Looking for Blood

Blood washing over a chef leaning over a pot and stewing blood onto a dish.

Blood does not factor into what’s generalized as “American food” — but why?

Eating blood just makes sense: Mostly made up of protein, it’s packed with iron, vitamin D, and other nutrients, and comprises as much as 11 percent of an animal’s body weight. That is likely why most human societies that eat meat, save those with religious or cultural injunctions against eating blood, have at least one blood recipe in their culinary repertoires — from the blood “tofu” of China to pepitoria, the goat’s blood–cooked rice of Colombia, to the blood sausages (some savory, some sweet), sauces, soups, and even pastas and pastries of most European cultures.

Granted, as meat historian Roger Horowitz notes, these are rarely everyday items. Most were only made, historically, right after an animal was slaughtered, or during the winter, when cold northern climes could preserve blood. Yet blood is still, thanks to practicality, tradition, and taste — many do appreciate its thick earthiness — an active part of most nations’ foodways. In some regions, like the British Isles or Germany with their blood sausages, or Scandinavia with its tradition of blood pancakes, blood as an ingredient is not only commonplace, but beloved.

It’s odd, then, that blood does not factor at all into what’s now generalized as “American food” — not in any of the items that populate fast-food menus (perhaps the most American of inventions), in common dishes descended most directly from European traditions (like meatloaf, pancakes, and various meatballs), or even in dishes closely associated with meat byproducts (like hot dogs, scrapple, and livermush).

“Blood is toward the end of the spectrum of stigmatized and taboo foods” for Americans, says Amy Bentley, a professor of food studies and expert on culinary taboos at New York University.

Most Americans, of course, do not only, or even mostly, eat the purely “American” food that’s exported abroad via fast-food menus or through our popular culture. Recent immigrant communities, especially those from East and Southeast Asia, have brought dishes like Filipino dinuguan, Vietnamese bun bo hue, and coastal Indian sorpotel, all blood soups or stews, stateside. One can find frozen blood in many Asian markets (although its quality varies radically by store). It’s still prevalent in German butcher shops in parts of Illinois, says food historian Bruce Kraig. The same holds true at some Polish, Mexican, and other butcher shops in historically immigrant neighborhoods, he adds. Potawatomi chef and Native American foodways historian Loretta Barrett Oden notes that various Plains peoples today continue long-standing traditions of drinking blood during buffalo or other large-animal harvests. And many Diné (or Navajo) chefs make, or grew up making, blood sausage as a matter of traditional practice fairly regularly. The National Center for Native American Aging at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Science’s Center for Rural Health lists a Diné blood sausage recipe in its publication Healthy Traditions: Recipes of Our Ancestors.

Still, these important elements of modern and historical American foodways don’t factor into most popular conceptions of “American” cuisine or tastes. And recent attempts by prominent chefs and food scholars to introduce blood to many unfamiliar North Americans — as an interesting new flavor, an element of a national culinary heritage, a vital part of responsible and low-waste meat consumption, or even a healthy alternative to eggs, low in cholesterol and high in protein and iron, in baked goods — have fallen flat. “I haven’t seen much evidence of broad interest” in blood of late, says Margot Finn, a scholar of U.S. food beliefs, “even with the niche popularity of nose-to-tail and ethnic eating that includes offal.” So why, exactly, does American food contain so little blood?

It’s hard to say whether pre-Columbian Native American cultures consumed blood, and if so, how much and in what contexts. Early colonists and the U.S. proper explicitly tried to eradicate indigenous history and foodways to displace or eradicate entire peoples. Many Native American culinary traditions were, and are, fluid — and their modern iterations have often been shaped by the experience of colonization. When I asked Barrett Oden about this, she told me, “Everyone I could find says, ‘We don’t know because all of our ancestors are gone.’” As part of culture, pragmatism, ritual, or for other reasons, though, she believes there was likely “significant blood use” in pre-Colonial North America “from the Mayans to the Plains.”

