Lisa Fortin is one of the rare people who makes a living by cooking, but never actually tastes what's in her pot.
That's because Fortin, the founder of Placenta Healing Arts in Brooklyn, is part of a small, but growing profession that cooks placentas for new moms and makes them into pills that allegedly stave off postpartum depression, provide an energy boost and enhance milk production.
"It's definitely a different scent," said Fortin about the aroma given off by a steaming pot filled with a placenta, frankincense, myrrh, ginger and lemon. "It's not something you smelled before. It's not something you think smells bad, but it's a little bit foreign."
After about 25 minutes on medium heat, she takes out the afterbirth, slices it with a big blade and arranges the pieces on her jerky maker, where they'll dry for 10 hours at 105 degrees.
Then, Fortin pulverizes the chunks in a coffee grinder. The powder fills about 100 capsules that the new mother takes over several weeks.
Almost all of her equipment comes from the kitchen cabinet instead of a medical office.
There aren't clinical trials to back up Fortin and her fellow placenta encapsulation specialists, as they like to be called. But the capsules have their roots in Chinese medicine and the animal kingdom where most mammals, except camels and sea mammals, eat their placenta after giving birth.
"I remembered how hard and emotional it was after my first child," said satisfied customer Alicia,\ Lind, 35, of Brooklyn, who hired Fortin after her second pregnancy. "I wanted to do everything possible to preempt those things from happening. I had a much easier time. It definitely helped. There was no depression."
For $250, Fortin makes the pills in the new mother's kitchen, which she leaves spotless, and she'll throw in an artistic print of the placenta as a memento before she renders it into diet supplements.
"It makes a beautiful print. It sort of looks like a tree," said Fortin, 35, who's also a jewelry designer. "The branches are formed by the veins."
Fortin, like many pill pushers, practices what she preaches. She consumed her placentas in pill form after her second pregnancy.
If you search the Internet, there are recipes for placenta smoothies, lasagna and other entrees to fight the baby blues and get moms back on their feet. This is the borderland between the culinary and medical frontiers. It would be easy to make tasteless jokes, but Fortin and her colleagues don't want to hear them, even if they did feel revolted or amused the first time they heard about placentophagy.
"It sounded really bizarre and disgusting when I first heard about it," said Lyndell Castro, who opened Placenta Mama in San Diego, Calif., this year.
"But I got really intrigued and saw that it could make a huge difference. This isn't biohazard waste that should be processed."
This is a serious profession and they take it so seriously, in fact, that there's infighting over how to gain acceptance.
The public, by and large, is either unaware of placenta encapsulation or squeamish about turning a bloody human tissue into a dietary supplement. But placenta cookers say their service is crawling into the mainstream.
"All I know is that it's increasing dramatically," said Placenta Benefits founder Jodi Selander of Las Vegas. "I wish I had good numbers. It wasn't really popular in 2005 when my second daughter was born, but now I have a couple of hundred clients each year."
It's hard to know how many women a year consume their placentas, but over 30 states are covered on the Placenta Service Provider Directory.
Selander is arguably the founding mother of American placenta encapsulating. She has certified hundreds of women through her $295 training course, in which enrollees learn to safely handle and cook the placenta. She believes legitimacy comes from establishing industry-wide standards, and fears a government crackdown brought on by an alleged uptick in complaints from moms who went through unschooled pill producers.
"People think it's no big deal to do this, but we're seeing more women getting sick and having problems that we haven't seen before," said Selander, who claims she's examined poorly made pills by self-taught placenta preparers that became moldy and sickened mothers. "It's not doing the movement any good."
Others want to maintain the freedom to perform what they say is an easy process.
"I'm not big on certification and over-regulation of anything that's birth-involved," said Total Life Concepts owner Kelley Graham, a self-taught encapsulator in Maitland, Fla., who's also a doula and midwife student. "The information on how to do it is readily available."
Another self-taught specialist who requested anonymity, said Selander is a lighting rod and many want to curb her influence before her empire gets too big.
"There are two types in the placenta world: those who go with Jodie and those who do it their own. A lot of people think she shouldn't be making money off of this. The information is out there and you don't have to go through her."
The Food and Drug Administration has adopted a hands-off policy as long placentas and pills don't cross state lines, an FDA spokeswoman said. Although in 2008, FDA and Florida state authorities raided a Miami birthing center accused of mixing ground-up placentas from various mothers into large batches.
Policies differ from state to state. In New York, anyone working with placentas, which are classified as human tissue, must get a license, said Health Department spokesman Jeffrey Hammond.
"If you're processing and handling human tissue in New York state, you need to demonstrate the methods used for handling human tissues and that you're compliant with New York state regulations," Hammond said.
Hammond wouldn't answer questions about penalties faced by unlicensed encapsulators, although he added that no one running a placenta pill mill has ever applied for a permit.
Fortin didn't know that she was supposed to apply for a license.
"Right now, there's no kind of regulation," she said. "It's important to go through a blood-borne pathogen course like a nurse would, but nothing's mandatory."
It's unclear if New York state officials will target this cottage industry.
In California, hospitals have discretion over whether to release the placenta to the mother, said Department of Public Heath spokesman Ron Brown in an email. A Hawaii law protects the parents' right to take the placenta.
In an argument that would sound familiar at most trade conventions across the country, the encapsulators say they don't want government on their backs.
"If we don't have standards that we conform to, the government will step in," warned Selander. "And I don't think that will be in our favor."