Mark Hay is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in Atlas Obscura, Forbes.com, VICE, and dozens of other outlets. You can find more of his articles on blood, and many other topics, here.
In this podcast, Mark Hay talks with Helen Osborne about:
- The unrecognized ubiquity of blood in the diet
- Blood and culinary tradition
- The nuances of cooking with blood
- The untapped potential of blood as a renewable food resource
Music by Skilsel from Pixabay.
Producer and audio editor: Kip Clark
Transcription: James Aird
HELEN: Welcome to Talking About Blood I’m Helen Osborne the host of this podcast series and a member of The Advisory Board for The Blood Project. I also produce and host my own podcast series. It’s about many aspects of health communication called Health Literacy Out Loud. The Blood Project’s website includes a lot of important information about science along with medical best practices. The website also offers a fascinating selection of materials that bridge science and the humanities. One of those materials is an essay called “The Art and Science of Cooking with Blood”. It’s written by the Brooklyn-based freelance writer Mark Hay. Honestly I never even before considered the concept. I am delighted that Mark agreed to talk with me about his essay along with many other aspects about food history. Mark, welcome to Talking About Blood.
MARK: Thanks for having me on the show Helen.
HELEN: Blood as food, you piqued my interest in ways I couldn’t even imagine. Tell us more about it. I don’t even know where to start. What’s a good entry point for all of us to start thinking about that?
MARK: There are probably a couple of ways that you could start thinking about this. One way is thinking about the fact that you’ve probably already encountered blood as food and just never realized it before. A lot of sausages throughout history and especially if you’re familiar with black pudding which I think a lot of us are familiar with from British culinary traditions that continued on to America. So you probably are familiar with it and you’re just not aware of it and the interesting thing to me is why we have blocked this out of our memory because for most of history blood was an obvious part of food and in many parts of the world still is today.
HELEN: I was kind of squeamish reading your article but indeed I’ve gone to Scotland and I’ve eaten blood sausage. I don’t anymore but I used to eat meat too. That all has blood in it.
MARK: To a degree. I mean this is also a common misnomer. When we think of a bloody steak or a bloody hamburger that’s not really blood what we’re seeing there. A lot of that is myoglobin, a protein in the meat that’s leaking out with liquid. There’s some trace amount of blood within all meat but the red stuff in your steak that’s not blood.
HELEN: Thank you for clearing that up. Could you give some other examples, so you talked about blood sausage and you said this has been going on for a while and I know you’re a food historian in many ways, kind of walk us through some of the centuries. What’s this been like?
MARK: If you want to go to the most visceral examples of eating blood a lot of herding cultures traditionally have and to this day some still do in lean times cut open an artery of an animal’s neck usually and just sucked blood straight from the wound. You can close that back up you can actually get a lot of protein out of an animal that way in lean times because their blood will replenish over time. There was one calculation I saw actually over the course of a year of safely bleeding a cow you can get as much raw protein and energy out of that cow through systematic bleeding and drinking of the blood as you can get out of slaughtering the whole cow. So traditionally it’s been a very useful way of engaging with livestock as a source of food and protein but beyond just drinking blood straight; it’s been used as a binder in a lot of foods so it’s actually got these properties that are very close to an egg so like you might use egg to hold together sausage or baked goods or something like that. You can use it as a binder in stews, you can use it as a binder in pastries, you can use it as a binder in almost anything so you will find blood use across the world throughout history in almost any way that you would find egg.
HELEN: I have a few questions. When you talk about it being like an egg I’m really curious about that and you talk about it being more like a binder. Lots of the listeners of this podcast are hematologists or physicians, people specifically interested in blood. Is there a mechanism in blood I think of like clotting or something that’s the equivalent to what it does in food?
MARK: You’re actually fighting against clotting a lot of times when you use blood as an ingredient. If you’re using it as a binder though clotting is your friend, the same way as an egg curdles up or clots up when it’s heated. You have to be very cautious with it because just like if you overheat an egg you might mess with the texture of the egg. If you don’t heat blood in a careful way you might mess with the texture of blood in ways that become less delicious depending on how you engage with blood, but at its core it does clot a bit easier than egg does. It’s a little more sensitive as an ingredient. But at is core it is still very much like egg and holds the same properties because the main protein that it is made of is what’s often referred to as black albumin, the same protein you find in egg white.
HELEN: Of course, I certainly recognize that word. Is there a downside maybe an animal that they just took some blood from because some people are starving and it’s an area of deprivation. Can you get diseases specifically that way or is that as safe as eating any type of an egg, the equivalent?
MARK: There are some food risks with any animal so if you’re eating meat and you eat meat from the diseased animal or you eat meat that’s spoiled, there’s a risk there in the same way with blood. You don’t want to eat blood from an animal that had a blood disease. As long as you practice basic caution though, as long as you’re not eating from a diseased animal you’re probably pretty safe. The one trick there is that blood is very easy to contaminate itself once it’s removed from the animal. Traditionally if you’re just getting it straight from slaughter that’s not a huge problem but that’s actually one of the reasons we use less blood now in modern cooking is in an industrialized slaughterhouse we often think of industrialized food production as being safe and sterile that’s sort of the mythos that was created in the industrial era. It’s not, it’s just so absolutely disgustingly dirty.