Some food historians argue that America’s colonizers, however, never ate much blood. Sarah Wassberg Johnson, an expert in American food history, claims that British colonizers did not, by and large, bring their native blood sausage traditions to their new homes because they found so much open and farmable land that they didn’t have to engage in the scrupulous nose-to-tail eating common in contemporary Europe. Blood, Finn argues, is not “inherently delicious or appealing the way some things like sugar or fatty meat seem to be,” so it would have been something many folks might never eat unless necessitated to do so by scarcity.

Blood erupts from a spoon.

For the most part, historians like Johnson believe, blood was an occasional subsistence food, mostly consumed in rural areas but not in urban settings. More often than not, even on farms, it would be discarded as waste. It may be true that some colonists did find they no longer needed to eat blood dishes, stopped doing so as a matter of preference, and so their progeny had no chance to develop a taste for it.

Yet colonial cookbooks include many blood pudding recipes, and 17th-century blood consumption was apparently common enough that preachers saw fit to puzzle out a justification for eating it, given Old Testament prohibitions against doing so. (The same injunctions prevent some observant Jewish groups from eating blood.) Blood may not have been a standard home ingredient, says Horowitz, but it would have been in use by many butchers in sausage making. And it would have been fairly available, argues Amy Fitzgerald, an expert on animal slaughter history, off of farmsteads, in urban settings, as local butchers often did the work of slaughtering animals. Historical accounts of Chippewa and Cree communities from the 18th century also describe a blood-based haggis, blood potages, and the consumption of fresh blood from ungulates, and at least some accounts of 19th-century Blackfoot Confederacy communities detail blood pudding and soup.

The tide of blood in America likely started to meaningfully turn with the rise of industrialized slaughter. “This was part of a more general process” starting in the 16th century, Fitzgerald says, “of demonstrating human superiority over animals,” in part by distancing the public from the visceral nature of meat production.

Blood, bones, and other offal “remind us that we are animals,” argues Bentley, channeling the theories of many psychobiologists. “Blood from an animal looks like blood from a human. It’s a reminder of the animal nature of ourselves and how close we are to the things that we’re eating.”

The first large-scale commercial slaughterhouse opened in Massachusetts in 1662, explicitly to remove slaughter from public view. But industrial slaughterhouses hit critical mass from about the mid-1860s onward, especially with the rise of Chicago’s meatpacking industry. Around this time, most Americans, undergoing a process of rapid urbanization alongside this slaughter industrialization, started to lose touch with the process of raising and killing animals, and to see meat as just a slab of deracinated tissue in a butcher’s shop.

Industrial slaughter made it harder to access blood, which is best used fresh and unfrozen. Theoretically, big slaughterhouses could still have tried to preserve blood using anticoagulants (like salt or vinegar) and cooling. But “collecting and keeping fresh blood clean for processing was simply too much effort for too little return,” argues Johnson. Slaughterhouse operators soon realized they could make more by selling blood to other industrialists for use in things like animal feed and fertilizer. As historian Maureen Ogle notes, big slaughterhouses 100 years ago usually made more selling blood and other byproducts to pharmaceutical firms and similar buyers than they did by selling meat proper. “So,” says meatpacking historian Joshua Specht, “the Chicago meatpackers had no reason to make it accessible to consumers,” at least on a large scale.

Around the same time, writers in the American media started to openly disparage butchery generally, and blood cuisine specifically. “There are racist articles about German immigrants in particular liking blood sausage,” says Specht. “Similarly, there are some stories about poorer Americans consuming as much of, say, pig as possible.”

In the late 19th century, Americans with economic, cultural, and culinary power were distancing themselves from slaughter and its byproducts in favor of more civilized (and often more expensive) meat cuts, labeling offal as animalistic and crude. They were also defining themselves in contrast to Central and Eastern European immigrants, and poorer rural Americans, who still consumed those products. The idea of blood-eating as a “backwards” and “barbaric” practice was deployed as evidence of the baseness of dirty immigrants and the poors, cementing it as a marginal to un-American behavior.

But industrialized slaughter was not necessarily a death knell for blood dishes, especially if it was decoupled from racist and classist tirades against them. To wit, much of Europe has developed industrial slaughter systems — albeit in different arcs and at different speeds and levels than America — while maintaining connections to edible blood. Even in America, Horowitz acknowledges, in rural areas where people still slaughtered animals and had access to their fresh blood, they kept on using it in their cooking well into the 20th century. “German settlers and their descendants in the Midwest,” Kraig points out, “ate blood sausage as a regular part of their diets” until sometime around, or maybe just after, World War II.

