|Eating Offal: It takes guts
By Sage Dilts
(Pictured here is the charcuterie plate always on the menu at Café Rouge. Two house-made pâtés flank slices of the smoked tongue, for which owner Marsha McBride and butcher Scott Brennan received a 2011 Good Food Award. For more information about the awards, click here. Photo by Stacy Ventura)
“Once the deer has been killed, the decorum and restraint that mark Ohlone deer hunting do not break down. The butchering and distribution of the meat also must be done according to the prescribed ways.
“After a prayer and a gesture of thanks to the deer the hunter carries the carcasses back to the village where members of his family have been singing deer chants to give him good luck. Here the deer is skinned, and the skin is given to the hunter’s wife. The stomach is removed, stuffed with certain entrails and choice pieces of meat from around the kidneys, and presented to the men who accompanied the hunter. The liver is set aside for an old woman who has fed him acorn mush and seed cakes since he was a child. The sirloin, legs, and other parts of the deer are distributed among relatives and neighbors.” —The Ohlone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area by Malcolm Margolin
“Offal offers us a chance to pay our respects, in a full and holistic manner, to the animals we’ve raised for meat. The nose-to-tail approach to using the animals we kill for food must . . . be a central tenet of the contract of domestication and good husbandry. Waste is not acceptable. It’s all or nothing.” —Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall from The River Cottage Meat Book.
My vegetarian childhood might have prepared me to answer Fearnley-Whittingstall’s unequivocal statement with “nothing,” as many non-meat-eaters have done. But now, as I regard the omnivorous path I’m treading, it seems I should go with “all.” Still, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that my own stomach turns a bit at the thought of such strongly flavored, strangely textured foods that come from the deep insides of large animals with whom I essentially have no relationship. I’m lured in by Fearnley-Whittingstall’s case for being thrifty (i.e., resourceful) with and mindful about the animals we use for food, so here I am, eating offal, and I have to say that it takes guts.
It isn’t any kind of revelation to note that modern American meat-eating involves few if any gestures or decorum directed to the animal: We simply buy the cut we like and cook it up (and increasingly, we order it already cooked). The primary reason we give for never trying organ meats, before we can even dislike them for their strong flavors and textures, is that the pieces—brains, hearts, liver, tongue, stomach— are all too recognizableas body parts that we have ourselves and that tell us undeniably that there was life there. For whatever reason there seems to be agreement by those who encourage and support “nose to tail cooking” that eating the more recognizable parts means the animal is not being ignored and thus is being more respected.
Offal (yes, it’s pronounced “awful”) is a rather unfortunate term but a fully practical expression for what literally falls off (or out of) the animal during butchering. While “offal” can refer to just the entrails, the term has expanded to include all “variety meats”: all the innards, everything in and on the head, the tail, the feet, and the marrowbones.
Whole-animal cookery is experiencing a revival in home and restaurant kitchens alike. Chefs who emphasize local farms and seasonality are presenting more dishes involving the less-familiar cuts as well as organ meats, things that have been just about absent from American restaurant menus for decades.
With this growing interest, pasture-based ranchers are noting a consistent and growing demand for more than just the muscle cuts of their animals. Hunter Holding, who started his pasture-based Holding Ranch operation in Lafayette but raises most of the meat animals near Yreka, says that demand for organ meats “seems to have picked up in the last year, possibly due to heightened awareness of their nutritional value and the general increase in purchases direct from the farmer. . . . Our supply is limited somewhat by the slaughterhouse, but we sell out of the organ meats we do have quickly. Liver is the most popular, and we also sell a lot of tongue. The heart is less popular. The butcher includes oxtail and hanger steak in the box with organs since they’re all separated from the carcass before hanging. These sell well, too.”
In most food cultures around the world, many of which are well represented in the diverse cuisines of the worldly East Bay, offal is more commonly used and appreciated, with the recognition that the practice gives both economic and nutritional advantages. Holding says that foreign-born customers, who seem to have more traditions involving organ meats and more recipes, represent a large percentage of his organ meat customers.
THE NUTRITIONAL ADVANTAGE
Chatting with my friend Analeisa, who works at the Prather Ranch Meat stall at the Grand Lake Farmers’ Market in Oakland, I learn that she sees more than a few back-sliding vegetarians buying liver for its huge content of nutrients crucial to human health: vitamins B5, 6, and 12, which are necessary for energy metabolism; vitamins A and C (about as much as grapefruit), which along with zinc support the immune system; iron and copper, which work together to oxygenate the blood; plus choline, folate, riboflavin, selenium, protein, niacin, and phosphorus.