HELEN: Thanks for sharing that too, Mark.
MARK: That’s the thing is industrialized slaughter both took us away from the sight of blood, so it kind of removed it from our everyday life, but it also meant that we were producing meat in this way where the blood just goes out into this horrible morass. It’s very hard to collect it and keep it sterile in those environments. So you really have to be able to get blood fresh or blood that’s been handled in a conscientious way and that’s not an easy thing to do with the slaughter system that we have, especially in the west.
HELEN: Boy I’m getting lots and lots of questions cropping up as you’re talking about this and one has to do with issues of culture and I’m thinking particularly kosher Jews who won’t be eating this type of food or that type of food. You talked about people who are caring for animals. Are there certain cultures where this is much more comfortable than others?
MARK: Yeah, I’d say we’re moving away from it in Europe and America but in most other parts of the world, aside from as you mentioned Jewish cultures, traditional Jewish cultures or Orthodox Jewish culture especially where there are still taboos around the function of certain foods including blood those are more the exceptions than the norms though. In most parts of the world you are going to find pretty great comfort with blood as an ingredient in some way, shape or form. I think it’s especially common, just anecdotally, in a lot of East and Southeast Asian cooking these days. That’s where there’s very little compunction about using it. A lot of blood soups, a lot of blood tofu. That’s another common ingredient…
HELN: Blood tofu?
MARK: Yes, that’s one where you want the curdling properties. You basically cool and coagulate blood into these cubes, a lot of people think of it like a very mellow flavor I guess you could say. You want it for that soft creamy texture of coagulated blood. It’s common in soups and hot pots and things like that. I’ve most encountered it around the Canton region but I’m sure it’s common in other parts as well.
HELEN: You’re opening up a whole new world to me. A while ago you used this word delicious. You talked about some reasons that people might not be eating blood as much today as they did or in our culture and European cultures are not eating as much. Why should people be eating it? What do you find so delicious about it?
MARK: From my perspective, and a lot of taste is learned, I think there’s some anthropological debate about how much we have innate senses of deliciousness and what I personally find convincing is the idea that we are kind of hard wired to go after vital things. Fats, sugars you know these sorts of things. There might be some amount of hardwiring there, but beyond that a lot of taste, a lot of the flavors that we appreciate is learned through exposure and upbringing and we have a great capacity, a great potential for learning to like all sorts of flavors and blood is one flavor that we can learn to appreciate. I think for a lot of us in the West who don’t grow up with it, it’s very challenging because of that harsh metallic flavor that comes from the iron content. But there are people for whom that’s considered a feature as opposed to a bug. It’s not something that they’re trying to mitigate in the cooking. It’s actually something they consider a useful counterpoint to sweets for instance. There are a lot of Italian desserts, traditional Italian desserts usually served around carnival that would incorporate blood alongside sugar and chocolate with the idea that the earthiness and the metallic tang of the blood counteracts or balances out the sweets and the earthiness of the chocolate compounds with it. There’s a lot of taste that is learned and a lot that you can learn to appreciate within blood.
HELEN: You talk about how it might be a learned taste or it might be something that we’ve learned not to do. Can you just give us a little window? How did you learn to do this because obviously this peaked your interest. This is what you’re writing about. This is what you’re focusing on and I can hear the joy in your voice as you talk about this.
MARK: I suppose I was always an adventurous eater and I have family who are of the Cajun French American more generally background, so some of those family members are doing a lot of hunting and cooking with blood. There’s a blood sausage tradition within Cajun cooking so these were things that I encountered growing up and it was normal in certain corners of my family to consume. I also tried everything whenever I could so you know if I would encounter something like a blood soup, yeah I’m going to try that. I’ve never had that before. Let’s see how it goes. So for me it was just a process of one, this was not as weird in my experience as it might have been for some other people and two, just trying to throw away any taboos I’ve learned, let’s try that, let’s try that thing that’s on this menu. Let’s try that thing. Oh, I’m going to a live slaughter, let’s do that! I also grew up in a place where when I would drive 5 minutes away from my house, I’d go by the local TV station and there were cows grazing in a field out in front of it.
HELEN: Ok that doesn’t happen around Boston where I live. No cows around the TV station.
MARK: Yeah, and it’s a little more developed now than when I was a child but at the same time there is enough exposure growing up to animals and slaughter that I also was not perhaps as squeamish about the sight of blood or the notion of blood or the idea of whole animal and animal being rendered. So there was just a willingness to try things, and then for me a delight in learning about culinary traditions that I’m not a part of. I always want to be trying something new I always want to be learning about new flavors and new ingredients. To my eternal delight, even after decades of living, I have not stopped finding new ways of cooking with ingredients and new ingredients to cook with and blood is a particularly a fruitful one because of how little we work with it, in America especially.