The real end to American blood eating likely came in the mid-20th century, courtesy of modernity — specifically an amorphous, optimistic belief in the power of industrial science to improve the world in every imaginable way, especially by one-upping nature. That often came part-and-parcel with a belief in the value of uniformity and perceived sterility. “This idea of modernity is very important for people coming of age in the 20th century,” argues Bentley, who has written about the birth of the baby food industry in this era. The logic of that industry, she explains, was that industrial societies “don’t breastfeed our babies because we don’t have to. We have technology. We have science. We can make the formula and the bottles. We can make better food for babies than human bodies can, and certainly better than people in developing who are breastfeeding.”

Many notions advanced in the spirit of modernity were, we now know, bullshit. Modernity might scream that blood is a messy natural product that spoils easily. But modern slaughter, food packaging, and distribution, which seek in part to distance us from icky blood and promise to keep us safer and healthier by doing so, are arguably even worse for public health because of their potential to spread zoonotic disease and foodborne illnesses. And obsessions with sterility led to the development of non-nutritious foods, like Wonder Bread (invented in 1921) and overprocessed milk, whose health benefits are now in question.

Wrongheaded notions about the value of sterile uniformity and pre-preparation got flash-frozen into many societies, not just America. They just took especial root in American food and culture because, argues Bentley, “we came of age in the age of industrialization” as a nation. Many of the national myths still referenced in American culture and politics were forged in the hypermodern 1950s, as supermarkets and prepackaged foods and all they represented were spreading and reshaping even many rural lives. Modernity has only been reinforced in recent years by things like food safety and larger public health scares.

Sociologist George Ritzer coined the concept of “the McDonaldization of society,” referring to a unique, mostly American obsession with “cleanliness, standardization, quantity over quality.” According to Bentley, this concept plays into our aversion to foodstuffs that seem messier, or more potentially dangerous, like blood. It also helps to explain the very mid-20th-century (and, in many corners of the country, enduring) American obsession with hockey-puck-overcooked steaks. Many Americans seem to want any trace of blood (by the by, the red in “bloody” red meat isn’t blood, but myoglobin, the protein that delivers oxygen to muscle tissue) broiled out of existence in the name of perceived safety, and in the service of the entrenched 20th-century American cardboard palate.

Ultimately, all these historical forces dovetailed into America’s modern, bloodless state of affairs. And it created a vicious circle, in which low demand for and high skepticism of blood make it almost impossible for most people in America to encounter it, even if they go looking for it, keeping demand low and skepticism high.

At most, the food history and culture experts I’ve spoken to about blood largely agree, there’s potential for blood to seep back into some mainstream American dishes — if its taste is well hidden, if “blood” doesn’t end up in the final name, if it is promoted by well-known chefs or health experts, and if it comes with strong head-to-hoof ethical messaging. Diners could also, perhaps, be convinced to eat a protein bar made of powdered and flavorless blood (like the Soviet Union’s Hematogen quasi-health bar), much as they have been convinced to eat cricket bars and powders as arguably sustainable sources of (largely invisible, tasteless) protein. Still, the population of Americans who could get over the ick factor many associate with blood would likely be slim.

“People can get over an ick factor” in general, says Finn. “That seems to have happened on a pretty wide scale with raw fish in sushi, and before that with garlic and other pungent alliums. But I’m not sure there are sufficient incentives to do so with blood,” she says, especially relative to the long build-up and scale of this ick factor in particular. “I don’t see any reason why the factors that have made blood unpopular for at least the last century in America are likely to change soon.

“Then again,” Finn almost shrugs, “stranger things have happened. So, who knows?”

Mark Hay is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer who has reported on food history and culture for outlets ranging from Atlas Obscura to Food52 to VICE. Rachel Wada is a Vancouver, Canada-based freelance illustrator whose airy artwork often reflect the melting pot of her cultural heritage.
Fact-checked by Andrea López Cruzado.

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