Making blood pancakes means coming to terms with the reality of slaughter
There’s a fundamental practicality to cooking with blood. For starters, it’s economical, a way to use every last bit of a slaughtered animal. Animals have a lot of blood, as much as 4.5 kilograms per pig, according to the Nordic Food Lab. As an ingredient, blood is a great thickener for sauces and soups, and it’s unsurprisingly protein-rich. “Blood is really nourishing. I think that’s where it all begins. And if you are living particularly in cold climates,” explained Darra Goldstein, editor-in-chief of Cured, “and you need something that is warming in the winter, it also fulfills that purpose.”
That’s probably one reason blood pancakes came to be a staple of Nordic cuisine, eventually spreading from Finland to Sweden and Denmark. It’s a tradition that’s very much still alive. As Jennifer McLagan writes in her book Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal, so-called black pancakes “are so popular in Finland that you can buy blood pancake mix in the supermarket.”
Blood pancakes, also known as veriohukainenin Finnish or blödplattar in Swedish, are not an everyday kind of dish. “I have been in Finland for close to a month over the past two years,” said Goldstein, “and no one ever served me a blood pancake.” But there seems to be a renewed interest in what Atlas Obscura recently described as “the Most Metal of All Flapjacks.” As Goldstein writes in her book Fire + Ice: Classic Nordic Cooking, “The New Nordic movement has now cast them as chic—along with other traditional Finnish foods like reindeer, rutabaga, and malted rye porridge.”
Scandinavian blood pancakes aren’t the only way to eat blood for breakfast, though. Do a little digging into the tradition of cooking with blood, and you quickly realize that there are blood-based dishes served around the world. You can eat blood curd, also known as blood tofu, for breakfast in China—a delicate dish made by lightly cooking congealed blood, often served in a soup. In Thailand, there’s raw pig’s blood soup if you’re feeling daring, or laab dib, a mix of cow’s blood, raw beef, and bile. There’s blood in French cuisine, like pressed duck, also known as canard au sang. And, of course, there are the British breakfast staples of blood sausage and black pudding.
I know all of this—that blood is just another ingredient used around the world and has been for centuries—and yet when I made Finnish blood pancakes with lingonberry jam in my own kitchen the other day, I had to take some deep breaths before pouring the pint of fresh blood into batter.
My closest contact with pig’s blood before that point was through Stephen King’s Carrie, that image of Sissy Spacek standing in a pink prom dress, drenched in a viscous red liquid. It was a hard one to shake from my consciousness as that same liquid spilled out of the plastic takeout container and into the mixing bowl. As the batter changed color from a pale yellow to a nearly fluorescent red, I wondered if the blood would stain the wooden handle of my rubber spatula. Then I gagged.
There’s something visceral about working with blood as an ingredient, especially since, for basically my entire lifetime, I’ve been told that blood is disgusting by friends and society alike. Blood, especially pork blood, is forbidden in many religions, including Judaism and Islam. Libby O’Connell, a food historian, hypothesizes that part of Americans’ resistance to blood actually stems from the fact of our multicultural society, a small irony since many cultures do have their own blood-based dishes. “If you’ve got cultures you’re sharing public space with that think that blood is taboo and disgusting, some of that is going to wear off more than it might in other countries where there’s less immediate multiethnicity,” she explained, “at least for a longer time.”
When did Americans stop eating blood?
My aversion to blood isn’t for a lack of American tradition, even if it has become engrained in the culture writ large. It’s a preference that’s reinforced by media, sure, but also by the slaughterhouse industry. The disappearance of blood in American cuisine has only happened in the last fifty years or so, and it shows how American tastes have evolved with the rise of mechanized food production.
“We [ate] blood-based sausages and soups and gravies really for the first 300 years” of American history, explained O’Connell. Pork was common through colonial America, and the British classics of blood sausage and black pudding were brought over and enjoyed by colonists. “In the New World, hogs found paradise,” writes O’Connell in her book The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites, and no part of the pig was off limits. “They used the whole animal,” said O’Connell, adding, “There’s a saying about pigs. When you slaughter a pig, the only thing you don’t use is the squeal.”
The familiarity with raising animals and slaughter changed quickly, though. “Americans started separating from their food sources,” said O’Connell. The shift in American relationship with their meat started as early as the mid-17th century, with the opening of one of the country’s first pig slaughterhouses in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1662. According to research from Amy J. Fitzgerald, an assistant professor at the University of Windsor in Canada, by the 18th century, reformers were pushing for larger public slaughterhouses rather than smaller butcher operations, in order to “remove the sight of animal slaughter from public places and indiscreet private slaughterhouses,” seeding the idea that animals should be eaten yet not seen.
