The offal truth about delicious guts
By Leslie Bilderback 10/01/2010
My participation in the annual Halloween frightfest has historically been meek. There is no fake graveyard in the front lawn, no people jumping out at you from bushes and my costumes are more cute than creepy, unless you count the year I was a punk
rocker. (Really, I think Lady Gaga is scarier than Sid Vicious ever was.) If I feel daring, I might put out a few cute candles and a smiley-face jack-o’-lantern.
So you can imagine how surprising it is to everyone that I suddenly found myself enjoying a little gore. It was inevitable, really. My husband has always been a fan of sci-fi and fantasy — no, we did not have a Dungeons & Dragons wedding, although there was talk of groomsmen wearing Star Trek communicators — and lately he has cultivated a very healthy zombie obsession. (If there were such a thing as a Star Trek zombie movie, all hell would break loose in this house.)
I used to sit in the same room with him while he watched his zombie movies, just to be together. I would not watch but just read or work, looking up only occasionally to catch someone’s brains being pulled out through their nostrils. But one day, I accidentally paid attention during one of these films and was surprisingly captivated. For some reason (perhaps the years of fabricating meat), the bloody carnage stopped bothering me. In fact, I found it a little bit awesome. Granted, some movies are scarier than others, but on the whole, I find that most are not truly frightening, just hilariously gross.
I am not the only one who has come to appreciate zombies. They are, if you haven’t noticed, enjoying something of a surge in popularity. Not only are zombies still starring in modern movies, but they are making waves in fashion, music and classic literature. (Jane Austen + zombies = brilliant.) And now, I am proud to announce that zombie culture has entered the world of fine dining.
You see, as zombies became fashionable, so too, in synchronous happenstance, did offal. Zombies eat guts, and offal is guts. And so, with the power vested in me, I hereby declare that the delightfully diverse array of recipes cooked with offal shall now and forever be known as Zombie Cuisine.
Actually, to call offal “guts” is disrespectful. It is much more than that. Offal (also known as organ meats or, in a stunning euphemism designed to de-squeamify you, variety meats) are the animal parts less used. Basically, it is everything edible taken from an animal that isn’t muscle. This includes feet, ears, skin, liver, kidney, spleen, thymus (my beloved sweetbreads), hearts, lungs, tongue, tripe and, of course, brains!
The tradition of using all parts of an animal is as old as fire and, with the exception of us pansy-ass North Americans, is still practiced in much of the world. Sure, Americans will eat Whoppers enhanced with chemical “scrumptiou-cillin” — flavor-enhancing additives, yum! — and McChicken wads made from parts unknown, but not the naturally delicious, texturally diverse, nutritionally rich “fifth quarter.” (That’s a butcher’s term for offal. Yeah, I know the lingo, baby.)
I know offal is a hard sell. But y’all should be tough enough to deal by now. In a world with tattoos, face piercing, base jumping and Lindsay Lohan, what’s a little extreme eating? All the cool kids are doing it.
When did Americans become so squeamish? (You’d never know we were squeamish by the TV listings. How many CSI’s do we really need?) We were not always this wasteful, spoiled and lame when it came to eating animals. During World War II, organ meats were among the few unrationed foods, and many delicious recipes sprang from necessity. But after the war, Americans waved goodbye to the ways of our forefathers and blasted off into a future that was clean, disinfected and shrink-wrapped. In the ’50s, we lost our gastronomical minds, giving up delicious foods like whole grains, stinky cheese, fresh herbs and, of course, offal. We became a country of cake mix, concentrated soup, Minute Rice and TV dinners. Immigrants still brought their whole-animal traditions to the U.S. but within a generation were converted.
This culinary-sterilization was meant to give us a better quality of life, but did it? Turns out we’re killing ourselves with processed foods, and it’s the whole foods that are the healthier, more delicious options.
So, people of America, I challenge you to start eating like zombies. I want you to try brains, cockscomb, lights (lungs), trotters (pig’s or sheep’s foot), sweetbreads, turkey fries (a.k.a. Rocky Mountain oysters — look it up), sausage and pâté made with all sorts of delicious parts. And, to give you a nudge, I offer the top five reasons you should start eating like a zombie:
#1. It’s delicious!
All muscle, regardless of the animal, has the same texture. All the cuts from a particular animal have the same basic flavor. (Boring!) Offal offers an endless spectrum of flavors, textures and preparations. There are hundreds of different delicious possibilities. Guts: a rainbow of flavors.
#2. It’s healthy!
Yes, many internal organs have a lot of fat and cholesterol, but so do butter and eggs. I am not suggesting you eat nothing but offal, but sprinkled here and there throughout a weekly diet, offal contains a level of nutrition rivaled only by your multivitamins.
#3. It’s economical.
Offal, like all great peasant food, was put to use partly out of necessity. Muscle was the good, pricey stuff, reserved for the high and mighty. What “off falls” from the good stuff was left for the huddled masses. Historically, offal is cheap.
#4. It’s the moral choice for meat eaters with a conscience.
The other part of offal’s history has nothing to do with cost and everything to do with disdain for waste. Why would you raise an animal, care for it, slaughter it, then throw half of it out? The moral answer is, you wouldn’t. It’s reprehensible that we fail to honor the animals we eat. Instead, we raise sad, sick, mistreated animals, use their choice bits, then classify the rest as industrial waste. I liken our habits to the buffalo pelt hunters of the Western expansion. (That’s right, Kemo Sabe, I went there.)
#5. It’s super-cool!
All the best chefs and foodies are jumping onto the zombie bandwagon, many on the coattails of Chris Consentino, chef of Incanto in San Francisco. There, with a week’s notice, you can order the Il Quinto Quarto tasting menu, each course lovingly crafted to highlight its offal goodness. Here in the Southland, visit Palate Food + Wine in Glendale (933 S. Brand Blvd.), where there are offal offerings year-round and Offal Wednesdays in the cooler months. There are also several food writers sharing their penchant for parts. Check out Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail (Ecco; 2004) and Beyond Nose to Tail (Bloomsbury; 2007), Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie (W.W. Norton; 2005) and Anissa Helou’s The Fifth Quarter (Absolute Press; 2004).
American supermarket meat has become so overprocessed that people have stopped associating it with animals completely. When I teach kids about cooking, I talk about the origin of meat. When I explain that beef is a cow and pork is a pig, there is inevitably a chorus of “Ewww, gross!” (Imagine the sounds that spew forth when we get into game meat. “People eat Bambi?” Yes, little Jimmy, and he was delicious.) So come on, America! It is time for your reality check. We eat animals. They were once alive, and now they are dead. If you don’t want to be a part of the carnivore corps, I can absolutely respect that. But if you’re going to eat a side of baby back ribs, know what it is and have some respect for the source. (Then next time, eat like a zombie and order a side of turkey fries.)
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef, cookbook author and lead pastry instructor at École de Cuisine Pasadena. A South Pasadena resident, she teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.