Eating The Temporary Organ
July 4, 2009 2 Comments
It’s Independence Day, happy fireworks! It seems fitting that I can smell the smoke from the many barbecues occurring in my neighborhood, because I want to talk about eating placentas. Because of my doula work, I know people from a lot of places on the birth spectrum. This goes from your classic OB/GYN to advocates of Lotus birth (a practice where the umbilical is not cut, and the baby is attached to the placenta until the cord naturally detaches). This week, one of the more Lotus leaning posted a link to the Time Magazine article about Placentophagy (the practice of eating placenta). The article is from the father’s point of view, and tells the story of how he carried his wife’s placenta home ASAP, and then watched as a placenta professional came to his house, cooked the placenta and dehydrated it into smart little capsules that his wife would take to help stave off postpartum depression and to produce more breast milk. The idea is that the placenta is full of beneficial hormones that will help with the sharp changes in body chemistry that take place after birth. The woman who did the cooking also said that some of the pills could be frozen and taken years down the road to help with hormonal changes in menopause. The article was a bit repugnant because while it tried to have the everyman narrator honestly engage with the gross out factor of such an idea, there was no report on the outcome, or acknowledgment of his own foibles (and there is a terrifying graphic of a baby with it umbilical cord wrapped around a fork like spaghetti). The entire thesis of the article boils down to two points: “ick,” and “my wife and her crazy ideas.” Neither of these are as fascinating, or chewy, as placentophagy itself.
A common argument for eating one’s placenta is that most mammals do so after birth. On Wikipedia, there is a photo of a goat grazing as an example. Some argue that this is because fear of predators and the need to quickly hide the event. But, this is disproven because mammals tend not to eat amniotic fluid, which is just as interesting to predators. Then there is the argument that mammals eat the placenta for instant nutrition, something especially important after the exertions of birth and nursing. Most placentas do offer a mammal help contracting the uterus and producing milk quickly, yet in modern human environments, we have lots of other things that can provide instant nutrition (like grocery stores of food, cafeterias, chicken soup for the soul).
As a side note, apparently there is a small group of vegetarians that consider the placenta the only kind of morally correct meat to eat because there is no slaughter in its production. I know.
So, while I have nothing much to say about eating other people’s placentas, I wonder about eating one’s own. There is something attractive about consuming drugs that your own body has produced. Instead of taking hormone supplements, using your own, kind of like blood banking. But, then I tend to think that if the body expels something, it is probably supposed to stay out. I’ve learned from Bear Grylls that drinking your own pee can save your life, but it should only be done if there is really no other option around. So with the placenta, this arguments seems a bit weak. By the by, apparently placenta eating does not count as cannibalism. Cannibalism insists on muscle, and whatever the placenta is, it’s not muscle. Same for the brain.
In her very honest account of eating her placenta in a drastic effort to avoid the same severe postpartum depression she suffered with a previous pregnancy, Mary Field says that it worked. One of the most scary observations was how after her first birth her entire body felt dried up, and she felt instantly old (this relates to my particular fear of pregnancy: becoming a husk to somebody else, the bigger nesting doll, but that is another conversation, no?), and that this didn’t happen when she ate her placenta. As she tricked her mouth to swallowing (her strategy was to put it in the back of her mouth and not think about it), her hair and skin kept their luster, and she felt strong. I wonder how much of this was a placebo effect of making such a bold effort and breaking taboo for one’s own sake. She put her own hope for health over social cues, which I can see giving a quick boost and power to anybody. The mental monologue possibly being, “You think I’m gonna be depressed? You think I can’t handle this? I dare you to look in my refrigerator. I am creator and destroyer, I eat my own organs, motherfuckers!”
Apparently the word placenta comes from the Latin word for cake, and is the root for pancakes. In all kinds of languages, the word translates to “mothercake.” This probably has to do with the shape, though I have to say that from the placentas I have seen, cake was never an image that instantly came to mind. Perhaps it is called mothercake because it is the thing that offers sustenance to the child from the mother, and is its own of kind of biological sweet, transforming food to blood and crossing strange borders. And still, I can’t quite find the link that this name suggests a recrossing of borders, with the placenta as ultimate nourishment for mother post-birth.
In the Time article, the author was terrified by the sight of the placenta, but I wonder if he would not be equally terrified by any organ when it sees the light of day. Function is beauty, sure, but most of the things that get out of the body are pretty gross because of their biological intimacy. Which makes me wonder if eating the placenta does make some kind of sense…like finding a hair in your food, and not caring as long as it is your own?
One mother I know captioned a picture of her placenta as proof that her child had thoroughly trashed her first apartment. I like this because of its snark, and connection to the idea of home. In many cultures, the placenta belongs to the child, and is sometimes kept to be buried with them in death. Alternately, often the placenta is buried under a tree at birth. The tree grows as the child grows, and so the child always knows where they belong, and will always have a home to return to. This raises the question of if the placenta belongs to mother or child, or perhaps leapfrogs it in a lovely way, highlighting the shared home of that creation.
The placenta gets the very cool label of “temporary organ.” I tried to think of other temporary organs, but they are all abstract: grief, homesickness, generosity, infatuation, wit, attention to detail, things we want to write down before bed but don’t, moments where the self is only a forgotten sweater that fits well enough.
I very much like that the human body can grow an entire organ for the job at hand, and that get rid of it when no longer needed. The question is just when is its job done? Is it a nice little machine that needs to be burnt after reading, or a more eco friendly device like an edible plate (do they make dessert flavored edible plates? That seems like it would be a great idea).
I dunno. I find placenta prints (often hung in nurseries, a kind of block print on plain paper made by pressing the placenta, often creating a tree like design), both beautiful and a bit too much. Too much memento, too much ode. But, would I like to have a little map of my first apartment, knowing that my parents oddly celebrated my birth? Yep.
As for the snacks, I worry anytime people mimic what other animals do. That argument is a slippery slope.
Fireworks are starting. I can hear them, but not seem them. Must be the finale somewhere.
Night-o, dear one. Am off to eat something and wonder what the mouthfeel of eating one’s self is.