Forgotten Feast II: Offal Rising

A sheep’s head being broken down at my local butcher. Its tongue, brains, cheeks, and other parts that people would shrink away from are all delicious fare.

The descent of offal into ignominy is a mainly Western, modern phenomenon that is tightly bound up with issues of class. But there are pockets of our food culture that have either never stopped eating the “humble” parts or who have returned to it, finding something wholesome, exotic, or even erotic about it. Offal is recently enjoying a revival in the West for various and intriguing reasons. Furthermore, in spite of its being used as a barometer of class in the past, I’d argue that it now defies classification as trash food or haute cuisine, disgusting or delicacy—it’s all in the eye of the beholder. Curious? Read on.

My previous post discussed how offal began to fall out of favor because it was associated with the lower class. Yet for some in the modern West, offal has obtained a new kind of currency. A certain kind of value comes out of the very American, reactionary desire to seize the extreme for the sake of the extreme. We don’t eat this anymore? You think it’s gross? Oh yeah? Watch me eat a whole bucketful. In a culture that binges on shows like Bizarre Foods and Man v. Food, offal is approached as a curiosity, a challenge, an exoticism. Take for instance the consumption of “rocky mountain oysters”: it is, quite literally, a ballsy endeavor, usually undertaken as part of a kind of adult “dare” or way of proving oneself manliness. Yet, unfortunately, this attitude perpetuates the “foulness” of offal inasmuch as it embraces the ingredient. Take, for instance, Man v. Food host Adam Richman as he “tackled” rocky mountain oysters in the first season of the show in order to establish his “cowboy cred.” He stalls before his first bite, jovially cupping one of the fried testicles in his hand and coughing in imitation of a doctor checking a male patient for a hernia. When the chef asks if he’d like moral support in trying the dish, Richman accepts the offer, joking, “These things usually come in pairs anyway.” The humor belies his ambivalence about actually eating the oysters, but he is compelled to eat them nonetheless, both for the amusement of his audience and to illustrate his machismo.

Once Richman has swallowed, however, he admits: “I’m freaking out more because of what they are, but they are very very delicious. But it’s just that you have to accept the fact that you’re eating a bull’s boys.”

It’s this kind of revelation, this conversion to “variety meats,” that another camp of offal-eaters seeks to encourage. For these chefs and foodies, the attempt to revive offal’s place in the food industry is largely a means of (re)broadening our horizons, respecting the animal that was raised and sacrificed for our meal, and reducing food waste. On the one hand, the recession has caused many consumers, home cook and chef de cuisine alike, to reconsider their obsession with expensive prime cuts of meat and to begin to use ingredients they had previous scoffed at. But on the other hand, the return to offal has become fashionable in its own way, promoted by celebrity chefs and with its own set of hashtags: #nowaste, #cookingwithoffal, #wholeanimal #nosetotail, and so on. If you look up “offal” on Twitter, countless users tweet about how on-trend it is to eat it or put on edgy restaurant menus. That trendiness in no way (at least, usually) undercuts the integrity of the effort. It simply means that the movement carries with it a particular kind of cultural currency, both advertising the trend and carrying it forward.

Beef tongue makes a succulent cut of meat for sandwiches.

Then there are those who have never lost their taste for offal, regardless of whether or not it is fashionable. For them, as writer Nina Edwards observes, it has always been “an integral part of food culture, and that connection has never been broken.” This is exactly the distinction that Pim Techamnuanvivit tweets, remarking that it’s not a trend, it’s not, “lookie this gory thing I can eat…In Asia we eat it cos it’s food & can be made delicious, not [because it’s a] macho thing.” This is true of so many cultures across the globe. These are the Vietnamese daughters who cook up steaming bowls of pho brimming with beef tendon and tripe, the same as their grandmothers made; the Lyonnaise workers who still mosey into les bouchons at the end of the day and order gras double with their cheap wine and conversation, the Japanese who relish horumon at yakiniku joints. Whether they remain in their native lands or have immigrated to America, offal has kept its place at their tables.

Anticuchos de corizon, or skewered beef hearts, are a traditional favorite in Peru.

So, there are many reasons that offal has our attention, but one thing is certain: it is making a comeback in the West. Ever since the New York Times heralded butchers as “the new rock stars,” there has been an explosion of “butcheries-come-bistros” that offer indulgences like chicken liver parfaits, blood sausage, and head cheese. Sales of offal are up in the U.S. and Western Europe, and in the age of delivery meal kits like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh, we also have an Offal Good! So, that’s heartening. A paradoxical mix of traditional and cutting edge, haute cuisine and “trash” food, offal is a unique component of our food culture—so I recommend we cozy up to it and enjoy, because it’s here to stay.

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