“This separation of the public from the slaughter of animals they consume developed into a hyperseparated state with the industrialization of animal slaughter,” continues Fitzgerald, up through modern day. Slaughterhouses are generally isolated from the general public, which is why exposes of the meatpacking industry like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation or even Upton Sinclair’s seminal novel The Jungle continue to shock. And now, the slaughterhouse system is more concentrated and efficient than ever before, with the fastest factory lines killing 400 cows per hour, up from only 179 cattle an hour in the 1970s. Companies like Iowa Beef Processors company (IBP), according to Fitzgerald, have moved away from hanging and transporting large sides of meat in favor of boxed beef, which has had the fat and bones removed then vacuum-packed, in order to cut down on costs.
As a result, most Americans have likely never seen an animal carcass, and the meat Americans eat is so separated from the reality of slaughter that it’s easy to delude yourself into thinking there’s no animal at all. “You might have a vegetable garden in your back your, or you might be like me and have some fresh herbs in your garden, but most people don’t even see animals,” added O’Connell. “They don’t know what it looks like to slaughter an animal. They don’t want to know that. They want to buy pork tenderloin in a sealed package. They don’t want to have things with bones in it anymore.” That lack of familiarity with the animal as a whole, not just a filleted side of meat, has lead to a lack of familiarity with the offals, including blood.
Where do you find fresh blood in New York City?
Blood is best eaten fresh, which is hard to do, and relatively expensive, when meat is being shipped halfway across the country from a concentrated number of slaughterhouses. That doesn’t mean the blood from slaughter goes to waste, though. Every part of the pig is used, in a process generally referred to as rendering, and these days, pork blood is more valuable for its industrial uses than as food. "Rendering has been around for a very long time, back to when the Native Americans realized that if you poured blood on your corn crops they grew better because it's a good fertilizer," says Jessica Meisinger, director of education, science and communication at the National Renderers Association, told National Public Radio, and to this day, you can find dried pork blood as a plant fertilizer. It’s also an ingredient in pet food, even some cigarette filters.
There’s also a belief among Americans that, “you’re ‘safer’ eating these pre-sliced filets of well-known meat,” hypothesized O’Connell. “That seems to be the American attitude,” one that was only solidified by the outbreak of Mad Cow Disease in the mid-1990s. But it’s not like slaughterhouses are spotlessly clean. The mechanization of the industry over the last half-century has been linked to an increase in the number of foodborne outbreaks, even with these familiar meats like chicken or ground beef—and blood is particularly vulnerable to infection.
Marianne H. Gravely, a senior technical information specialist at the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, described blood as a “perfect medium for growing bacteria” and very, very perishable, which only complicates the process of getting edible blood to a consumer. (Gravely did, however, reassure me that she didn’t know of any recalls of blood or “illnesses linked to commercially purchased blood or products that consumers have made with blood,” though she noted that could be because of the small sample size.)
Blood has also gotten a bad reputation among butchers over the years. O’Connell’s go-to butcher at R&S Meat Market on Long Island—who, she happily told me, can get her anything from wild boar’s meat to all sorts of game—explained to her that many high-end shops steered clear of carrying blood for a long time, “because it fell into disrepute because there were some butchers who were using blood poured into their hamburgers to make the hamburger red and look fresh again. So you didn’t want to be one of those butchers that essentially reconstituted the meat with fresh blood.”
I ran up against that stigma when I tried sourcing blood in New York City. One Brooklyn-based butcher I called was shocked that I was asking for blood. “Are you Dracula or something? What are you going to do with pork blood? No, seriously. I’m asking.” After a failed trip to my favorite Chinese supermarket Fei Long in Sunset Park, which only served pork blood in curd form, I finally found a butcher in Hell’s Kitchen, a Manhattan neighborhood that was once known for its slaughterhouses until reformers deemed them a nuisance and insisted they leave the city.
But Esposito Meat Market has been around since 1932, and, to this day, offers up every part of the pig from blood to brains. The fresh blood was presumably stored in the back fridge, certainly not in the main display case alongside giant slabs of deli ham and whole chickens. A pint of blood was handed to me in a brown paper bag so no one could see what was inside, and when I asked where it came from, the answer was simply, “Hatfield, Pennsylvania.”
