The Nasty Bits: Sweetbreads

A friend, knowing of my fondness for sweetbreads and poetry, sent me an email the other day containing just these cryptic lines:

You drive me to confess in ink: Once I was fool enough to think That brains and sweetbreads were the same, Till I was caught and put to shame, First by a butcher, then a cook, Then by a scientific book. But 'twas by making sweetbreads do I passed with such a high I.Q.

It was easy enough to determine that these lines were from a poem by Robert Frost entitled "Quandary." Less simple was figuring out what the poem means. Something about knowledge and the relation between good and evil? I'm pretty sure it's about that.

Just like, though I have already purchased, photographed, cooked, and eaten this organ, I'm mostly, but not entirely certain that these are thymus gland sweetbreads. Sweetbreads, to clarify, are a culinary term that refers to two very different organs—the thymus glands and the pancreas, the latter which is often called the "stomach sweetbread," though of course, the stomach and the pancreas are different.

To conflate the matter, a whole sweetbread is comprised of two lobes connected by a tube. There is the rounder, more compact sweetbread, which is called the "heart" sweetbread because of its shape, not because it is in any way related to the heart as an organ. And there is the "throat sweetbread," which is longer and lumpier. It is generally agreed among butchers and cooks that the thymus glands have a finer texture and flavor than the pancreas, but the latter, being larger, offers the advantage of being able to be sliced into medallions.


I'm about 95 percent sure these are the heart sweetbreads from the thymus glands of a calf. Evidence in support of this claim: A) The part was flatter than throat sweetbreads, and very much resembled a heart; B) Thymus sweetbreads tend only to come from young animals, humans included, because the organ shrinks post adolescence.

Evidence to the contrary: When asked, the farmer who sold me these sweetbreads said that they were from a cow, not a calf.

So, there is a chance, I suppose, that these are in fact pancreas sweetbreads from a cow. But then I would have expected him to say something like, "By the way, madam, this is actually a pancreas."

Oh well, some depths are better left un-plumbed. I'd rather spend my time unpacking that very lovely poem by Frost than hemming and hawing over exactly what sweetbread I put into my stomach. Especially since all sweetbreads—throat sweetbreads, heart sweetbreads, and pancreas sweetbreads—are good to eat. Actually, no, I am quite curious and will be interrogating the farmer next week, I should think.


On another point, the venerable Mr. Frost is correct. Sweetbreads and brains are in no way related, though the mistake is understandable. Both are vein-y and white and lumpish. Both are creamy. In the kitchen, sweetbreads and brains are suited for the same kind of preparations: poaching, followed by deep-frying or pan-frying. Yet sweetbreads, containing gelatin and albumen, are much firmer in texture, so much so that I often forgo the poaching and cook them as-is. The texture is looser, which I enjoy. You can sauté or pan-fry the sweetbreads with whatever flavors you like. This time, I used mustard seed and turmeric, sautéed with plenty of onions and chili peppers, for a vaguely Indian preparation that tasted nice with fragrant basmati on the side.

Finally, if anyone else knows of any poems containing references to offal, I would be most grateful for those stanzas.