Our Less Meaty Future Could Be Offal

by Sara Mead

offalBen and Ezra are both on record predicting that a combination of policy choices and economic developments will lead to reductions in Americans’ overall consumption of meat. The environmental case for the policies they advocate to reduce meat consumption (and shift it in the direction of meat produced in ways that are less harmful to the environment) is strong. But I’m somewhat skeptical of the extent to which those policies will lead more Americans to dump meat for tofu and PB&J. Rather, I think we’re likely to see a substantial uptick in Americans’ consumption of “less desirable” cuts of meat. Substituting chicken thighs for breasts, for example, and cubed steak for flank steak, as well as a lot more openness to meat products–such as hearts, tongue, tripe, liver, kidneys, sweetbreads–collectively known as offal (pronounced “awful”) that currently skeez a lot of Americans out. And that could turn out to be a very delicious thing.

These cuts of meat haven’t always been strangers to the American palate. Traditional English cookery is rife with organ meats–tongue, kidneys, liver–and many Americans with English and German roots (including my grandparents) historically enjoyed these foods. My mother still has the World War II-era Good Housekeeping cookbook that my grandmother received upon her marriage to my grandfather. That cookbook contains a “ration” supplement that told war-time housewives how to make the most of their limited allocations of butter, sugar, and meat. In addition to showing the wives how to make cookies with no butter or sugar (hint: lard and molasses are involved), the supplement also offers organ meat recipes to help them stretch their meat rations. While these foods fell out of favor amid post-War affluence, they remain an important part of Asian and Hispanic cuisines that are increasingly available in the U.S. (for example, menudo, a classic Mexican soup made with tripe–or cow stomach). African American cuisine has also used these items to good effect. 

cosentinoMoreover, offal, long popular among folks too poor to buy better meat, is staging a resurgence among culinary elites. To whit: the October 26 episode of Iron Chef America was a “Battle Offal,” in which Iron Chef Mario Battali and challenger Chris Cosentino battled to wow the judges with kidneys, trotters (pigs’ feet), lamb hearts, and coxcombs, among other meat products that gross most Americans out. The Food Network’s website is sadly lacking in episode recaps or images (note to Food Network: work on that, folks. This is the Internet era!)–which is too bad, since they looked delicious and I’m betting would go a long way to sway those of you who are disgusted by this post so far. 

Cosentino, who runs a schmancy restaurant in San Francisco, is an ardent offal fan with his own food blog, Offalgood.com, which to be honest puts us poor souls at the IFA to shame. Cosentino’s restaurant, Incanto, is serving his Iron Chef offal menu on weekends through late December, and if I had plans to go to San Francisco (and a couple hundred dollars to spare), I’d definitely be checking it out. More locally, the humble calve’s liver is a signature menu item at Central Michel Richard (and one of those I’ve seen most praised in reviews of the restaurant, though I personally haven’t tried it). And on Friday night Matt and I had a delicious dinner at CommonWealth Gastropub, a delicious restaurant where the menu features house-made head cheese, stuffed trotters, and deviled sweetbreads. I always order sweetbreads when I see them on a restaurant menu, and I’ve never yet been disappointed. These were to die for. Sure, the beer-battered bacon was superior. But it was DEEP FRIED BACON. That’s not remotely a fair competition.

To be sure, the people who are turning in these delicious offal performances are highly skilled chefs, and the biggest obstacle to the coming offal resurgence–besides the fact that too many Americans are skeezed out by organs–is probably the fact that we don’t know how to cook them, and sometimes don’t have the time to do so, either. Certainly, I have no idea how to cook sweetbreads or calve’s heart (and also some questions about where to get them)–but I’ve resolved to learn. And, lucky for me, my 1975 Joy of Cooking has plenty of information on them. Real excerpt from said book:

To paraphrase Puck: “What goods these morsels be!” Veal sweetbreads are the most favored. But beef sweetbreads are sometimes incorporates into mixtures like meat pies, pates, and terries. Sweetbreads, properly so-called, are the rounded, more desireable “heart” or “kernel” types, the pancreas. The thinner “throat” type is the thymus. Like all organ meats, sweetbreads are highly perishable and should be prepared for use as soon as purchased….. 

Now, Ben and Ezra have also argued for the health impacts of reduced meat consumption. So, if the coming offal resurgence could be delicious, what does it mean for our health? Well, the good news is that some organ meats are incredibly nutritious and low  in fat. Pan-fried Beef Liver, for example, has only 198 calories per 4 oz. serving, and packs a whopping 30 grams of protein. That compares favorably to most popular cuts of beef. Tripe and kidneys are even lower in fat and calories. The bad news, though, is that the most delicious organ meats–like sweetbreads–aren’t nearly so virtuous. Still, the evidence suggests that Americans could eat in a more environmentally friendly fashion–without sacrificing deliciousness or health–by adopting a more tolerant approach to organs and other odd meat products, thus making more efficient use of the animals we do consume. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not going to be eating the pig uteri we saw on a recent trip to Eden Center any time soon–but if my diet begins incorporating more liver and sweetbreads I’ll be a happy camper.

5 responses to “Our Less Meaty Future Could Be Offal

  1. spencerackerman

    Kay and I will have more on this… very soon.

  2. Great post. I wonder to what extent American consumption of offal was replaced by consumption of processed meat — much of it presumably made from offal. My guess is that hot dogs and chicken nuggets may have helped offset the decline in popularity of organ meat, but that non-100%-whatever products are currently suffering in the marketplace. It’ll be interesting to see if Americans are more willing to eat offal when it doesn’t try to pass itself off as something else.

  3. Sara how can you say the chicken thigh is less desirable than the breast? It is far away my favorite part of the chicken. And because of the wonderful fat it is the most flavorful.

    Slowly grilled with BBQ sauce it is like meat candy! Mmm!

    But speaking of offal I suggest marinated grilled lambs hearts. Sliced and served over a salad of mixed greens with a vinaigrette.

  4. My wife and I prefer chicken thighs over breasts.

    And I also am a big fan of chicken liver pate. Any suggestions?

  5. Charles George

    ChefsLoveBeer, while I agree with you , the thigh is an infinately superior hunk-a-flesh, in terms of sales the boneless skinless chicken breast is still king.

    I don’t get it personally, the boneless skinless breast is one of the least flexible pieces of meat around, only really performing well in the face of high direct heat or frying. The thigh on the other hand can stand up to slow wet cooking, great in direct heat, roasting, ect.

    it’s also so much more forgiving. A piece of breast meat has a range of about 4-5 degrees before it dries out, where a thigh has a range of about 10 degrees where it’s still tasty.

    I think breasts have become such a tool of the culinary industrial complex. It’s one of the highest profit items for poultry processors. , which is probably why you see so many cooking shows, magazines, and two bit “instructors” pushing them so hard.

    Which brings us back to the original post, wherein a piece of the animal becomes more important than the whole, relegating a whole class of meats into obscurity, and leading to our mutant DDD chickens and turkeys who can barely walk.

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