HELEN: I really keep hearing that joy from you that just sounds so sincere and thank you for sharing that. You talked about, you love learning about things you’re not a part of. Let’s flip it a little bit. So we have listeners who are all somehow interested in blood. They might be seasoned hematologists many years and at a very high-level doing their work. They might be new to entering the health professions whether they are doctors or residents or nurses or anyone else who is at the early stage of their careers, and of course we have people like me. I love to learn too, but I had never thought about this concept. What would you like all of us to know? Let’s start with the seasoned professionals. Those hematologists who’ve been doing this for a lifetime. What do you want them to know about blood as food?
MARK: This really depends on what their pre-existing relationship to it is. I guess the thing that I’d want people who work with blood to think about is just, why aren’t you eating it yourself assuming that you don’t which a lot of people don’t. People who have some knowledge of blood probably have an understanding of how nutritionally rich it is, how much nutritional potential there is in blood. It’s basically liquid protein rich in iron. There’s so much potential to it. So it has always been shocking to me that I don’t hear more about people who actually work with blood eating blood themselves despite knowing how much nutritional potential it has. Why not try it? If you work with blood and you are fully aware of say how much of an animal is blood, why wouldn’t you be eating that considering how much of that blood is just going to get washed down the drain. Well not all of it is washed down the drain. A lot of it gets funneled to pharmaceuticals or animal food or things like that. But why wouldn’t you be eating it?
HELEN: Switching it up a little bit. You make a compelling case for those who care and know so much about blood. What goes wrong with it, what is right for it, and the life sustaining qualities of blood and certainly our listeners all bring that. What about someone who might be newer in the health professions, who’s just starting out and the whole big world is out there for them to explore when it comes to science and medicine. What would you want them to know about blood as food?
MARK: You raise an interesting point in terms of people who are just starting out. I might flip the question a little bit to say what I want them to find out? Because one of the problems that we have especially in figuring out how to work with blood is the question of cooking with blood has not received a whole lot of rigorous scientific inquiry so for instance we don’t actually have a whole lot of knowledge about what the __ flavor compounds within blood are. So what gives blood specific flavors? What are the differences between the flavor compounds in different types of blood? Anecdotally we know through a lot of common cooking wisdom that there’s a difference in the quality of cooking with duck blood vs deer blood vs. bull blood vs. pigs’ blood which is the most common. There’s a lot we don’t know about just properties of blood that don’t matter as much for health per se but might matter a lot in using it as a culinary ingredient and figuring out how to preserve it as a culinary ingredient, how to work with it safely. So if there’s any early career professional out there please tell me more about the flavor compounds of blood. I would love it if you would research that.
HELEN: Thank you and my added question would be about different cultures, and particularly cultures who might be starving right now, and you talked about its strong nutritional properties as equivalent to an egg perhaps. So let’s find other ways with resources we have to keep people fed and safe and alive. So thank you for that. Okay, the third category of questions is just for the general public. You certainly have piqued my interest. I’m not sure I’m still going to go out and go try this right away but maybe there are much more adventurous eaters than I. What’s the challenge for us?
MARK: Well you know, Helen, for somebody like yourself who doesn’t eat meat, it’s not a thing where I’m going to push everybody to go out and eat this thing that you don’t eat for ethical or health reasons or for practical reasons. At the same time, even somebody who doesn’t consume meat, I would want everybody to just challenge the taboos that they hold. Know that the squeamishness that you feel is not something that everyone holds and this probably gets us into a whole other rabbit hole, but when I try to talk to people about eating bugs.
HELEN: Eating bugs?
MARK: Bugs, b-u-g-s.
HELEN: Oh, that’s a whole other podcast. That’s a whole other squeamish path for me.
MARK: Which 2 billion people around the world do as a part of their natural diet and that’s another thing where we have this sort of inborn sense especially in the West, that oh we hate that because it is something that is hardwired into us. That it is a hardwired aversion that we have. And the answer is now that’s a very Eurocentric or American-centric perspective to say that the taboos that we have must be hardwired into other people, in the people who do a different thing are weird. No, we are the weird ones. In the light of history and in the light of the wider world, we are the weird ones in holding some of these taboos. So question them, that’s what I would say.
HELEN: Question our taboos. Appreciate that we are weird. Maybe smile about it. You’re certainly getting me to chuckle about it and be a little bit more humble here. Mark, I want to put a semicolon in this conversation. You’ve really provided a tremendous amount of information. As you said, how great it is to be learning about things you’re not a part of that are new to you, and I certainly did. And I’m sure that the listeners of Talking About Blood did too. I hope that they also go to your article that’s on the website of The Blood Project and then there are also ways to contact you so you give a wealth of information. Thank you thank you thank you for being a guest on Talking About Blood.
MARK: Thanks again for talking to me about this. I hope some people will get some good information out of it.
HELEN: As we just heard from Mark Hay, it’s important to open our worlds and perhaps learn about things we didn’t always know about. And that’s one of the many beauties of The Blood Project, specifically the humanities section that I’m a part of. To learn more about The Blood Project and explore its many resources for professionals, trainees, and patients, go to thebloodproject.com. I also invite you to listen to my other podcast series about health communication. It’s at healthliteracyoutloud.com. Please help spread the word about this podcast series and The Blood Project. Thank you for listening. Until next time, I’m Helen Osborne.