Jessica Prentice, worker-owner of Three Stone Hearth Community Supported Kitchen, concurs. At her kitchen, where they follow the approach of Weston A. Price and Sally Fallon in encouraging use of the whole animal, liver is promoted as a “superfood.” They sneak it into the ground meat dishes for their customers and advise doing the same at home by grating frozen liver into ground meats, sauces, or rice. A little goes a long way; only about a tablespoon per serving is needed to gain the nutrient benefit. Trying this in my homemade tomato sauce, I found myself enjoying a notable added richness and depth. Thinking by contrast about the boneless, skinless chicken breast—the mainstay of most American “healthy” diets—I’m struck by how little that food offers nutritionally, and I wonder if we’ve gotten something backwards about what’s good for us.
HOW IT IS RAISED MATTERS
Just as vegetables grown in poor soil will be less nutritious, organ meats from an animal raised in an industrial setting will be questionable. David Evans of Marin Sun Farms supposes that the industrial production system is partly to blame for Americans’ distaste for offal, saying, “Most industrially raised animals have toxic/not healthy organs.” Fearnley-Whittingstall explains more of the reasons behind this concern in The River Cottage Meat Book:
“To my mind, the issue of provenance, vital at the best of times, becomes particularly acute where the ‘soft offal’ —i.e., the carious glands and vital organs that we use for foods—are concerned. This is because these are the parts of the body where stress, inappropriate feeds, and unnecessary chemical and medical dosing are most likely to make an impact. They are far more vulnerable than muscle meat to the build-up of toxins and the occurrence of cysts, tumors, and other stress- and disease-related damage. Indeed, it is invariably as a result of the inspection of offal—liver and kidney in particular—by an abattoir’s veterinary officer that meat may be condemned as unfit for human consumption.
This means that when choosing offal, there is a particularly strong case for sourcing from small producers in general and organic small producers in particular, since these are the people whose animals are reliably the most stress free, additive free, and naturally fed.”
WHAT HAPPENS TO THE OFFAL IF IT ISN’T EATEN?
I asked both David Evans and Hunter Holding the above question. Both acknowledged that saving offal for human consumption preserves the most important reason for raising the animal in the first place, but overall, because of a wide variety of demand, there is very little waste in the whole system, particularly at the industrial scale.
Evans says, “We are a whole animal company and take great pride in that. We offer everything, because if we do not it goes in the dog food bin or the tallow can. Industrial processing has a use for everything—overseas demand, pet food— in large processing, with enough volume of a protein or fat, there will be a market. The small processor must combat that with creativity. We make dehydrated pet treats, raw pet food, and are increasingly looking to charcuterie to add value to the organ cuts—pâté anyone? Blood sausage? Pickled tongues? Ground hearts?”
Holding says, “I believe we should eat as much of the animal as possible. I think it’s the best way to get the most value out of the animal, and we promote this more than industrial operations do. I don’t think there’s any waste on the industrial side, just more utilization of the animal for non-food purposes like cosmetics, soap, and even collagen for skin grafts.”
Holding goes on to say that the USDA does not allow sale of any of the organs that are part of the nervous system (brain, spinal cord) due to the threat of mad cow disease. “They are also very strict in general about filtration organs such as liver and kidneys. The smallest of blemishes will cause USDA to condemn these organs. Also, slaughterhouses are in the habit of leaving the kidneys attached to the carcass while it hangs, and they spoil. The slaughterhouse isn’t interested in performing the additional work required to clean digestive organs such as tripe and sweetbreads due to labor constraints. Anything not used is sent to the renderer [who reduces animal waste parts into components used for soap, etc.]”
OVERCOMING THE AVERSION
Jessica Prentice admits that, even knowing all the good reasons for eating more offal and being fully honest and comfortable with the fact of eating meat, she still can’t quite get her American-bred palate to be enthusiastic about it. It’s probably safe to say that for most people raised on a standard American diet, just the thought of eating organs is hard to get over, let alone preparing them. Jessica does point out that historically, people have prepared organ meats for longer than they haven’t. “People prepared organ meats at home and still do and these are absolutely possible to make yourself.”
“There is no fanatic like a convert,” I thought as I helped myself to deer liver for breakfast recently. It was the liver of a wild deer, courtesy of my father-in-law. I followed a classic recipe that called for frying it in butter and serving over slowly caramelized onions. It was delicious.
Ready to try more, I stopped in at the Café Rouge Meat Market, which specializes in using whole pastured animals. They use offal in many preparations that people readily enjoy, such as sausages (some have organ meats, and all are stuffed into intestines); liver pâtés (always appreciated when brought to a gathering, with baguette, cheese, plus maybe some cornichon), and even thinly sliced, smoked beef tongue.
