Don Snyder believes we could all use a little more brains. Pork brains, that is.
Snyder is the owner of Evansville's Hilltop Inn, where fried brain sandwiches are the claim to fame. Supposedly dating back to "waste not" German settlers, eating brain is a long-standing tradition in Ohio River Valley towns like Evansville. Usually topped with mustard, pickle and onion, this delicacy tastes a little like overcooked scrambled eggs with a thick fried coating.
"When I was young, you could find a brain sandwich at almost any mom and pop restaurant," Snyder said.
But a lot has changed since the good ol' days for the brain sandwich, which, by the way, was composed of beef brain until 2004. The outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (you know it as "Mad Cow Disease") resulted in a Food and Drug Administration ban on the sale of cow brains all together. At first, this was a major blow to Hilltop Inn's brain business - Snyder and his wife had to find a way to switch the sandwich to pig brains, which are smaller and more rigid, without losing the famous taste.
"We spent days trying to get the recipe just right," Snyder said. "And thank God, we did it."
Once the brain sandwich was back on the menu in the midst of the mad cow scare, it seemed like the whole world wanted a bite. The Food Network, the Associated Press and even a television station based in Tokyo visited the Hilltop to try what was quickly becoming a culinary anomaly. But the brain sandwich isn't just a food for the headlines - to the locals, it's an every day classic. Snyder said the restaurant sells up to 7,000 brain sandwiches each year, which adds up to more than 5,000 lbs of brain.
"I eat one of these every time I come back home to Evansville," said Arbin Clayton, who has been a brain lover for more than 40 years. "If you didn't eat brain at the Hilltop, you didn't eat brain."
Looking for the recipe?
Snyder says, he'll never tell. But here's what we do know:
- The brains are shipped in from the Hilltop's meat supplier
- A prep team carefully peels off the membrane and picks out bits of skull
- Gallons of brain are mixed with flour, egg, salt, pepper and other unnamed seasoning
- The mixture is ladled into a cast iron pan to fry for about 20 minutes until they puff up like pancake
- Lanette Snyder, co-owner of the Hilltop says the brains are best when served on a large bun and topped with mustard, onions and pickle. Or for a little spice, try the brains with pepper jack cheese.