http www nytimes com 1990 10 17 garden de-gustibus-sweetbreads-loved-but-misunderstood html
DE GUSTIBUS; Sweetbreads: Loved But Misunderstood
By DENA KLEIMAN
Published: October 17, 1990
SOMETIMES people have no idea what they are eating, and more often than not it is probably better that they not ask.
Who, after all, is happy to learn they have just polished off a stew made of beef hearts or that the aspic surrounding their favorite pate is really the gelatinous remains of a calf's hoof? Still, curiosity prevails. Take sweetbreads, those luscious delicacies increasingly appearing on fashionable restaurant menus and at dinner parties. Most people don't know their origin or take the time to think about it.
''Are they the kidneys?'' said Dr. Hannah Zackson, a New York pulmonologist and otherwise sophisticated diner. She would prefer to avoid sweetbreads altogether but can't since her husband, Andy Wolk, is a big fan. (Out of deference to his wife, Mr. Wolk eats them in restaurants only.) Still, what sweetbreads are, how they got their name and how they should be prepared have been mired in mystery and controversy for centuries.
Chefs - even luminaries like David Burke of the River Cafe and Barry Wine of the Quilted Giraffe - who pride themselves on preparing the ultimate sweetbreads, are nevertheless unclear about exactly what part of the animal it is.
''They are two glands, but I forget the names,'' said Mr. Burke, who currently features sweetbreads in ravioli on his menu and soon will introduce a sweetbread hash topped with a fried quail egg.
''I've always assumed it's the thymus, but I'm not sure,'' said Mr. Wine, who coats sweetbreads in cornmeal and serves them with a chive-flavored hollandaise.
Peter Platt, the chef at Wheatleigh in Lenox, Mass., who prepares an excellent sweetbread dish in a carrot-and-Sauternes sauce, is convinced that sweetbreads are the pancreas. ''The pancreas is what people prefer,'' Mr. Platt said of this honeycomblike organ that is milky-rich in flavor and soft in consistency and is often served with morels and other exotic mushrooms.
Pancreas? Thyroid? Thymus? Something else? Just what are sweetbreads, anyhow?
Astoundingly, even butchers are confused. Marc Sarrazin, owner of De Bragga & Spitler, a butcher shop that supplies many of New York City's best restaurants, said he knows that sweetbreads are a gland and that they come in two segments - one from the throat of the animal and one from the chest.
Still, he has no idea what the gland is called or what its function is.
''I have been cutting them for ages and I don't know what they do,'' said Mr. Sarrazin with genuine surprise at the inquiry. He conceded that while he has been a sweetbread fan for years, he had never stopped to think about what they were.
Stanley Lobel, who with his brothers owns LobelBrothers Prime meats, the famous butcher shop on Madison Avenue at 82d Street, was equally in the dark. ''All I know is that years ago you couldn't give them away,'' Mr. Lobel said. ''Now it is a delicacy.'' Sweetbreads can cost anywhere from $7 to more than $16 a pound.
According to the World Encyclopedia of Food by L. Patrick Coyle (Facts on File Inc., 1982), sweetbreads are the thymus and far less often the pancreas of a calf. In the United States, said Dr. Kathy Earnest-Koons, a staff pathologist with the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University, sweetbreads are almost exclusively the thymus, which is a gland in the throat and chest cavity of young animals that helps fight disease. After the animal is about six months old, the thymus disappears, which is why sweetbreads are available only in calves, lambs and kids.
What adds to the confusion about just what sweetbreads are, according to Mr. Coyle, is that the thymus comes from the butcher in two distinct parts: an irregularly shaped section, the ''throat sweetbread,'' and a round section, the ''heart sweetbread.''
The heart sweetbread is the larger and rounder of the two, and resembles a man's fist. It is considered the better cut because it is more regularly shaped and contains less fat.
Who and why someone decided to call these ''sweetbreads'' is unclear. Nach Waxman, owner of Kitchen, Arts and Letters, a bookstore at 1435 Lexington Avenue at 93d Street that specializes in culinary matters, said several dictionaries report that the first references to the term appeared in England in 1578, but there is no clear indication why. The word bread, Mr. Waxman said, used to be another name for morsel.
But all of this intrigue provides little comfort to the uninitiated, who might sincerely like to fry up some sweetbreads but do not know where to start. For one thing, not all butchers carry sweetbreads.
Disagreements abound about just what is required for the preparation of sweetbreads and just how complicated a task it is. The classic French technique calls for soaking the sweetbreads to help rid them of blood. Then they must be blanched and their tough outer membrane removed.
''The better they are peeled, the better the sweetbreads,'' said Andre Soltner of Lutece in New York. (A number of butchers sell sweetbreads frozen with the membranes already removed. Sweetbreads are highly perishable and must be used within 24 hours after butchering.) In the classic technique, the blanched sweetbreads are wrapped in towels and pressed under a heavy weight. ''Poaching them and pressing them improves the texture,'' Mr. Platt said. Then they are sauteed or braised and served with a variety of sauces.
These days, however, some chefs say blanching and pressing the glands is unnecessary. ''Blanching makes them dry and mealy,'' asserted David Bouley, the chef and owner of Bouley in TriBeCa. He simply soaks his sweetbreads, carefully peels them and either sautees or roasts them.
''I love sweetbreads,'' said Mr. Bouley, who often serves them with an armagnac or parsley sauce with black trumpet mushrooms. ''It's such a moist and rich dish with such a dense flavor.''
What is clear is that sweetbreads are one of those culinary litmus foods that people either love or hate, even if they are not sure what they are. Chances are knowing wouldn't make the slightest blush of differenc