February 22, 2001
Joe Griffith wrote:
Recently at a restaurant with sweetbreads on the menu I found myself in an argument about what they/it consisted of. I always thought it was the pancreas while my adversary argued for the thymus. It seems we may both have been right but neither seems either sweet or bread-like so how did internal organs get such a name?
I've never used this word in the singular form. I've always said sweetbreads, and I notice you do, too, Joe. But three sound sources I've checked say to use the singular. In any case, singular or plural, you and your friend are indeed both correct as to what sweetbreads are. According to Larousse Gastronomique, sweetbread is "the culinary term for the thymus gland (in the throat) and the pancreas (near the stomach) in calves, lambs and pigs." Larousse goes on to say that thymus sweetbreads are "elongated and irregular in shape" while pancreas sweetbreads are "larger and rounded." Test yourself at a restaurant the next time. That should impress your dinner companion. The book does not say whether the pancreas sweetbread--sometimes called the stomach sweetbread--or the thymus sweetbread--sometimes called the throat sweetbread--tastes better. However, it does say that calves' sweetbreads are considered to be superior to pigs' and lambs' sweetbreads.
In case you're wondering, the thymus aids in production of T cells of the immune system. The pancreas produces insulin as well as a digestive fluid. According to Professor Richard Houpt, a veterinary physiologist at Cornell University, these organs do essentially the same things in all mammals. He goes on to say that, "grossly both organs are rather pale, friable, cellular tissues. Why they are grouped together, I don't know, but I suspect that the butcher when he has killed an animal and opens it up, removes the usual organs (heart, liver, kidneys, etc.) and has these other extra tissues that resemble one another."
Pancreas comes from the Greek "pankreas" (a combination of "pan" and "kreas") which means 'all meat'. "Kreas" in Homer always meant edible animal flesh. Presumably, the pancreas was so called, because it was edible; perhaps this surprised and delighted the Greeks. Thymus comes from the Greek word meaning 'thyme'. The Origin of Medical Terms says that the early Greek physician Galen "used the term 'thymos' for a warty excrescence because of the likeness to a bunch of thyme."
Unfortunately, this is no help at all in explaining the origin of sweetbread.
Sweetbread is, in fact, an English concoction. The Oxford English Dictionary says that the word is "apparently" a combination of "sweet" and "bread." ("Apparently?" Huh?) It goes on to say "the reason for the name is not obvious." That's pretty obvious when you consider that sweetbreads are not particularly sweet and do not resemble bread, as you pointed out, Joe. So, I'm afraid we've reached a dead end here. The OED cites the first appearance of sweetbread in print in English as 1565. This is from the 1578 The historie of man: "A certaine Glandulous part, called Thimus, which in Calues...is most pleasaunt to be eaten. I suppose we call it the sweete bread."
In case you get a hankering to prepare sweetbreads (which are highly perishable) at home, Hering's Dictionary of Classical and Modern Cookery has this to say about the cooking process:
Sweetbreads must be trimmed first, tubes and gristle cut off, then soaked until they are white, blanched for a few minutes, skin and nerves removed and pressed between two boards with a small weight on top to shape them nicely. They are then braised with stock, white wine and vegetables, served whole, often glazed, or sliced and prepared in the manner desired.Your move, Joe.
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