Most scientists agree that the existing research is tenuous. Placenta is known to contain high levels of iron, vitamin B-12, and certain hormones—a fact activists cite as proof of its nutritional value—but there is no conclusive study linking, for example, the iron in a placenta to increased strength in a new mother. Advocates also say placentophagia helps mothers produce milk, and reference a 1954 study that claimed 86 percent of mothers experiencing lactation problems showed improved milk supply after eating freeze-dried placenta. But the study has repeatedly been discredited as unrigorous. As for cooked placenta, Kristal says any potential nutritional value would be reduced to that of a “steer liver.”
For Alexa Beckham, a petite brunette who started an encapsulation service called Ruby Tree Birth late last year, the science, or lack thereof, has little impact on the magic she experienced.
“When I was pregnant, I just craved organs,” says Beckham, a onetime vegan and raw-foodist who now eats grass-fed and organic meat. “I’d go to Diner [the Williamsburg restaurant] and order beef hearts, marrow … so the placenta just made sense.
“After I gave birth, I threw a chunk of placenta in the Vitamix with coconut water and a banana,” she adds. “It gave me the wildest rush. You know the feeling of drinking green juice on an empty stomach? It’s like that, but much more intense. It was definitely physical.”
Former model and self-described “baby planner, doula, marriage counselor, and placenta lady” London King explains, “The body follows the mind. If I drink a green drink and I think it’s good for me, then that’s great. The same thing holds for the placenta. Even if it is 100 percent psychological, it has its purpose. I’ve seen people report fewer breast-feeding problems and higher energy, and that’s evidence enough for me.”
At Hughes’s apartment, Mayer unloads her gear: a large stainless-steel knife; stainless-steel tongs; absorbent Chux pads; an apron, gloves; and a dehydrator in a box bearing promises of dried fruit and beef jerky. She begins to clean the kitchen thoroughly with bleach and a sponge. In New York, there aren’t any laws governing encapsulation other than standard food-preparation guidelines, and since Mayer doesn’t have a commercial kitchen, she must prepare a placenta in the bearer’s own home.
“When I was pregnant, I just craved organs … so the placenta just made sense.”
Hughes’s apartment is strewn with prenatal paraphernalia—a contraction log, pregnancy-yoga DVDs, raspberry-leaf tea—so when Mayer takes the placenta out of its container, it doesn’t seem entirely out of place. She lays the organ on a cutting board in the kitchen and examines it carefully.
The size and shape of placentas vary, Mayer says. “Some are really intense, with grief or sadness or uncertainty. This one is pretty joyful. It’s big and round, and so fresh!” Beaming, she handles it tenderly. The placenta wobbles with each touch.
Hughes had requested a placenta head-to-tail, complete with mementos: a print of the organ and the dehydrated remains of the umbilical cord preserved for safekeeping. “We’ll do half-cooked, half-raw, and keep the broth,” Mayer declares, referring to different preparation techniques.
She presses a sheet of watercolor paper onto the placenta and holds it there for a moment to make a print discerning the organ’s unique, veiny outline. “Ugh, too juicy. Let’s try again.” The next one comes out just right—a damp, bloody Rorschach. “See, it’s the tree of life!” she says, pointing to the shrublike outline.
Mayer then picks up the placenta, stands over the sink, and squeezes out the excess blood into a container. She pats it dry and starts peeling away its tough white membrane with her knife. “I try to send positive energy when I’m making medicine,” she goes on, as she continues blotting leaking blood (Mayer uses one roll of paper towels per placenta). “I think of peace, promise, and recovery, and hold the intention of integrating the energy of the mother and the baby.”
She then cuts the placenta in two. She will prepare one half according to the traditional Chinese method: wrapped in its membrane and steamed in a pot with a knob of ginger, a whole lemon, and a jalapeño pepper; then chopped up, dehydrated, and ground into a powder. She plans to dehydrate the other half raw.
The cooked half steams for half an hour, filling the room with the smell of meat and ginger. When Mayer takes it out, it has the texture and color of overcooked brisket. She chops it and lays it out on the parchment-lined dehydrator tray, below the raw version, which she has also chopped into slivers. In total, the placenta takes up four sixteen-inch trays.
When she turns on the dehydrator, another odor, unfamiliar to Mayer, fills the room. “It smells like something died in here!” she says.