Forgotten Feast I: The Descent of Offal

The butcher’s case at our local Asian Market, featuring liver, stomach, fallopian tubes, and more. Makes me happy!

My fiancé and I like to cook something with offal at least once a week, for several reasons. First, it is generally more inexpensive than other meats, and when you’re living on a lean budget, that’s a good thing. But we don’t think of the “off-cuts” as a trade-off for nicer things just because we can’t afford them. Offal introduces variety into our weekly menu, and when treated right, is actually more delicious than many prime cuts of meat. I actually prefer the taste and texture of a perfectly grilled beef heart to most steaks. My love of tongues (so succulent, so tender) has only just recently been surpassed by my newly acquired ardor for crispy yet creamy sweetbreads. In addition to that, we hate to waste anything, so using all parts of the animal is important to us. So, kidney, liver, tripe—they occupy a central place in our kitchen.

Lovely honeycomb tripe, ready to be cooked Lyonnaise-style.

But many Americans would never even try offal, let alone attempt to cook with it themselves. One of the primary missions of this blog is to change the way we think about such ingredients, mainly by reminding readers that the vast majority of food cultures have, at one point or another, maintained a very different stance. 

It’s clear that offal can incite very extreme reactions in its consumers (and its refusers). For some, offal is seen as wholesome, comforting, or even erotic. For others—many others in the U.S.—it inspires revulsion and scorn. Now, throughout history and across the globe, offal has graced the tables of both the elite and the poor, and has been as much associated with heartiness, healthiness, and tradition as it has with the daring, exotic, and cutting-edge. So, our fickle reception of the ingredient is not a new thing. However, understanding why offal’s status has risen, plummeted, and risen again in various food cultures gives us an intriguing glimpse into other aspects of the cultures eating it; in many ways, it serves as a barometer for economic stability and social ambition.

A medley of pork bits, including the tails (top right). At our usual grocery store, it’s far easier to get the prime cuts of meat (like the shoulder (bottom left) than it is to find “off-cuts.”

In hunter-gatherer societies, paleolithic as well as contemporary (like the Inuit), offal would be consumed first by the hunters, and then the less nutritious and flavorful muscle meat was distributed to the rest of the community.[1] The liver was particularly prized.

In the Middle Ages, and particularly in France, meat was far too precious to waste virtually any part of the animal. Oxen and cows were particularly costly, since raising them was labor-intensive and required a great deal of land. Accordingly, offal was consumed right along with choice muscle meats. In other words, offal was indeed a staple part of courtly cookery. The difference was simply that the cooks of the elite could attend to each part of the animal in such a way that it was appealing, while the poor, finding themselves lucky to even obtain a bit of protein, would have prepared it more simply, with the emphasis being on nourishment rather than flavor and elegance.

Yet moving away from offal when prime cuts of meat were readily available would become a general trend in the West. Case in point: hunting deer and other game was the unique prerogative of the nobility, and over time these noblemen had come to value only the muscle meat of the deer. They would often discard the offal (called “umbles,”out of the Old French noumbles, meaning “entrails”), leaving it for their servants. Those who could afford the prime cuts became inclined to advertise their enviable position, distinguishing themselves from those who could only scrape by on “umbles.” And by the late 1500s, offal was so readily paired with poverty—and thus with filth and dereliction—that no one would have been surprised to hear English writer John Derrick’s snide comment in The Image of Irelande, “Though durtie tripes and offalls like please vnderknaues enoufe” (Though dirty tripe and offal alike please lowly knaves enough).

Fast forward to the nineteenth century. Like many Western cultures, by the twentieth century even the French had begun to eat less nombles than before. This perhaps has something to do with the fact that, in the late nineteenth century, America had accumulated a surplus of livestock that allowed for cheaper prime cuts of meat to flood the market. For America in particular, this meant that, as Jack Ubaldi puts it in his Meat Book (1991), our great nation could become “a nation of muscle-meat eaters [who] could afford to throw out the innards and other exotica.” But also—and more importantly—this reflects a tendency that was foreshadowed in the medieval French nobles’ decision to cast off the entrails of their deer in preference for the prime cuts. This was a way of setting oneself above others—of establishing oneself as part of an elite class. And so, as a middle class emerged, they imitated the practices of the nobility to set themselves apart from the poor, the commoners (even though, yes, that’s the same stock they came from). Offal was written off, because it reminded people of harder times or a more humble past.  

And so, although offal played a satisfying and nostalgic role in French cuisine from time immemorial, it was no longer considered necessary to incorporate it into haute cuisine. In short, the desire to flaunt (or at least pretend to belong to) a higher social class drove the modern Western disavowal of offal, while America made it economically possible to do so. French cuisine, considered the epitome of the world’s food culture, legitimized the movement. We tried our best, quite simply, to erase it.

In butcher’s shops in parts of Europe and particularly in the United States, offal does not feature on the diagrams depicting cuts of meat on an animal, nor are the pieces themselves laid out alongside muscle meat in the display cases. The implication is that, as writer Nina Edwards states,  for the modern consumer “there is sometimes a need for diplomacy—even secrecy—about eating such parts.” This idea is only reinforced by the fact that a massive gap has opened up between the general consumer and the animals being eaten. “Today meat is often packaged into neat portions that no longer remind us of its origins,” notes Edwards.

Pig trotters in the case, looking very much like, well, the feet of the pig.

Offal poses a problem in this neat segregation of product and buyer. As much as Western cuisine attempted to conceal the inclusion of offal in their dishes, just buying a package of chicken’s feet or pig’s ears reminds us much too much of the body parts they are and the animals they belonged to. So, we hide it.

Yet, during times of hardship, Western food culture has returned to offal, even if it tries hard not to wear the reconciliation on its sleeve. During the WWI and WWII, it was often hard to come by enough to eat, and offal was one of the few foods that wasn’t rationed. The dishes containing offal in high-class restaurants, however, did their best to conceal their usage of the ingredient, playing down or concealing what parts went into what dish and instead emphasizing the haute cuisine techniques of their preparation: Edwards points out that entrails were “grilled au gratin, and tripe was made acceptable by being presented ‘Mornay.’” But make no mistake: the retracing of their steps to offal, under such circumstances, is a reluctant one, one that needed to be hidden.

Offal has fallen out of favor in the modern West, there’s no doubt about that. But there are also some pockets of Western food culture—not to mention the vast majority of the rest of the world—where consumers have fallen in love with offal or never fell out of love with it in the first place. Read about it in my next post, “Forgotten Feast III: Offal Rising.”

[1]. Nobuhiro Kishigami, “A New Typology of Food-Sharing Practices among Hunter-Gatherers, with a Special Focus on Inuit Examples,” Journal of Anthropological Research 60.3 (Autumn, 2004): 349.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. ladyteelynch says:

    This article is full of fascinating information!

    Like

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