The raw and the cooked: eating offal through the ages

John Newton

[Note from John: Still don’t remember writing it but could easily have done so  although the reference to Pei at the end sort of brings it to the present. It may well have been intended for Grazing published in 2010. Mystery. If you print, better include this unsureness on my part. Sounds like me but…]

“The main trouble with tripe is that in my present dwelling place, a small town in Northern California, I could count on one hand the people who would eat it with me.”

MFK Fisher

“Till cramm’d and gorg’d, nigh burst

With suckt and glutted offal.”

Paradise Lost X

Milton

offal

Eating organ meats may have made us human – or at least provided the essential meat that grew our brains.

Chimpanzees will usually eat such parts as the guts, liver, or brain first: they can consume these soft and slippery bits quickly and easily. But when eating muscle, chimpanzees are forced to chew it slowly, taking as long as an hour to chew a mere 300 grams. They can get as many calories per hour from eating fruit as chewing muscle meat.

Eating the soft bits gave our ancestors that vital boost required to grow larger brains, and it wasn’t until much later that we learned to appreciate a steak. You could say that in the beginning, meat was offal, and offal was our meat.

Wild animals have few tender cuts of meat – for hunter gatherer people the organs were not just nutritionally important but would have made for pleasurable eating – particularly when freshly killed and raw – yes, raw.

Dishes such as the ‘king’s liver’ (the rare pan-fried liver of the morning’s freshly killed venison) celebrate the pleasure of our ancestors’ feast of raw offal at the kill site. In medieval England the liver of fallow deer were considered the prime cut and belonged to the king.

Hunter gatherer people, the Utes of Colorado, roasted all their meat but continued to eat the kidneys and liver raw directly at the kill site (the hunter’s perk, in much the same way the cook’s perk today may be the pan-fried liver on toast from the roasting bird), until their nomadic way of life was destroyed by European settlement.

Crow Indians also ate the liver and other organs of their game raw, in the belief that doing so imparted the vitality of the game to the consumer. Nineteenth century American serial killer and cannibal, the aptly named Liver-eating Johnson, ate the livers of the Crow Indian men he killed as an insult to the Crow’s beliefs.

The organs and intestines were often consumed raw by Australian Aboriginal peoples prior to colonisation (see Offal in Australia for more detail) for maximum nutritional benefit. Inuit tribes also eat raw intestines from birds and fish, the fat around the intestines being extremely valuable to all hunter gatherer groups (wild animals being very lean otherwise).

When Marco Polo travelled through Yunnan province in China in the thirteenth century he noted the people there ate a great deal of raw meat. He wrote that he saw people “take the raw liver as soon as it is drawn from the beasts; then they chop it up small, put it in garlic sauce and eat it there and then.” Reay Tannahill in her book Food in History muses that given Marco Polo’s indiscriminate use of the word ‘Tartar’ as a synonym for ‘Chinese’ the modern dish steak tartare may have had its origins in Yunnan.

The stomach of the beast killed was among the first cooking vessels our ancestors used. In Palaeolithic times the hunter (or hunters) may have first eaten the partially digested stomach contents of their kill (as documented in groups of traditionally-living Inuit peoples, and Australian Aboriginals), and then used the stomach to cook particularly the organ meat that would spoil first.

2000 years ago Herodotus noted the Scythians cooking in stomachs: “They put all the flesh into the animal’s paunch, mix water with it, and boil it like that over the bone-fire. The bones burn very well, and the paunch easily contains all the meat once it has been stripped off. In this way an ox, or any other sacrificial beast, is ingeniously made to boil itself.” Here we see a picture of not only an ancient cooking method (not a thing wasted – even the bones used for fuel), but also surely the step that preceded puddings such as the haggis, and our own beloved sausages.

Sausages are indeed ‘mystery bags’ and have been since we first learned to stuff intestines, caul fat or stomach with chopped meat (a lot easier to chew that way), and with fat, herbs and spices (a lot tastier now, too). There is an incredible range of recipes for sausages, but traditionally almost all are encased in intestine, caul fat or stomach – all natural bags.

The Yahgan people of the southernmost tip of South America (who have sadly all but disappeared) made a blood sausage from sea-lion by turning a soft piece of gut inside out and cleaning it, tying it shut at one end with sinews, and then filling it with air by blowing, and sewing the open end shut before drying it. When it was sufficiently firm, they used a large shell to fill it with blood, tied it shut again and then cooked the sausage in hot ashes. Similar puddings are made by other peoples around the world by filling stomachs with combinations of blubber, chopped organ meat and fat.

