First, A History Lesson
Brains are a part of the cuisine of a number of different cultures from all around the world, from Mexico (tacos de sesos) to Pakistan (magaj), so they aren’t entirely uncommon to certain peoples. In this particular case, though, the origin is actually a German one. Many Germanic immigrants were farmers and were intent on searching out quality farmland on which to settle and hopefully prosper. This search led them to settle in a wide swath of the U.S., anywhere between southern New England and Kansas. Many German and Swiss immigrants would take the Ohio River down from around Pittsburgh and settle in places like Louisville, Kentucky, or Cincinnati, Ohio, both of which have particularly strong German heritage. Many, however, would travel a little further still, and settle in Tell City or Evansville, Indiana.
The Hilltop Inn in Evansville, Indiana is a historic city landmark established as a stagecoach stop for travelers back in 1839. As noted, a large amount of the immigrant German population were farmers, and during those early and uncertain times it was necessary for them to use as much of their crop as they possibly could. This included, of course, their livestock. Thus was born the brain sandwich.
The inn has run with the notoriety such a dish tends to bring with it. Asylum Magazine crowned the establishment the “Manliest Restaurant in America” in 2009, and the website for the Hilltop Inn isn’t www.hilltopinn.com or something equally predictable (that particular website takes you to a New Hampshire bed and breakfast). Rather, the website is www.wegotbrains.com. To say nothing else, they’ve certainly embraced the curiosity and/or nausea that the dish can potentially evoke.
A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste
A minor disclaimer before the sandwich itself is discussed: The Hilltop Inn has used – and continues to use – cattle brains for their sandwiches. Mad Cow Disease is a well-known danger, particularly when you’re eating the part of the cow that it attacks in the first place, and it is a known and acknowledged quantity at the Hilltop Inn, but that hasn’t stopped the local regulars from ordering it, or the proprietors from sticking with cow rather than switching to pig brains. The risk is relatively small, but it is still a risk, so be aware if you ever decide to take a crack at this particular sandwich.
So, just what is a battered, deep fried brain sandwich like? Kind of nondescript, actually. Sorry if that’s a little disappointing, but its the truth, regarding the flavor of the thing, at least. The texture, on the other hand, is a wholly different story. As dense as one would think brain matter would be, it puffs up like a pastry when cooked, easily doubling in size. At the Hilltop, they batter and fry the brain, similar to a classic Indiana pork tenderloin. Also similarly, it is served on a bun that is almost comically dwarfed by the sheer mass of meat.
Because it expands upon cooking, the texture of the sandwich is soft and creamy, almost like a custard. Its certainly a unique piece of meat, but there is very little in addition that gives it any kind of particular flavor. By admission, most of the flavor of the sandwich is imparted by the breading rather than the brain itself.
If you’re ever passing through…
The brain sandwich is by no means a gourmet delicacy, the sort of thing people might be badgered into trying at least once through vehement word of mouth, in spite of their possible repulsion to the idea. However, it isn’t a disgusting and unpalatable menu item either. Ultimately, what it is, is a snapshot of a particular culture’s impact on an area. This isn’t so much a restaurant destination as it is an attraction destination, a curiosity to try, if only once, just so you can say that you did.