Scott Brennan, the head butcher, (pictured here with some caul fat) offers the sage advice of first trying offal prepared by an expert so you know what you’re shooting for. He also points out that it helps to have some cooking know-how.
“Buying something without a plan is never a good idea. The best idea would be to start with chicken livers. They have a mild taste, as liver goes, and they are small, so they cook quickly. I personally love the tongue of any creature, even just braised in some salted water and a few herbs, then cooled, chopped up, and added to a salad. It is high in protein, and fairly lean at the tip. Beef liver is good when marinated and grilled, as are chicken and duck liver. These are easy ways to prepare offal at home without having to hide them as something else.”
Eager to step beyond liver, I went to Tacubaya, next door to Café Rouge on Berkeley’s 4th Street, for some menudo, a classic Mexican dish that’s a Sunday morning tradition. It’s made with a base of beef stock and filled out with hominy (corn) and honeycomb tripe. With its delicate honeycomb pattern, the tripe seems like something out of the ocean rather than the stomach lining from a ruminant animal, such as a cow. The tripe absorbs the thick and peppery broth and becomes very flavorful and satisfyingly chewy.
Many fans of offal recommend sweetbreads for the uninitiated. Sweetbreads these days would be thymus glands, though asking for them in the past would get you pancreas. They are most often fried, which is how I first had them, expertly cooked by a chef friend. This dish was not challenging in the least, lying somewhere between perfectly cooked calamari and juicy chicken.
While you could eventually try almost every variety of offal by visiting restaurants in the Bay Area, it really is a worthwhile process to try making these meats in your own kitchen. I sort of ignored Brennan’s advice and took home a small cow heart from Prather Ranch. In contrast to the deer liver (which was quite small and simple to prepare), the heart proved to be a challenge. I didn’t really know how to trim it properly and I wasn’t sure which of the tiny tubes and fatty bits I should leave or how to remove them. But as I clumsily wrestled with the muscle and eventually prepared it for cooking, I could connect physically (wholeheartedly, even!) with the size, strength, and health of the creature.
The organ was very dense, but long simmering brought it to a deliciously tender and toothy texture. I used a recipe from Joy of Cooking and braised the heart with a classic sofrito of carrots, onions, and celery, then served it with whole-milk yogurt and sauerkraut. For the first time in my short history of cooking meat I felt I wasn’t being excused from the life and death cycle of eating. It was an honest meal.
Sage Dilts authors a blog, mindtomouth.org, where she writes on the subjects of eating and living well using limited resources and the use of domestic skills to practically support health and a vibrant regional food system.
The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating by Fergus Henderson (HarpersCollins, 2004)
The Fifth Quarter: An Offal Cookbook by Anissa Helou (Absolute Press, 2004)
The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (Hodder & Stoughton General, 2004)
Unmentionable Cuisine by Calvin W. Schwabe (University of Virginia Press, 1979)
WHERE TO BUY OFFAL
Prather Ranch: Danville, Oakland Temescal, and Oakland Grand Lake farmers markets, pratherranch.com
Highland Hills Ranch: Indus Food Center, 1920 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, and all three Berkeley farmers markets
Holding Ranch: Orinda, Pleasanton, Moraga, and Walnut Creek farmers markets and through their CSA, holdingranch.com
Marin Sun Farms: Berkeley Bowl, Rockridge Market Hall, Star Market, and through their CSA, marinsunfarms.com
Café Rouge Meat Market: 1782 4th St., Berkeley, caferouge.net
OFFAL PREPARED BY THE PROS
Oliveto: Their annual Whole Hog dinner (March 9–12 this year) is legendary. Quite literally, you’ll enjoy the pig from head to tail (including some offal) as prepared by Oliveto’s new chef, Jonah Rhodehamel. Hogs for these dinners come from local farmers, including River Dog Farm, Devil’s Gulch Ranch, and Magruder Ranch. 5655 College Ave, Oakland. Info and reservations: oliveto.com/ourcommunity/
Café Rouge: The charcuterie plate includes a variety of house-made items made with offal. It changes daily, but might include pâté made from pork, veal, rabbit or duck liver; head cheese; and the award-winning smoked tongue. Also look for unique items such as roasted beef marrow and blood sausage. 1782 4th St., Berkeley, caferouge.net
Revival Bar and Kitchen: They often have on the menu a lamb sweetbreads entrée and a charcuterie plate with duck liver mousse and country-style pâté. 2102 Shattuck, Berkeley, revivalbarandkitchen.com
Lalime’s: Known to offer sweetbreads. 1329 Gilman, Berkeley, lalimes.com
Incanto: Rather spendy but there’s some serious offal love. 1550 Church St, SF, incanto.biz