Originally created 01/17/04

Brain sandwiches available despite fears of mad cow disease



EVANSVILLE, Ind. -- Fear of mad cow disease hasn't kept Cecelia Coan from eating her beloved deep-fried cow-brain sandwiches.

She's more concerned about cholesterol than suffering the brain-wasting disease found in a cow in Washington state last month.

"I think I'll have hardening of the arteries before I have mad cow disease," said Coan, picking up a brain sandwich to go during her lunch hour this week. "This is better than snail, better than sushi, better than a lot of different delicacies."

The brains, coated with egg, seasoning and flour, puff up when cooked. They are served hot, heaping outside the bun.

The sandwiches trace their heritage to a time when immigrants to southern Indiana wasted little after arriving from Germany and Holland. Some families have their own recipes passed down through generations.

Their time-honored delicacy now carries new dangers after a single cow was diagnosed with mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, at a dairy farm in south-central Washington state. The case, announced Dec. 23, was the first in the United States.

Since then, there's been little evidence of consumers turning away from beef, although humans risk developing a brain-wasting illness, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, if they eat contaminated beef products.

Mad cow disease won't scare this crowd, said Coan, 40, a bank teller who likes her brain sandwich served with mustard and pickled onions.

"You're going to die anyway. Either die happy or you die miserable. That's the German attitude, isn't it?" Coan said.

The delicacy is served at German-heritage restaurants such as the Hilltop Inn, a former stagecoach stop in this Ohio River city that opened in 1837. The sandwiches are also popular at events such as Evansville's fall festival, where vendors typically sell out early.

The sandwiches could become harder to find after the U.S. Department of Agriculture banned the selling of brains of cattle older than 30 months.

The 30-month cutoff is used because the incubation period for cattle to develop the disease ranges from months to many years, said Denise Derrer, spokeswoman for the Indiana State Board of Animal Health.

Some meat suppliers have stopped selling the cow brains completely.

Since they opened in 1916, butchers at Dewig Brothers Meats in Haubstadt, Ind., north of Evansville, saved the brains to sell for $1.50 to $2 a pound.

The decision to halt such sales means customers will have to switch to pork brains, which are smaller and more difficult to cook, owner Tom Dewig said.

Consumers, however, are not likely to taste the difference.

"The taste is really carried in the batter," Dewig said.

Brain-based dishes are not limited to Indiana. Across the Ohio River in Kentucky, squirrel brain served with fried eggs was once considered a rural delicacy. The popularity declined, however, after researchers found a possible link between eating squirrel brains and contracting mad cow.

In California, cow brains are commonly sold as taco filling and called by their Spanish name, "sesos." In some Texas border towns, barbacoa, made from the cow's head and brain, is served during the holidays.

It will take more than one case of mad cow disease, however, to keep Nick Morrow, a 45-year-old Indiana pipe-fitter, from eating the brain sandwiches he's enjoyed since childhood.

Morrow talked friend Scott Moore into eating at the Hilltop Inn just so he could have one. Mad cow disease was far from his mind.

"Well, I haven't won the lottery yet, so I don't figure I'll get that," Moore said as a hot brain sandwich sat on a plate before him.