Food & Drink

Rise and Shine with Brains and Eggs

A Southern staple that was once on breakfast menus across the South

pork brains

Photo: Margaret Houston

These days you probably won’t find scrambled pork brains and eggs on the breakfast menu at your local country kitchen, but a generation ago you might have.

“One of my neighbors told me that five years ago, you could get brains in the Piggly Wiggly,” says Vivian Howard, who oversees the kitchen at the Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina. In her sleepy corner of the state, some cooks keep canned brains in the pantry. “When I talk with people about brains and eggs, it’s always older people, and they talk about it like it’s a cheeseburger, like I should know about it,” she says.

The tradition of scrambling pork brains with eggs probably began on dark winter mornings before the dawn of industrial agriculture, when many rural families slaughtered their hogs and went to work on the sausage, hams, and souse meat that would feed them for months. The most perishable organs hit the table first: brains for breakfast and lungs, often called “lights,” for lunch.

“During the cold months, fresh brains would be available from the get-go,” says Howard Coble, a former fifteen-term congressman born in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1931. The recipe that he once contributed to an online cookbook calls for canned brains, but he says they taste better fresh. “You’ve got to get them quickly. You want to generously season them with salt, pepper, and butter, and eat them with a biscuit, preferably.”

Coble has not eaten brains and eggs in at least a year, because at eighty-four he worries about their cholesterol levels, which make bacon and sausage look like health foods. A five-ounce serving of Rose Brand Pork Brains, from Sanford, North Carolina, has 1060% of the daily recommended value. That’s one reason why pork brains are not likely to join the recently fashionable likes of beef hearts or fish cheeks on restaurant menus. Another: Brains are hard to find nowadays. (You can order them online at ShopFoodEx.) Then of course, modern diners can be squeamish about grey matter.

Margaret Houston

But at least one chef is successfully selling brains to the fine-dining crowd. “Traditional brains and eggs are the inspiration for everything we do with brains,” says Clark Barlowe of Heirloom in Charlotte. He tallow-fries beef brains and tops them with everything from poached eggs to cured egg yolk, honoring a historic pairing but steering clear of the traditional scramble. “Scrambled eggs can have a texture that is too similar to the brain,” he says. So far, the brains have sold out every single time they’ve been on the menu.

And there are still diners who like brains and eggs made the old-fashioned way—in Eastern North Carolina, at least. “There’s a place down the street where they serve brains and eggs, and the owner says they’ll sell twenty-five orders in a week,” Howard says. “Probably fifteen people eat breakfast in there every day. Like with chitlins, there are people who love it.”