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Offal is Good

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Originally published on October 4, 2008, this post is about cultural norms about food, and how deeply ingrained they can become, leading to deeply visceral likes and dislikes of particular foods, regardless of nutritional value.

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The offal refers to….

….those parts of a meat animal which are used as food but which are not skeletal muscle. The term literally means “off fall”, or the pieces which fall from a carcase when it is butchered. Originally the word applied principally to the entrails. It now covers insides including the HEART, LIVER, and LUNGS (collectively known as the pluck), all abdominal organs and extremities: TAILS, FEET, and HEAD including BRAINS and TONGUE. In the USA the expressions “organ meats” or “variety meats” are used instead.

Offal from birds is usually referred to as GIBLETS.

Another, archaic, English word for insides, especially those of deer, was “umbles”, a term which survives in the expression “to eat humble pie”, meaning to be apologetic or submissive.

Growing up in Yugoslavia, I was a very picky eater. But I absolutely loved offal. I loved liver and, although just a kid, I had developed 2-3 different recipes for preparing livers from various animals: pork, calf, veal, beef, lamb, duck, turkey and goose (I did not like chicken liver). My Mom fixes fantastic bread-battered brains which were treated as a special delicacy in our house. Yum! I loved to suck the marrow out of beef bones. I always picked hearts and gizzards from my chicken soup. When we had chicken, I would often eat necks and feet. Oxtail is fantastic. Beef tongue in tomato sauce is one of the best things to eat ever, in my mind.

Also, whenever we castrated a stallion, that was an excuse to get together for dinner – the fried horse testicles. All the best restaurants in Serbia serve ‘white kidneys’, i.e., pig testicles. I never really liked the blood sausage, but beef knees or pig tongues and ears served cold in aspic were a staple in our household.

So, when I came to the United States, I was quite surprised to see that people here generally do not eat any of that stuff. Not even liver! I was quite excited when I went to San Francisco and got to try the duck fries at Incanto.

A few months ago, when Chris put up braised Kobe-beef oxtail as a dinner special at Town Hall Grill, I had it every day that week – it was that good! – yet Chris said that it did not sell very well. And oxtail is not even offal – it is skeletal muscle, and the tenderest of all as it does not need to move a big, heavy animal around, or chew tons of bulky food – just swat an occasional fly. So, not even here in the Triangle, where there is a powerful food culture, and the locavore food scene is amazing, do people easily overcome their cultural barriers to eating meat that is not steak. And yes, this is a cultural barrier:

The type of offal used in any given culture depends on the favoured meat animal, which may in turn depend on religious dietary laws. Muslim countries use much lamb offal. The Chinese have numerous ways of dealing with organs from pigs.

Offal is a good source of protein, and some organs, notably the liver and kidneys, are very valuable nutritionally. In most parts of the world, especially the less developed countries, it is valued accordingly. In the English-speaking world, however, the pattern is different. In North America, there has been and still exists a squeamish attitude which prompted the title Unmentionable Cuisine for the book by Schwabe (1979). In Britain, where there used to be no, or anyway few, qualms about eating offal, overt consumption has declined in the last half of the 20th century, although the offal is in fact still eaten in processed foods where it is not “visible”.

Squeamish attitudes may be explained on various grounds. Heads and feet remind consumers too directly that the food is of animal origin. Ambivalence about eating certain bits of an animal”s anatomy, such as TESTICLES, is expressed through the used of euphemistic names. Some internal offal has surreal shapes and strong flavours, which are not to everyone’s taste. The meat of feet and ears is characterized by textures which are gelatinous and crunchy at the same time, a combination which is generally disliked in the western world, although appreciated in the Orient.

Another dimension in the USA is historical – for a very long time, whenever an animal at a farm was slaughtered, the owners got the steaks, and the slaves got the offal. Thus, there is a racial differentiation here as well – the whites do not have a tradition of cooking offal and tend not to have family recipes and cookbooks about it, while the blacks do have such a tradition and the recipes come down through generations, from mothers to daughters. I have noticed especially here down South, that the country-club-whites especially look down their noses with disdain at offal dishes and their almost visceral disgust with them has more than a little of a classist and racist tinge to it.

Which is unfortunate. There are many places on this planet in which there is not much money going around, and the environment is not too conducive for raising sufficient amounts of grains, fruits and vegetables to feed everyone. Thus, many (probably most) cultures in the world have to be predominantly meat-eating. And growing animals for food is also not very easy or cheap either. So, it makes sense – economic sense if nothing else – to use every last edible bit of an animal. That way, each animal provides more meals to more people than if just steaks were to be eaten. This, in turn, means that fewer animals need to be grown and slaughtered.

In such places – and I have seen that in rural Serbia myself growing up – there is an almost spiritual connection to the farm animals – the slaughter is not something done lightly. It usually involves the entire large family (and friends and neighbors), the slaughter is performed with utmost care, almost ritually. And the greatest care is made not to let any piece go to waste.

