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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Blood is a respected ingredient around the world, but less so in the U.S. A new book aims to change that.

(Simone Noronha for The Washington Post)

A decade ago, when Jennifer McLagan wrote her cookbook “Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal” — an encomium to cooking with gizzards, testicles and all the other parts of animals that tend to become objects of culinary neglect — she snuck four bold recipes into the text: blood pudding, blood pancakes, chicken with a blood-enlivened sauce, and a sweet blood custard. She was hoping to shift prevailing attitudes toward cooking with blood, a practice that some in North America may dismiss as, in a word, disgusting.

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Things didn’t go quite as planned. Years later, McLagan, an Australian native who now lives in Toronto, noticed that the squeamishness around cooking with blood persisted in Canada and the United States. So McLagan had a solution: She would write an entire cookbook of recipes incorporating blood, an ingredient that cuisines around the world have long utilized.

“If you really think about milk, it’s kind of weird to be drinking it,” McLagan said in January. “And if you think about eggs, it’s kind of weird to be eating them. But they’re just part of our everyday life.”

McLagan’s “Blood,” published by the Toronto-based small press Good Egg, is an 87-page compendium of 23 recipes that respects blood for what it is: an ingredient, like milk or eggs. She spent a year and a half regularly trekking to her local farmers market, where a pork producer would give her fresh blood in plastic containers, and compiling recipes that go beyond the expected blood sausage. There is a sweet blood gelato, animated with orange zest that zaps the metallic taste from blood, giving it the flavor of chocolate. There is a whiskey sour and blood marshmallows, both of them with blood in place of egg whites. In the marshmallows, the blood, which can be beaten to a froth or even a stable foam like egg whites, announces itself only in color: They are red as raspberries, but otherwise as pillowy and sweet as any other marshmallow you’d find.

“They’re recipes where the blood isn’t in your face,” McLagan said. “You know, it’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m eating blood.’ In fact, I think if you didn’t tell anybody, they wouldn’t know.”

Throughout her career, McLagan has celebrated perfectly usable ingredients people may ignore out of culturally conditioned instinct. Her prior cookbooks include “Bones: Recipes, History, & Lore” (William Morrow, 2005) and “Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes” (Ten Speed Press, 2008). Casual cooks might regard these topics as idiosyncratic. McLagan chooses subjects based on what piques her curiosity, though, not what the mass market demands.

“I don’t think I’ve written any of my books thinking about an audience,” she said. “I’m pretty selfish, you know?”

McLagan’s avowed selfishness has found her devoted followers in the food world, among them cookbook author Dorie Greenspan. “Her work is so good, so important, so thoughtful, so deeply researched and so quirky,” Greenspan said. “Jennifer follows her passions and takes us readers and cooks to places we might not go to if she didn’t lead us there.”

McLagan has received ample attention from the food establishment, winning four James Beard Awards for her books. “Blood” was originally published in 2019, but late last year it gained more readers when it earned a place on The New Yorker’s list of 2020’s best cookbooks. Still, McLagan is aware that her latest choice of subject matter might seem especially extreme to the timid. “We’re all aware of our own blood,” she said. “It’s like trying to get people to eat tongue, or heart. It’s too close to home sometimes.”

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McLagan, who grew up in the suburbs of Melbourne, was accustomed to eating brains, liver and kidneys as a kid. Her cooking career, which she embarked on over three decades ago, would take her to kitchens in London, Paris and New York. McLagan’s first culinary encounter with blood was in France, where she had a hare stew thickened with blood. “It was so rich, and so delicious,” she remembered.

But in her travels, McLagan noticed a uniquely North American intolerance for cooking with blood that she attributes to the American consumer’s detachment from the origins of their food. “And I think today, we still have that problem — that people are so disconnected from where their food comes from, especially their meat and how it’s slaughtered and processed, that they never think about blood being something that they want to eat,” she said.

McLagan is sensitive to the ethical and religious justifications many people may have for not wanting to cook with blood. She is also aware of the limits of her scope. “I do have a very narrow, Western Europe-centric approach in my food,” she admitted. Blood, after all, features prominently in a good number of world cuisines: Filipino, Hungarian, Thai.

Growing up in Bangkok, Leela Punyaratabandhu, a cookbook author who writes on the food of Thailand, was used to seeing pork blood cakes on her dinner table. She had special affection for phat lueat mu, a stir-fry featuring large cubes of the cakes alongside garlic, cracked pepper and green onions. Pork blood cakes, Punyaratabandhu said, tend to have little of the metallic aftertaste you’d find in chicken and duck blood cakes. Instead, they’re mild, even creamy. If you close your eyes, you can’t even tell you’re ingesting blood.

“It's such a distinct, unique texture — not quite soft tofu; not quite Jell-O either,” Punyaratabandhu wrote in an email. “And this, to me, answers the question of what makes it worthwhile to cook with blood. The texture of well-made pork blood cakes is something quite wonderful.”

Central Thailand, where Bangkok is located, is home to a wealth of dishes with blood, Punyaratabandhu said: Cubes of duck blood cake can swim in a bowl of kuai-tiao pet, a duck noodle soup, while fresh cow’s blood can flavor broth for kuai-tiao ruea, or boat noodles. There, blood sits at the bottom of a bowl beneath blanched vegetables, blanched noodles and paper-thin slices of raw beef, all topped with sweltering broth.

Dishes elsewhere in Thailand contain fresh pig’s or cow’s blood, Punyaratabandhu added. In khao kan jin, a northern Thai dish, pork blood is mixed with rice and steamed in a banana leaf. Fresh beef blood and bile can appear in a warm, spicy beef salad with a riot of dried herbs and chilies.

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“In both of these dishes, the blood, when cooked, deepens flavor and provides a slight iron-y taste that hums in the background,” she said. “Leave out the blood, and they’re merely a shadow of themselves.” Punyaratabandhu, now based in the Chicago area, makes these two dishes often, getting plastic tubs of fresh blood and bile “at my favorite Asian store in town.”

McLagan is hopeful that, moving forward, access to blood as an ingredient will become more commonplace in North America. “There’s certainly not a lack of supply of blood,” she said. “It’s just not coming through to the regular consumer.” As long as animal slaughter is a reality of the way Americans eat, blood will remain.

McLagan sees her small project as the prelude to a more robust cookbook with recipes from around the globe, making use of blood in all its forms: coagulated, powdered, fresh. She is content to let her passions steer her. “I believe that if I’m interested in a topic, there’ll probably be at least 10 other people that are interested in the topic — maybe, hopefully, more,” she said. “That’s why I’m not a bestseller.”

Sen is the author of “Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America,” coming from W.W. Norton & Company in November. He teaches food journalism at New York University.

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