The Romans stuffed and cooked anything that wasn’t fast enough to get away. Around 2000BP Apicius gives a recipe for a stuffed sow’s belly (paunch or tripe) filled with mussels, pepper and caraway, roasted and served with a brine sauce (probably liquamen) and mustard. He also includes a recipe for sausages that combines chopped meat with a wide range of herbs and spices (including now THE barely used herb, rue), liquamen (Roman fish sauce), and pinenuts, stuffed into an intestine and smoked.

Platina in De honesta voluptate et valetudine (printed in 1475) offers a thoroughly delicious sounding recipe for liver sausage that combines ground livers with pork belly, eggs, aged cheese, herbs, raisins and ground spices, which are formed into meatballs and wrapped in caul fat before cooking.

From the Romans widely-known delight in obscure titbits (the livers of pigs fed on figs, honey and wine, for example, a kind of piggy foie gras) to the banquets in Renaissance Italy interspersed with morsels such as peacock’s brains, offal has not always meant the cheap bits, oh no, but the prized pieces.

At one banquet the young Roman Emperor Heliogabalus (also known as Elagabalus, emperor from 218 to 222) served only the heads of six hundred ostriches, from which his guests consumed only the brains. This meal epitomised both the taste for decadence and for rare offal, of wealthy Romans. The Emperor Heliogabalus was considered eccentric by even Romans: he used an early prototype of the whoopy cushion on his banquet guests as a joke once, and apparently fed his dogs only on foie gras.

Force feeding geese and ducks to enlarge the liver (to make it fatty), has been recorded in ancient Egyptian art from 4500BP. The Egyptians noted the way the birds gorged before flying south, and reproduced it by force feeding, although many modern farmers swear they do not have to force feed through a feeding tube ( technically called gavage) as the birds will not stop eating if left to their own devices. Harold McGee calls it “a living pate, ingeniously prepared in the growing bird before it’s slaughtered”. The constant overfeeding causes the liver to grow ten times the size it would be normally and become almost white in appearance as it develops up to 65% fat, interspersed in fine droplets between the liver’s cells. King of the Visigoths Alaric II ((c. 458/466 – August 507) ate foie gras regularly, having come to appreciate the delicacy in Gaul.

That is not to say, however, that everything we call offal today was appreciated in Roman or medieval times. Quite the contrary – the obscure and the expensive (rare) offal were prized, but that which was plentiful, such as tripe and blood, was not prized. Roman poet Juvenal sneered that the heads of sheep were a “feast fit for a cobbler”, yet also waxed lyrically that a slave might dream of the sow’s womb he once ate in a tavern.

Until the nineteenth century most slaughter occurred in abattoirs inside the city gates – the killing was public and the gore legendary (the saying ‘a real shambles’, which means a terrible mess, comes from the word for a slaughterhouse, ‘shambles’). The stench, the mess and the general distastefulness of the shambles made the surrounds cheap real estate and very often charitable hospitals and other buildings for the poor surrounded the meat district. During the Middle Ages it was common for the abattoirs to give blood and suspect meat to the poor, and many hospitals that adjoined abattoirs made an income from producing blood puddings.

In the Middle Ages in Europe the kidneys, sweetbreads, testicles and tongue weren’t considered very nourishing, while high calorie marrow and fat were prized (up until only recently, many people over Europe faced the very real threat of starvation over winter). With the apparently logical imagination of the era the stomach and intestines were considered healthful but difficult to digest (of course).

Tripe sellers in European cities during the Middle Ages sold very cheap tripe soaked in lye and cooked, to the poor for breakfast, and as typical of lowly jobs at the time, almost all tripe sellers were women. Plentiful and cheap tripe was similarly abundant up until only recently in northern England, where tripe simply served with vinegar and salt was an everyday meal. In a not dissimilar fashion, to this day traditional Turkish iskembecisi (tripe houses) offer cheap, filling soups of chopped tripe and intestines, served simply with crushed dried chilli, vinegar and lemon juice for seasoning.

Now the tripe sellers have all but disappeared from northern England, and the working classes are less likely to eat offal than the wealthy classes in Australia and Britain. Phillip Harben wrote in a column in British Woman’s Own in 1962: “In my ignorance I never realised there were these important class distinctions in food. I shall have to be more careful in future or I shall be offending people by asking for such delicacies (indeed they are) as tripe, or black pudding.”