Goldstein first tasted blood pancakes while visiting Finland in the 1970s. A friend’s mother knew that Goldstein was excited about traditional Finnish cuisine and wanted to make sure she got the full experiences. So one morning, Goldstein recalled, “We went down to the butcher shop where he poured fresh blood into the pitcher. And walking back from the butcher,” she continued, “the blood was steaming in the cold air, and it was both very beautiful, but there was also something stomach-churning about it, because it still seemed very much alive.”
The Finnish mother whipped up a batch of pancakes. “It was a batter, in between a thick pancake batter and a really loose crepe batter, and she fried them on a skillet,” and Goldstein described them a beautiful, a deep mahogany once cooked. But actually eating the pancakes was a different story. “It still felt like it was doubly transgressive, if you know what I mean. That it had gone beyond cow’s blood, and I really was about to consume the essential pig,” she said. “I respected them, I admired them, I recognized their deliciousness, but I couldn’t completely enjoy them.”
My blood from Esposito Meat Market did not steam in the winter air. It was instead quickly, and quietly, transported home in a green, insulated lunch bag on subway back to Brooklyn during rush hour. Upon opening up the brown paper packaging and pulling out the plastic container that could’ve just as easily contained lo mein from a Chinese takeout place, I could still tell what Goldstein meant. The fresh pork blood had gotten shaken up during transit and now had a froth at the top. I started at it, took some photos, and immediately covered it up, shoved it into the paper back and to the back of my fridge.
How do you cook with blood?
I’ve made many stacks of pancakes in my lifetime, and I’ve worked with plenty of raw meat before. But no recipe has given me as much anxiety as these blood pancakes. Gravely, the expert for the USDA, had firmly advised me to use the blood the same day as purchase, otherwise my risk for a foodborne infection would increase. Keep it refrigerated until you’re ready to use it, she said, as you would with most other animal products, and cook it to 160°F, like any other pork product. “You’d treat your eggs in your recipe the same way,” Gravely reminded me, which is an apt comparison since, according to the food scientists at the Nordic Food Lab, blood has a similar protein composition to that of a chicken egg.
What I realized as I whisked together the batter—made with buckwheat flour, milk, minced and sauteed onions, a collection of spices, and, of course, fresh pork blood, based on a recipe from the Nordic Recipe Archive—and heated up butter in my cast iron skillet is that cooking blood pancakes is pretty close to cooking regular pancakes. They bubble up in the middle, leaving little pockmarks so you know when to flip them. The only differences are that the batter is a deep crimson that quickly turns into a dark brown on the griddle, like an aged scab.
After making a stack of a dozen or so pancakes, I took the freshest pancake and covered it in lingonberry jam. The pancake was steaming hot, and it flopped onto the plate with a rubbery texture that seemed less than appealing. The dark color made them appear overcooked, even if they might’ve been raw in the middle. These black pancakes were hardcore, for sure, but they’re not pretty. I took a deep breath followed by a small bite and, in the greatest cliché of all, immediately spit it out. I was reminded of that time I ran into a tree in elementary school while playing soccer and busted my lip and my mouth filled with my own warm blood. It was almost bitter, gritty, with an earthiness to it that I couldn’t quite place.
I let the pancake cool and eventually worked up the strength to take another bite, which was more tolerable. The flavors were more complex, less visceral, though still feral. The sweetness of the sauteed onions cut through the thickness, though the rubbery and gritty texture still made me cringe, sending shivers down my spine. Even an extra helping of lingonberry jam couldn’t save this dish for me.
Cooking with blood makes sense, even as it forces us to reckon with the reality of meat and animal slaughter. Blood is starting to reemerge on menus at some of the world’s greatest restaurants. “American tourists might come and see blood on the menu, and if they’re at a place like Noma, they’ll get that frisson of excitement that they’re doing something that seems very titillating, as though they’re being bold in their eating,” noted Goldstein. “But it’s definitely marked for them in a way that it wouldn’t necessarily for someone who grew up eating things that contained blood.”
Unless there’s a sea change in the way Americans process meat, it is unlikely that blood will ever become popular again—but maybe that’s why Americans are so afraid of this otherwise traditional ingredient. Eating blood is a stark reminder of how far removed we’ve become from our food, how much control we’ve really lost over what we eat and why. It’s easier to eat the recognizable slabs of meat, even if we don’t really know what goes into them at all.