Mad cow fails to spoil appetite for brains

Gray matter sandwiches a favorite in Indiana

January 02, 2004|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

EVANSVILLE, Ind. - Mike Volkman is proud to be a carnivore. But there are times when a slab of meat won't cut it and the big man's appetite can only be satiated by a brain sandwich.

Not even the threat posed by the first known case of mad cow disease in the United States can keep the 60-year-old insurance agent from fried cow brains on a bun.

"Mad cow has me a little shaky," Volkman said recently while seated at a corner table at the Hilltop Inn here, looking at a plate-sized brain sandwich. "But no guts, no glory."

Brain sandwiches are still on the menu in Evansville.

In this southern Indiana river city and the surrounding area, folks such as Volkman pride themselves on the local cuisine and their love of brain sandwiches, a delicacy passed down through the generations from German ancestors who settled here.

Whether made from cows or pigs, brain sandwiches still take pride of place in about a half-dozen local taverns and restaurants. They are among the featured items at an annual fall festival.

Mad cow disease hasn't kept local residents from enjoying their traditional sandwich smothered in onions and pickles and slathered with mustard or ketchup.

"I think brain sandwiches will go on for a long, long time," said Volkman, who bit into the sandwich and tried not to splatter mustard and grease on his white polo shirt.

Across America, beef consumption appears to be holding steady as people refuse to panic, and nowhere is that more evident than in Evansville.

But food safety is creeping into local conversation since news broke that a Holstein cow in Washington state tested positive last month for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.

Cattle brains, spinal cords and lower intestines can contain abnormal proteins called prions that can cause BSE. It is thought that humans who eat brain or spinal material from an infected cow can develop variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a brain-wasting illness.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced that it will ban from the food supply brains and spinal tissue of cattle older than 30 months.

"All kinds of animal brains are eaten by people all over the world, including the United States. I'm not sure it's all that advisable ever," said Dr. Raymond Roos, professor and chairman of the department of neurology at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

What advice would Roos offer to someone contemplating eating a brain sandwich for the first time?

"Why would you do that?" he said.

"I think the risk of eating this tissue may be no different now than it was a year ago or two years ago in the sense we only have one mad cow that was identified," Roos said. "And it's my understanding no central nervous system was taken from it. On the other hand, I have to say I think there are reasons to be cautious about considering eating central nervous system tissue, a year ago and now. It has to do with prion diseases."

In Evansville, the clientele and staff are not ready to give up their brain sandwiches at the Hilltop, housed in a 19th- century stagecoach inn where the lighting is low, the sturdy oak bar is busy and fried goodies such as fish and chicken are piled high on plates.

The brains are mixed in a batter of flour, salt, pepper, eggs and baking soda and fried in a cast-iron pan for about 20 minutes, the concoction puffing up like a fat pancake, about 6 inches in diameter and 1 1/2 inches high.

"You want to make sure it's well-done," said Don Snyder, owner-operator of the Hilltop Inn. "No one wants a medium-rare brain sandwich."

And what does the sandwich taste like?

"It doesn't taste like pork, it doesn't take like beef, and it doesn't taste like chicken," Snyder said.

A brain sandwich tastes a little like mushy scrambled eggs with a fried coating. Condiments add to the taste sensation. Those who enjoy the sandwiches say that if folks didn't know what they were eating, they would swear they were great.

At $5.50 an order, the jumbo brain sandwich is a steady seller, Snyder said. The restaurant goes through about 150 pounds of brains a week. When prices rise, as they did a few years back, Snyder makes bulk purchases.

"I buy brains by the pallet," Snyder said.

Snyder, who eats a brain sandwich a month, said he is closely monitoring the mad cow disease reports but remains confident in his food supply.

"My customers are all aware of the situation, but they're not concerned," he said. "If there was anything I felt uncomfortable about, I'd stop serving them. I eat them, too."

Randy Graves, a Hilltop Inn cook, doesn't eat the sandwiches. But he has no problem ladling out the pink glutinous brain batter from a bucket.

Into a frying pan it goes, swimming in a generous portion of oil.

"They're not good for you at all," Graves said of the sandwiches. Most people who eat the sandwiches acknowledge that they're not for everyone and that they're certainly not an everyday item.

On a recent day, the first brain sandwich was ordered at 11:30 a.m. Six other orders rolled in during lunch.

"Don't knock them until you try them," said Benjamin Boone, 53, a machine operator.

Three generations of the Burgdorf family have no qualms about eating brain sandwiches or being in the presence of others who are.

Jack Burgdorf, 73, and his son, David, 44, each went for the brain sandwich as the family gathered for a holiday lunch.

"I've been eating them 55, 60 years," said Jack Burgdorf, a retired tool engineer. "I'm not worried. They would have to have more than one case [of mad cow disease] before I would get concerned. If they have more incidents, I'll be cautious."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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