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver famously quipped when asked if he’d cook at Westminster: “sorry, I don’t do offal”, and although he was referencing the food served at boarding schools, there is a broader implication. The longevity and growth of Fergus Henderson’s St John restaurant empire in London attests to the growing appeal of offal amongst certain circles, as concurrently, the tripe sellers disappear from others. As in so many cases to do with offal eating it, or not eating it, can be political.

Perhaps there is no better example of this than the consumption of chitterlings in America. Chitterlings are intestines, washed and brined and cooked in various ‘soul food’ dishes including stewed and barbecued. Until the abolishment of slavery, slavers fed their captive workers as cheaply as possible, often with leftover and waste foods. Vegetable rations consisted of the tops of turnips and beets, collards, kale and pokeweed. Meat rations were strictly limited to what the plantation owners did not want themselves: pig’s feet, intestines, oxtail, hocks, pig’s ears, jowls, tripe and skin.

Chitterlings, or chitlins, are less and less commonly consumed amongst African American communities today as some wish to distance themselves from a diet associated with slavery. Conversely, others such as ‘Chitlin Queen’ Shauna Anderson profess that chitlins “are just good food”, although perhaps they’re a little more than just that as she also believes they are the epitome of turning trash into treasure and symbolic of triumph in adversity.

Certainly in France and China there is not much stigma associated with eating offal. This may be because the development of a huge range of dishes during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in both countries relied on there being as large a range of foodstuffs to use as possible. The demand was for variety, and that’s certainly what you get with variety meats (the American term for offal).

From the end of the Middle Ages meat, and offal, began to be used in more varied ways in French kitchens. The theatre of the table of the Middle Ages was still there (tongue wrapped itself around fillings, ‘eating’ before the diners ate the tongue) but other methods of cookery were creating new and diverse dishes, such as tongue au gratin and oxtail, kidneys, tripe and eyes now braised and then gratinated, or braised before roasting on spits.

The French cookery books of the 18th century gave great prominence to offal dishes, including parts of the beast that were already distasteful in many British circles: the eyes, palate, the lungs and the intestines. Le Cuisinier Gascon written in 1746 give a recipe for stuffed calf’s eyes au gratin and in Menon’s La Cuisinière bourgeoise (1746) there are several different recipes for serving calf’s eyes.

But perhaps it will be dishes such as bone marrow on toast (apparently Queen Victoria’s preferred breakfast), that encourage more Australians to take up offal eating again. The familiarity of ‘on toast’ should act as a comfort and make the step easier.

And there’s a long, long history of eating morsels of offal on toast. Renaissance cook to two popes, Bartolomeo Scappi documents an elegant version of kidneys on toast in his grand cookbook Opera. He chops veal kidney and meat and binds it with egg yolk, before buttering onto toasts and grilling. And with a flourish not out of place in an Ottolenghi cookbook, he dusts with cinnamon and drizzles with pomegranate juice.

Even earlier than that a tomb from 5000BP in Egypt shows us that wealthy Egyptians were partial to a plate of kidneys as well, as amongst the delicacies buried with the owner to tide him over in the afterlife, lies a large plate of petrified kidneys – no doubt to be consumed with the nearby flatbread. One imagines, lying in sarcophagi, A SARCOPHAGUS  an Egyptian Leopold Bloom, partial to mutton kidneys.

Doctor Jeremy Strong, author of the article The Modern Offal Eaters says that “the consumption of offal has become the preserve of the affluent culinary cognoscenti” – far removed from Leopold Bloom (James Joyce’s protagonist in Ulysses who famously enjoyed kidneys for breakfast). He believes offal eating does not appeal to the working classes but to middle class diners wishing to differentiate themselves through what they eat. Many other food writers agree with something similar: that offal is now so unusual on the menu (at home or at large) that it now represents a culinary experience.

Will Australians eat tripe again, for instance, like they eat sausages? Will we ever throw some ox tongue on the barbecue (like the Laos and the Thais), or sit down to a meal of pan-fried liver and sage (like the Italians), in a manner that is unremarkable rather than a statement? We may, perhaps, when meat becomes prohibitively expensive – certainly cuts such as lamb shanks came in from the cold ten years ago to command premium prices today.

Chef Robert Owen Brown from The Mark Addy restaurant in Salford, northern England suggests breaded and fried tripe. He says it’s: “entry-level. If you cover anything in breadcrumbs and deep-fry it, even the worst sceptic will put it in their mouth. This is what McDonald’s would do with tripe.”

Well perhaps the tide is indeed turning: we note crumbed fried tripe ‘chips’ are currently on the menu at Mark Best’s restaurant Pei Modern in Melbourne. Will they be coming to a chippy near yo