Thursday, February 18, 2010

Offal (Not Awful) & Nose To Tail Eating

My great-great grandmother Martha Cloud's husband, Sam Miller, circa 1941, Modoc County, California

'Offal is a culinary term used to refer to the entrails and internal organs of a butchered animal. The word does not refer to a particular list of organs other than muscles or bones. People in some cultures shy away from offal as food, while others use it as everyday food, or even in delicacies that command a high price.' -- from Wikipedia. 'Nose to Tail Eating,' a term seemingly coined by British chef and restaurateur, Fergus Anderson, involves food preparation using the entire animal (or plant) from nose to tail. Chef Anderson, author of the book, 'The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating,' owns St. John, a restaurant in London where according to 'he serves up the inner organs of beasts and fowls in big exhilarating dishes that combine high sophistication with peasant roughness.'

I think I'm a pretty good eater; I don't shy away from too many things. But like most of us I have my likes and dislikes; more likes than dislikes. I abhor any kind of dried fruit; I simply don't eat it. And I don't like cooked apples so not a big apple pie eater. My dislike of dried fruit disallows a goodly number of cereals, granolas, trail mix, and some baked goods and desserts. I've learned to check first to avoid the interminable picking out of unwelcome items. The reason I don't like dried fruit is textural. I hate that it sticks to my teeth -- end of story. I can't get beyond that. I can't exactly explain my issue with cooked apples just that they're oddly, uhm, slimy. I hate apple sauce. Again, it's a textural thing; how it feels in my mouth affects how it tastes. Offal can and does fall into the textural issues category but I've still eaten my fair share of it. I wouldn't say I'm an avid consumer of it however. Living in and traveling often to France I've had many French offal preparations, liver and kidneys, among others that I've enjoyed. I do like sweetbreads, and blood sausage a lot and will order them in restaurants. However if there are offal dishes on a restaurant menu invariably I'll choose a non-offal dish. Recently I've noticed that there seems to be a much keener interest in offal here in the U.S. -- at least in restaurants, in food journalism and in foodie circles. It's almost as if offal is replacing pork this year as the favorite food item? This offal uptick has me wondering why I don't eat it as often as I eat other animal protein, and I've decided there are a few reasons.

The first is related to the dried fruit issue: textural. A lot of offal is gelatinous, sinewy, and chewy in ways a well-prepared steak is not. Depending on what gland or organ is being cooked the feel of the food is different too: liver, kidneys, tongue, brains, tripe and so on. It has a different texture, and often a different smell, than cuts of beef, pork, lamb or chicken. These differences have always given me pause. And then there's the cultural issue. I wasn't raised eating the stuff. It wasn't a part of my diet growing up in the '60s and '70s. It was a part of the diet of my relatives, a generation before my mother. My great-grandparents, my grandfather and great-uncle ate it. They had a ranch; they raised their own chickens and sheep. My great uncle hunted, butchered and prepared deer. My mother tells the story of watching my great-grandfather chop the heads off of chickens and how they ran around headless until they died. That was normal to them. I've never seen an animal killed let alone butchered. We bought our chicken already cut up, wrapped in plastic in a styrofoam tray. If we did buy a whole chicken the giblets were wrapped in a small sealed paper bag which was easy to just throw away. Fast food did not help my palate adjust to eating offal either. Just think of the textures in fast food: 'soft' comes to mind first; with flavors that are 'bland,' 'salty' and 'sweet.' We ate a lot of fast food when I was a kid and while it probably contained offal we didn't know it. My mother did cook us a fair amount of liver and we hated it; it wasn't until I left home and lived in France that I first understood that offal could be tasty and interesting. I ate my first blood sausage at a French friend's house: broiled blood sausage, couscous, a green salad and cheese. It was a revelation to me. I ate a few other offal dishes the year I lived there. After France when I was first back home in Sonoma County, a friend and I went to a 'fancy' restaurant and we both ordered sweetbreads, and they were delicious. Besides the liver I ate as a child and the dishes I ate in France those sweetbreads are the first offal food memory I have. I've eaten sweetbreads over and over ever since.

