We're eating fewer brains these days. Lest you think that I'm referring to warding off a zombie apocalypse, I'm really talking about the demise of eating scrambled eggs and animal brains for breakfast. After perusing cookbooks and crowdsourcing some information on the subject through social media, two things are clear to me: Cooks from many cultures have animal brains in their culinary repertoire, and it's a dish that a whole lot of people used to eat. Ruth Gaskins, author of the seminal soul food cookbook A Good Heart and a Light Hand, underscores the latter in the introduction she wrote for her book's "Brains and Eggs" recipe: "This dish, another from way back, is usually eaten for breakfast."
I've never eaten scrambled eggs and brains for breakfast, but members of my extended family have. They had that in common with culinary all-stars like James Beard who wrote in his American Cookery (1972), "I have served this dish on many occasions as a luncheon dish, and many a club has featured it on certain days of the week." Several iconic American cookbooks like The Boston Cooking School Cook Book (1884), The White House Cookbook (1889), Southern Cooking by Henrietta Dull (1929), The Gourmet Magazine Cookbook (1959), The Joy of Cooking (1975) and The Black Family Reunion Cookbook (1993) all have brain recipes, several of them including scrambled eggs. Given all of these shout outs, how did something so popular fall off the national breakfast plate?
First, let's get some background on this culinary combination. Scrambled eggs and brains hearken back to the days when farmers slaughtered and butchered their animals, usually during the fall when the weather had cooled enough to prevent meat from quickly spoiling. Butchering time was often a communal affair where several farmers got together, pooled their animals and their labor.
After the butchering, a team of people busily worked to preserve the meat (choice and lesser cuts) by whatever method was preferred: corning, drying, pickling, salting or smoking. That left oodles of organ meat, including brains, which had to be eaten quickly. Any brains could be on the menu, but American diners preferred calf and pig brains.
Though scrambled eggs and brains were eaten in every nook and corner of our country, at any time of the day, at some point the dish became known as a special breakfast in the American South. No one is specifically credited with creating scrambled eggs and brains, but the person who first did so probably figured that the two ingredients went well together because they have a similar texture when cooked.
The late, great southern chef Edna Lewis reminisced about scrambled eggs and brains as a holiday dish in a December 1992 interview with The Washington Post. "Afterward we opened our gifts and sat down to a Christmas breakfast of crispy fried oysters, scrambled eggs and brains from the fresh-butchered hogs, liver pudding, sausage and fresh crisp bacon. There were biscuits, batter bread, hominy, homemade butter, preserves or jelly, coffee and cocoa, and dandelion wine."
Even though scrambled eggs and brains were closely associated with a rural diet, there were efforts to boost its consumption in the cities, especially during times of deprivation. During World War II, a time of scarcity and meat rationing, newspaper food sections across the country encouraged their readers to eat more brains. The general public developed a mental block about eating brains when "mad cow disease" got so much publicity in the 1990s. The fear was that eating infected animal brains could lead to contracting a similar condition for humans called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Unsurprisingly, scrambled eggs and brains became something that rarely shows up today on American restaurant menus.
Despite this climate of fear, it was so refreshing to find a rare individual who is an unabashed brain eater. That person is chef Jon Emanuel who currently runs the Old Caledonian Bed & Breakfast in southeastern Missouri. Should I have expected less from someone who started an adventurous eating club or had chef stints in Alaska and at a research station at the South Pole? Emanuel remembers his paternal grandmother making them occasionally when his great uncle, a butcher on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn, would set aside some cow brains for her to cook. In his current business, Emanuel extensively uses variety meat in his cooking, and savors any brains that his meat suppliers give to him. Emanuel said that he usually eats pig's brains, "Because that's what usually comes my way. Brains are a hard sell for my B&B guests, so I save it for myself!"
Chef Emanuel prepares his scrambled eggs and brains by soaking the brains overnight in salted milk, then rinsing and poaching them in water the next morning with a generous squeeze of lemon juice. He then browns the brains with butter in a hot cast-iron skillet. Then, he pours seasoned, beaten eggs around the brain and cooks them until they thicken. Some people scramble all of the ingredients together at this point, but he prefers to keep the brains whole and let them be enveloped by the eggs and ultimately served on toast. Emanuel says, "The brains are a bit 'eggy' themselves [in texture], so it is just a completely decadent, rich and creamy plate of deliciousness."
With the resurgence of "nose to tail" cooking and eating, perhaps the future of scrambled eggs and brains is not so bleak. Like Emanuel, more people may realize that animal brains are delicious—and a terrible thing to waste.
Adrian Miller is the author of the James Beard Award-winning book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.