Sweetbreads have to be among the most significant food misnomers ever, along with “head cheese” (see my April 27th, 2013 post). I’m guessing that most of the people who viewed this post’s title probably thought they’d see a discussion about some sort of dessert-like pastry. Like a cinnamon roll, or pumpkin bread. Nope—sweetbreads are actually meat. In fact, they’re actually organs. And not even commonly eaten organs. Here are the five organs that are usually called sweetbreads:
1) The thymus.
2) The pancreas.
3) The parotid gland
4) The sublingual gland.
Confused, like I was? From what I could learn, linguists aren’t exactly sure how the term came about, which it did sometime in the 16th century. There are a couple reasonable explanations, though. “Sweet” evidently meant about what it means today, and the thought was the thymus was considered to have a sweet flavor. The “bread” part is posited to be an approximation of “brede,” which meant “roasted meat,” or else of “braed” which in Olde English meant “meat” or “flesh.” It’s strange how significantly word definitions can change over time. Did something like “maet” or “mete” mean “bread” back then? Did “peach” mean “pork loin”?
Anyway, in case you were wondering, and forget your biology/anatomy classes in school, the parotid gland makes saliva. The sublingual gland is smaller than the parotid, but also contributes in making saliva. The pancreas produces insulin, other hormones, and digestive enzymes. Vitally important, it’s one of those organs that you can’t live without. It’s also, unfortunately, pretty much the worst type of cancer to get. The thymus is kind of an odd organ, in that it’s largest and most active during childhood and adolescence. Its major function is producing T cells for the immune system. After puberty the thymus shrinks considerably (in humans, from between 20-37 grams to about 6 grams in an average 75 year old), becomes fatty, and is difficult to even pick out from other fatty chest tissue. And I’m going to hope and assume that every reader knows what testicles do.
Recently I visited a friend who lives in
(Hi Keith), and I decided to
research restaurants that serve unusual foods.
Alas, the one rumored to serve “lamb fries” (lamb testicles, to return to
that topic) had apparently changed the menu.
(Or else maybe “meadow oysters” are the opposite of their water-living,
mollusk cousins, and are only safe to eat in months without an “R” in their
name.) Luckily, several places had
sweetbreads on their menus. Zaytinya
(which means “olive oil” in Turkish) seemed to be the best bet—it’s a
Greek/Turkish/Lebanese restaurant located at Washington,
D.C. 701 9th Street NW in D.C. It’s a little tonier than the restaurants I
usually frequent, and its chef/owner, Jose Andres, is world renowned. The restaurant’s dining style involves mezze,
or many small, appetizer-sized food dishes, similar to Greek tapas-style. I had the imam beyildi (roasted eggplant),
kibbeh nayeh (a raw beef dish), lamb’s tongue souvlaki, and the veal sweetbreads. And, I was really blown away—the best
restaurant meal I’ve had in a long time.
The eggplant and beef tartar dishes were very good. The lamb tongue was absolutely phenomenal—I
can’t rave about it enough. And the
topic of this post, the sweetbreads?
They were the weakest part of the meal, but still good. Plus, to reiterate, their competition was
quite fierce. The sweetbreads looked
like several small (maybe an inch or two in diameter) brown pieces of meat,
which were very tender. They didn’t have
a really strong taste. Oh, and since
they listed this on the menu, they were prepared with, “cumin, sumac, marash
peppers, yogurt, crispy pita, tomato, and onion.” So still good, worth having again, but not
spectacular (like the tongue, etc.).
Since “sweetbreads” is an umbrella term, and the appearance and texture
of the meat I ate was fairly uniform, I don’t know which of the five candidate
organs I had exactly. However, it seems
like thymus and pancreas are the most common sweetbread organs, so probably one
or both of these, at least. Also, as you
can probably already guess, I highly recommend Zaytinya, for both your regular
and gland appetites. It totally lived up
to the hype. But, be forewarned, all
that deliciousness comes at a price.
Expect to pay at least $40-50 per person if you decide to go. So special occasions, unless you’re quite
I’ll close with a personal story, about another food misnomer—Grape Nuts cereal. In college, I was on a Grape Nuts kick—I ate them semi-obsessively for about a year. My friends and I wondered about the name, since they contain neither grapes nor nuts. One day we noticed that there was a toll free phone number on the box for questions or comments. (I’m sure now there’s a website, but I’m old, so this was well before the internet was widely available.) Inspired, I rang them up, and asked our question. The person who answered explained that Grape Nuts used dextrose (glucose), which they said was called “grape sugar” at one time. As for the second part of the name, the inventor, C.W. Post, thought his concoction had a “nutty” flavor. The Grape Nuts operator then asked for my name and mailing address, which I freely gave. I of course figured I’d get a free box of Grape Nuts, or a Grape Nuts t-shirt, or at least a coupon for them. (Another friend had told me his father had contacted a potato chip company, asking them if they’d sell bags of burnt chips, which he loved. The company politely replied that they didn’t think there’d be a market for this, but they thanked him for his interest, and then sent him an entire case of burnt potato chips!) But alas, nothing ever came in the mail. My friends’ theory was that my name and address went right to some government watchdog agency, like the FBI or CIA, in their files for “Weirdos Who Call Their Breakfast Cereal Companies.”