nǎo, literally “tofu brains,” is brainless (it’s named for its silky texture), but pig brains are commonly consumed in Sichuan hotpot and other Chinese dishes.

Yet for many in the modern United States, there’s something uniquely unpalatable about eating brains, a squeamishness that goes back only a few generations. Before the mid-20th century, Americans treated the brain like any other cut of meat, especially in areas where livestock animals were raised. At least one company, Rose, still markets canned brains soaked in milk (a typical initial step when preparing brains to remove the blood). Scrambled eggs and brains was once a classic American breakfast pairing, appearing in Fannie Farmer’s influential 1896 cookbook and many others. “When [brain] is lightly cooked and pan-fried, it has a very similar texture to scrambled egg,” says VanHouten, who included a recipe for the dish in her own cookbook, It Takes Guts. “Mixed together, you barely even taste [the brain]. It’s just adding a little bit of richness to your eggs.” Farzin points out that you can use brains the same way as egg yolks; even in custard-based ice cream or an emulsified “brainaise.”

By the late 20th century, the American palate had decisively shifted away from brains due to several historical factors. The perfecting of the commercial deep-fryer increased consumer preference for crispy, crunchy textures, not easily achieved with pillowy-soft brains. And after scientists established the link between cholesterol and heart disease in the 1950s, an increasingly health-conscious public started to shy away from fatty foods. In 1977, with the publication of the report Dietary Goals for the United States, the U.S. government officially endorsed a low-fat diet as the healthiest choice, and numerous cookbooks and lifestyle magazines followed suit. A quarter-pound of beef brain, for all its nutritional value, also contains more than 1,000 times the recommended daily intake of cholesterol. VanHouten describes brain as “not the thing that I’m going to be cooking the most frequently,” emphasizing that it should be consumed in moderation rather than avoided outright.