I hate to admit this but I think I'm a picky offal eater. I am not, I have come to realize, the type of 'I'll-eat-anything-put-before-me' eater that Anthony Bourdain is. I have foodie friends who are very adventurous who will eat almost anything. I admire heartily the enthusiasm of Bourdain and my food-obsessed friends. I fully appreciate the nose-to-tail movement as it is economically sound and environmentally conscious. It easily fits into the '100 miles' philosophy: when possible use all of whatever we take from nature. I have eaten pigs feet; they were good, I enjoyed them. I will eat them, and other offal and nose-to-tail dishes again. Many cultures use offal and nose-to-tail ingredients in their cuisines. What better hangover cure is there than menudo? I'll keep trying new things, new dishes, domestic and foreign. My point here is that if I'd lived during my great-grandparents,' and grandparents' time my palate and diet would have been more acculturated to eating the whole animal. More than likely I would have been involved in the slaughtering and butchering of the animals. For economical reasons we would have used the entire animal. Sadly, I grew up in the industrialized grocery store, frozen everything, fast food era. That's not to say that I won't eventually become more adventurous, and I do know plenty of people who grew up the way I did who are 'eat anything' eaters, but for me right now: I am a picky-less-adventurous-offal-eater that's willing to grow. I have friends who will lead the way. You know who you are!

Upcoming Trips: Napa Valley - 2/27-3/1 - Cochon 555 ~ 5 Chefs, 5 Pigs, 5 Winemakers ~ 2010 US Tour. Big Sur - 3/5-/38 ~ Dinner at Big Sur Bakery.

Upcoming Posts: An Interview with Chefs John Stewart & Duskie Estes, owners of Zazu & Bovolo restaurants in Sonoma County. Reviews: Venezia: Food & Dreams by Tessa Kiros, My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family and Big Sur by Romney Steele, The Spirit Kitchen: Everyday Cooking with Organic Spices by Sara Engram and Katie Luber and Kimberly Toqe.

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  1. In Colombia they eat a type of blood sausage called 'morcilla'. Not my fave but I have eaten it. I can hook you up. haha. You really do hate dried fruit don't you?!

  2. I admire those who can eat all kinds of offal. My husband grew up on a small farm in South Africa where they raised and slaughtered their own animals and they ate nose to tail. I grew up eating from the grocery store. We have made it available to the kids and they enjoy what they have tried. I am a lost cause, too squeemish, but the next generation, they show promise!

  3. I'm a pretty open minded nonpicky eater, but I do get picky when it comes to offal. I do love certain dishes while others - only if prepared really well. Sweetbreads in particular - I like them in some top ends restaurants :)

  4. You certainly are an adventurous eater! Thanks for sharing!

    While you are back in Sonoma County visiting Duskie and the zazu crew, be sure to ask them about the two events they are supporting at the Summerfield Waldorf School and biodynamic farm. They plan to amazing events (March and May 2010) where they'll use farm produce to create tappas and a full course meal. Should be amazing!

    Also, would you have time to taste some local raw milk? Check out this link if so...

  5. Thanks everyone! Your comments are always appreciated.

    Robert: Yes, I want to try morcilla - have heard of it but never tasted it.

    Kristen: I love that difference between your husband and you - it illustrates my point exactly! Good for the next generation that they're at least trying it!

    Natasha: You sound exactly like me when it comes to offal - adventurous eater up to a point. :-)

    Holly: Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. I'll be back up to Sonoma County this summer if not before then and would love to taste your local raw milk. I'll definitely follow up with John & Duskie about those two events, they sound really interesting -- and I'll also look at & read your blog - I love what you are doing with the whole raw milk thing. Really great. I'll be in touch!