There Will Be Blood
My newfound connection with other warm-blooded moms was an unexpected perk of pregnancy. Hormones amped up both my protectiveness and aggression, giving me new empathy for mother bears that delimb careless hikers. A forceful nesting instinct fostered a deeper appreciation for my childhood cat, who transformed our closet into her personal birthing suite. But a nagging thought remained:
If I wanted to really commit to this kinship, I should consider eating my placenta.The notion first took hold after beaching my swollen body on the couch and watching a marathon of nature documentaries. It turns out that gobbling the afterbirth is a near-inescapable fact of our mammalian nature: From the fierce lioness to the nimble mountain goat, postpartum females slurp down their placentas with the enthusiasm of a college kid enjoying a Jell-O shot.
But could I, a finicky vegetarian who recoils at the texture of cooked onions, take on the challenge? Unlike our furry friends, eating my homegrown organ meat wasn’t a decision I could reach without equivocation. I decided to talk to local placenta aficionados.
There are a half-dozen competing placenta-related businesses in the Bay Area, making the region ground zero for afterbirth consumption. In May, the San Francisco Food Adventure Club made headlines when its members sampled human placenta rumaki. Just weeks earlier,
With a human gestation period of 40 weeks, the 1–3 lb. organ is the ultimate slow food. San Franciscans are sautéing, dehydrating, encapsulating, brewing teas, and making tinctures with their placentas. Others are creating rituals and art with the organ, which symbolizes to many the tenuous space between life and death.
Mission resident Andrea Olson and her Australian shepherd, Sasha, both sampled Andrea’s placenta after the birth of her son Kaiva on August 20, 2010. The day after Andrea's home birth, her apprentice midwife arrived on her doorstep armed with a food dehydrator. She boiled the afterbirth in water seasoned with jalapeño and lemon, then dehydrated the organ at 100 degrees. The result?
“It was spongy. It tasted like chicken or seitan,” says Andrea, who sampled a French fry–sized piece. Sasha was more enthusiastic, inhaling the human flesh after drooling throughout its preparation. Andrea also drank tea made from the concoction, which she found spicy and delicious. The remaining tissue was encapsulated as well as made into a tincture for medicinal purposes.
With only one child under her belt, Andrea admits she doesn't have anything with which to compare her placenta-fortified postpartum period. But her mood seemed brighter, she recalls, on the days she took her capsules than on the days she forgot. When her son was teething, she put the afterbirth tincture on his fontanel to soothe him.
Proponents of placentophagy say consuming the organ combats postpartum depression and also speeds healing by replenishing nutrients lost during pregnancy and birth. Whether it works is a matter of debate. It's a belief passed down through cultures, not a medicine with effectiveness validated by double-blind studies and FDA-approval. Its benefits have been little studied.
San Franciscan Jaime Shapiro, who runs the Placenta Apothecary with fellow midwife Kristina Wingeier, believes that may change. With new focus on preserving cord blood for its potentially lifesaving stem cells, science may soon echo what midwives and Chinese medicine practitioners tout through anecdotal evidence, she says.
Studies are currently underway to explore the use of placental tissues to treat ailments including posttraumatic wound healing, diabetic ulcers, ocular surface disorders, and vascular ulcers.
Jaime and her partner incorporate herbs to personalize their placenta medicine, taking into account a woman’s health history and concerns. Since they opened up shop in 2009, business has been brisk. Jaime works with approximately four clients a month, split evenly between mothers who birthed at home and in the hospital. On the first of a two-day process, the women, who are OSHA-certified for dealing with blood-borne pathogens, clean the clots off the placenta, drain its blood, and cook it in a pot with herbs for 20 minutes. It is then sliced thin and dried overnight in a food dehydrator.
Jaime assures me that even those with prudish palates can reap the benefits of the afterbirth by ingesting it in capsules. “People who think they’re going to be squeamish about it end up not having that reaction at all,” Jaime says. “Having a dinner party and grilling up the placenta doesn’t sound so appealing to people, but this doesn’t feel like food, it’s like a supplement.”
The renewed interest in the placenta may dawn a new era of respect for the organ, which has long been the Rodney Dangerfield of the birth process. While the baby gets all the glory, the humble afterbirth is unceremoniously dumped into a biohazard container. The organ is a lifeline, carrying nourishment and oxygen from mother to fetus. So why does it get such a meager farewell?
It may come down to appearances. Large, bloody, and bulging with veins, it looks like the hybrid of a juicy steak and steaming entrails. In fact, it's the last thing you'd think would make a beautiful objet d’art. But surprisingly, it makes a pleasing addition to the wall of Chandra Alexandre's Sunset flat.
I found myself studying Chandra's placenta print during my last days of pregnancy. With reaching branches and intertwining roots, it looks like the tree of life, a symbol for the interconnectedness of all creation. Also, like the City of Oakland's oak tree logo.
Like Andrea, Chandra also says she warded off post-partum complications by taking encapsulated placenta after the birth of her daughter, Eve. But preparing it like food was going too far.
The print represents a happy medium in biological mementos.
“Sitting down with a knife and fork and eating an organ wasn't appealing to me," she says. "The print is something you can show people. It's accessible. It tells a profound story that isn’t too graphic for people and conveys a point about the physicality of birth.”
I had to be honest with myself:
The printmaking process is simple. The placenta is rolled onto a towel, and then the outer membrane is peeled to reveal the organ’s venous side. It is then rolled onto paper, creating a unique print. After the blood dries, the image is secured with acrylic fixative.
Chandra’s husband, Murray Kucherawy, recalls bringing the print to be framed and explaining it to wide-eyed Cheap Pete's employees. "The post-Goth girl behind the counter thought it was cool but weird," he says. "Everyone else stayed away."
As my due date approached, I let these ideas marinate like a placenta before a dinner party. I was planning to be induced, so I procrastinated on a decision and preparations. I would be having a hospital birth, so I would need to bring a cooler and sign a release to take my afterbirth home with me.
And now for the anticlimactic epilogue. Six days before my scheduled birth, my water broke on my living room couch – before I had made a decision, much less any arrangements. And then things got chaotic, ending with an emergency Caesarian section. After the ordeal, I wanted to travel light on the way home – taking my baby but ditching my placenta, despite its noble service.
Although my afterbirth is gone, it’s not forgotten. And while my gratitude alone may seem an insufficient reward, that’s life for the modest placenta. A quiet workhorse, it toils in the dark and without thanks, except for a few brave souls with adventurous taste in cuisine and interior decoration.
Want to make art that really shows off who you are inside? Follow Chandra’s simple instructions for making your own placenta print:
1. Place placenta on a towel to drain.
2. Peel outer membrane to reveal the organ’s venous side.
3. Roll onto paper to create a unique print.
4. After blood dries, secure image with acrylic fixative.
Do you prefer a professional touch? Placenta Apothecary offers dried and raw placenta capsules, as well as afterbirth tincture and essence. Check out their website for details.