Brains and eggs remain menu mainstay despite scare of mad-cow

MISSOULA, Mont. -- Short-order cook Dianna Keeland looks a little disgusted as she takes a cow brain from the fridge and tosses the grayish, softball-sized organ onto the grill.

"They look like something a human being shouldn't eat," Keeland said.

She chops the sizzling mass into bite-size bits, scrambles in some eggs, onion and peppers and serves the steaming plate to a waiting customer at the Oxford restaurant bar.

Even with hashbrowns, toast and a beverage chaser, two chewy bites are enough to confirm it is an acquired taste.

Across the West and South, brains and eggs are still a menu mainstay. Southerners consider pork brains a delicacy, but here, in the heart of beef country, Keeland fries up cow brains -- and the orders haven't stopped despite mad-cow disease scares.

"That's the trademark dish here," said manager Ralph Baker, who eventually volunteers he's a vegetarian and has never tried brains and eggs himself.

"Frankly, if I was even eating steak every day," Baker said, "I wouldn't eat 'em."

At Big Ed's City Market in Raleigh, N.C., owner Richard Watkins serves up pork brains. He gets about a half-dozen orders a week, mostly from older customers who remember eating it growing up.

"Back in the Depression, you didn't waste anything on a hog," he said.

Watkins said his dish, served at the family owned-restaurant for 40 years, tastes similar to ham and eggs.

"It's very tasty," he said. "I love it."

At the Oxford in Missoula, a landmark bar and grill for a half century, the dish has been on the menu from the beginning -- and it has always been cow brains.

Even news this spring that five bulls linked to a Canadian cow infected with the disease were traced to Montana didn't slow orders -- about a dozen or so a week, often from drunken college students. Livestock officials eventually found no evidence any of the animals -- all of them already sent to slaughter -- were infected.

Willing to take a risk

The human form of mad-cow disease is known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. Scientists say people get the fatal illness by eating meat products containing brain or spinal tissue from infected animals.

"I think you're just as likely to get West Nile virus as the mad-cow disease," Baker says. "Nobody worries about it."

There have been no confirmed cases of mad-cow disease in the United States, nor have there been any confirmed cases of anyone contracting the human variant in the United States from eating infected meat products.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of getting the human variant of the disease even in the United Kingdom -- where most cases occur -- is perhaps about 1 case per 10 billion servings.

Unlike other illnesses that can be found in meat products, such as E. coli, the agent that carries mad cow cannot be killed by cooking it at high temperatures. But health officials have not developed a specific recommendation about eating cow brains, mostly because there have been no cases of mad-cow disease in the United States, said Jim Murphy of the state health department in Montana.

At the Ox, a plate of brains and eggs costs $6 and comes with hash browns and toast. For some, it helps to douse them in Tabasco sauce or lots of gravy. Some chase it down with a shot of whiskey.

Keeland said some orders are placed by college freshman going through an initiation of some sort.

"I've had to write actual notes verifying that so-and-so ate the brains and eggs," she said.