It's a two-scarves-cold night in February, a few days after a particularly depressing Valentine’s Day, and a friend and I meet to commiserate over indulgent fare. We don’t lounge around my apartment eating pints of ice cream, though; instead, we tuck into a small table at Craftbar, a casually elegant Manhattan restaurant known for its seasonal, sustainable ingredients. Our chosen comfort foods are a sumptuous appetizer of pan-roasted sweetbreads (the thymus gland of a calf) and a softball-sized serving of meltingly tender braised pork belly, the fattiest part of the pig that is typically used to make bacon and was rarely served in the U.S. straight-up until a few years ago.
These days, offal — the technical term for the internal organs of an animal that is also sometimes used to describe extremities and other scrap meat — is nearly as common as homemade mac-and-cheese in chic eateries, though it was once considered unhealthy or too déclassé for American appetites. (In non-American cuisines, on the other hand, offal is part of many traditional dishes: French and English peasant fare, for example, include various preparations of blood and fat; Sicilian specialties include lung and spleen sandwiches; and in China, animal parts from brain to penis show up on plates.) Green-minded chefs in particular have begun serving dishes like kidney, heart, tongue, tripe (cow stomach), and various other alternatives to steak and chops. It’s a philosophy that the unofficial father of this culinary revovution, London-based chef Fergus Henderson, calls “nose-to-tail eating” — using all parts of the animal to show respect for its life and to minimize waste (and cost), and embracing the challenge of crafting delectable cuisine from ingredients considered by many to be, well, detestable.
While this whole-hog ethos has ancient roots in diverse cultures, it doesn’t jibe with some environmentalists’ concept of sustainable sustenance. In 1971, when Frances Moore Lappé’s bestseller Diet for a Small Planet inspired many environmentally aware folks to go vegetarian, the idea of eating animals — let alone their brains and blood — was often considered antithetical to the cause. Today many people are still going veggie for both environmental and animal rights reasons, but the standards for what’s considered sustainable are relaxing to include humane livestock farming. And many in the food world agree that eating “the nasty bits,” as chef Anthony Bourdain calls them, is a logical extension of good animal husbandry. “Some people may not be on board,” says chef Peter Hoffman, speaking of the offal trend, “but I just assume that it’s a matter of time — the more you think about the sustainability issues, the more you realize that it’s honoring the animal to eat every part.”
It also honors the family farmer. As chef Dan Barber of New York’s two Blue Hill restaurants explains, “when you’re dealing with small hog farmers, you can’t just buy the tenderloin, loin and rack — which is only 20 percent of the animal — and leave the rest.” Large-scale industrial farms have no problem getting rid of the other 80 percent: They supply scrap meat to companies that turn them into hot dogs, deli meats, and pet food. But small farmers don’t produce enough volume to meet those companies’ demands, so rather than disposing of the meat trimmings at an additional expense, they sell whole animals to chefs, who butcher them in their kitchens. “These days many chefs are filling the role that butchers and small-scale slaughterhouses used to fill, because a lot of those artisans have gone out of business,” says Hoffman, who strives to always offer at least one offal item on the menu at his New York City restaurant, Savoy.
And eco-friendly methods of raising animals have helped quell the perception that offal is unclean and unhealthy to eat. While some organs (such as kidneys and liver) do collect and process pollutants, sustainably raised creatures are less subject to disease, and their viscera are therefore thought to carry less risk of contamination. Moreover, animals certified as organically or humanely raised, as well as most livestock reared on small family farms, receive strictly vegetarian feed and thus are unlikely to carry “mad cow” or other prion diseases, which can be transmitted by the chicken litter and bovine blood that industrially farmed animals are fed. (In 2003, the United States Department of Agriculture banned the human consumption of cow brains, eyes, and other parts of the skull and spine, but only for cows older than 30 months; these parts on younger cows can still be eaten.)
Cooking all parts of the carcass has also become a badge of honor among chefs. “There’s a distinction in being able to use the entire animal—you’re not just the chef who gets the same old vacuum-packed beef shipped in,” says Hoffman. At Oliveto restaurant in Oakland, California, the annual “Whole Hog” weekend menu allows the kitchen team to create flashy, made-for–Iron Chef dishes like bacon ice cream and “fried pork trotter and brains with bloodorange salsa.” Cooking offal allows chefs to “show off different techniques, as well as educate consumers about the unique tastes of all the cuts,” says Billy Barlow, sous-chef at The Spotted Pig in New York City. And some argue that embracing offal is a way to buck the system: Bourdain, whose Food Network show, A Cook’s Tour, documents him eating sheep testicles and snake heart, has written that Henderson’s British country cooking is “an outrageously timed head-butt to the growing hordes of politically correct [and] the PETA people.”
Aside from the bravado surrounding whole-beast eating, though, dishes based on innards and extremities seem to simply make customers happy. Critics coo over celebrity chef Mario Batali’s tripe, beef cheeks, and lamb tongue; forums about offal abound on foodie Web sites like Chowhound.com and eGullet.org. And Barber sounds tickled about his latest menu success: “a whole bunch of offal on a platter, which I present between courses — I had been a little scared to do it, but I haven’t had a bad response yet.” Of course, plenty of green-leaning eaters are still content to limit their protein intake to muscle meats or plants and dairy. But if offal goes the way of other eco-eats, we might eventually start seeing sweetbreads and kidneys on the drivethru menu. Fried gizzards with that?
SWEET-AND-SOUR CALF’S TONGUE
Lingua in Agrodolce
Makes 8 servings
- 2 large calf’s tongues (about 3 pounds)
- 1⁄4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 pound cipollini or pearl onions, cut into 1⁄4-inch-thick rounds
- 2 ribs celery, cut into 1⁄4-inch-thick slices
- Grated zest and juice of 3 oranges
- 1⁄4 cup red wine vinegar
- 1 cup basic tomato sauce (use your own favorite recipe)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1⁄4 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
Place the tongues in a pot just large enough to hold them; cover them with water. Cover the pot and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 1 1⁄2 hours. Remove from heat and leave the tongues in the liquid until cool enough to handle. Remove the tongues from the pot, peel them, and remove the fatty parts at the base of each one. Slice into 1⁄2-inch slices across the grain and set aside. Reserve 1 1⁄2 cups of the cooking liquid; discard the remainder. In a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat until smoking. Add the onions, carrots, and celery and cook, stirring often, until lightly browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the orange juice, vinegar, reserved cooking liquid, and tomato sauce; bring to a boil. Add the tongue and cook, uncovered, at a brisk simmer until the liquid has reduced by two thirds, about 30 minutes. Season the tongue with salt and pepper and turn out into a shallow platter. Sprinkle with the orange zest and parsley, and serve.
Story by Christy Harrison. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2006. This story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.