At the time when the food business is straining the economy in the USA, ruining the farmers, endangering the people eating meat, done in a way very nasty to the animals, and using far too much energy (aka Oil), a little efficiency may help, including a change in culture in ways that allow us to better utilize each individual food animal (see this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this and this for background and additional information about the economics and politics of food).

It is not a surprise to me that the first cookbook ever to focus on just one type of offal – the testicles – was written by a Serbian chef – The Testicles Cookbook – Cooking with Balls by Ljubomir Erovic:

The Testicles Cookbook – Cooking with Balls is a multimedia cookbook complete with how-to videos on cooking testicle dishes. Including Testicle Pizza, Testicle Goulash and White Wine Testicles, this is a short teaser taken from the full cookbook, written by Serbian testicles chef, Ljubomir Erovic. The full book is available to buy on YUDU in English and Serbian.

Guardian: Cooking with balls: the world’s first testicle cookbook

Everyone’s very excited about a new e-cookbook launched today, by online publishers YUDU. It’s been compiled by a Serbian fellow called Ljubomir Erovic who has apparently been a testicular cook for some 20 years.
“The tastiest testicles in my opinion probably come from bulls, stallions or ostriches, although other people have their own favourites,” says Mr Erovic. He also uses those from pigs and turkeys in his cooking and points out that “all testicles can be eaten – except human, of course”. Glad to hear it Ljubomir.
—————————-
While the ingredient is fairly challenging, most of the dishes in the book are less adventurous, from testicle pizza, goulash, battered testicles to barbecued testicles and giblets. To be fair though, it doesn’t hurt to keep it simple, and there are a couple of more demanding recipes in there, for instance, calf testicles in wine (white or red but not sweet) and testicles with bourguignon sauce.

Daily Mail: On the ball: Introducing the world’s first testicle cookbook :

Erovic also organises the World Testicle Cooking Championship, held annually in Serbia since 2004. It draws in chefs from Australia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Norway and Serbia. One metric tonne of testicles are prepared.
“When not cooking or eating testicles, or helping others to do so, (Erovic) now runs a company involved in the maintenance of medical and dental equipment,” the book says.

We need to eat and we need to systematically change the way the food industry is organized, but this also means we need to ‘try some new foods’ and be more efficient and less wasteful about it. You can start by frying a testicle or two one of these days. It’s not bad at all, I can guarantee you.

Image: From Offal GoodTM Blog.






Comments 4 Comments

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  1. 1. John Emerson 9:46 am 08/10/2011

    When I was in Taiwan in 1983 one of my students said that entire shiploads of offal were sente from the US to Taiwan.

    A study could be done, but in Taiwan offal is a treat — for example, chicken feet cost more per pound than chicken legs, and the guest of honor gets the fish head. It’s not poverty food.

    At one New Years feast I was served tendon and uterus (or maybe udder), which were regarded as special treats. The uterus / udder was regarded as having special value in regenerating vitality, etc.

    In the US people do eat offal indirectly or unknowingly in sausage, but some people avoid sausage too when they find out what’s in it.

    It relates to excessive American cleanliness and wasteful consumption (throwing out things as soon as they’re not new, etc.)

    Link to this
  2. 2. tip184 10:14 am 08/10/2011

    A classic social psychology study, typically referred to as “the Sweetbreads Study” (“sweetbreads” is a euphemism for some offal – notably thymus gland, but it can include other glands as well) was conducted by Kurt Lewin during World War II. He wanted to help the US government convince the US housewife to serve offal meats to her family; less meat was being produced in the US because young men were off at war, and the prized cuts of skeletal meat were being sent to the troops. This is sometimes cited as an early “cognitive dissonance” study, although Lewin did not frame it that way, because women did indeed change their food-buying habits to reduce their internal cognitive dissonance: “I said I would serve sweetbreads to my family, but I haven’t done so yet.” Serving sweetbreads reduced this dissonance.

    Lewin, K. (1943). Forces behind food habits and methods of
    change, in The Problem of Changing Food Habits: Bulletin of The National Research Council, 108 (October): 35-65.

    Link to this
  3. 3. syhprum1 12:21 am 08/11/2011

    I come from an Italian family and as a child it was quite normall to eat the giblets, feet neck etc of a chicken.
    in the UK kidney, liver, pigs feet etc are available in the grocery stores but I do not think sales are very large.
    During the war we ate sheeps heads but they were not very appetising while sheeps brains were a well known delicatcy until the recent BSE scare.

    Link to this
  4. 4. nanahuatzin 12:35 am 08/16/2011

    So you may need a guide to Mexican cuisine:

    “Machitos”: testes
    “buche”: Stomach
    “nana”: pig uterus
    “nenepil”: nana and buche
    “moronga”: coagulated blood
    “pajarilla”: is pancreas
    “Chanfaina” Liver and hearth
    “sesos”: is the brain
    “molleja”: gizzard
    “bofe”: lung

    Plus you can ask some other delicacies as eyes, tongue, tail, ear, etc.

    Link to this

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