Quick Tip #14 – An OFFAL Time

Welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes, an ongoing saga of minutia, math, and occasionally cooked foods and jokes. Today, I want to talk about something that I know sits poorly on many of my fellow American’s palates: offal. Offal, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is a catch-all term for basically all of the meat that might not be considered…meat. By which I mean the organs, tendons, organ linings, and so on. The word literally comes from “off-fall”, meaning “the stuff that falls off as you’re butchering the animal”.  Why am I talking about this now? Well, because I basically pick my topics based on random stimuli, and I wanted to take a look at some interesting numbers I ran into recently. SO, let’s dive in and talk about the magical world of organ meats.

I can show you the world, slimy, glistening, splendid.

The numbers game.

On Monday, I mentioned that Argentinians eat almost twice as much beef per person every year as Americans. Brazilians eat roughly 15% more beef. However, a quick glance at the WHO records of 2014 (the World Health Organization. And Yes, I’m exactly the type of cat to casually look up WHO records) show that Argentinians have only 20% more deaths by heart attack than Americans, and Brazilians have 4% FEWER. Now, I’m certain there are a wide array of reasons for this,  from climate differences, general habits, and so on, but I think there’s a component that deserves to be discussed: Argentina and Brazil are both more willing to eat parts of the cow that aren’t as popular in America, and those parts pack some nutritional punch.

Let’s discuss beef heart, for instance.

This looks vaguely like a sperm whale to me. Also, sorry, but all the images are going to be a little off-putting this post.

It’s not as huge in Brazil or Argentina as it is in their neighbors Peru and Bolivia, but it’s a food they wouldn’t shy away from. And the culinary consequences are fascinating. Beef heart has just over half the calories of sirloin steak of equal weight. It has 66% of the Protein, and, this is a big one, under a third of the fat. (It is rich in cholesterol, which the steak is mostly free of, but nothing’s perfect.) It’s also economical: the average cost of a pound of grass-fed beef heart is $4. By comparison, that sirloin steak? $14. Think about it, a third of the fat for a third of the price? That’s a win-win. (IN a weird bit of irony, those are both the actual integers for the respective fat contents: 4 grams for heart, 14 for steak)

So, if offal isn’t awful for us, why don’t we eat it? Well, the answer, as many are, is kind of depressing.

Give them Sweetbreads and Circuses

See, I can reference Roman poets as well as international meat market and heath organization figures! (I’m beginning to worry that my brain is more of an emotionally motivated encyclopedia than a legitimate personality.) Any who, as my jacked-Juvenal header implies, offal has, historically, always been consumed by one important demographic: the poor.

Flickr’s search system gives me the best images sometimes. A crazy octopus with a top hat and coat is the best result you could get searching for “poor people”.

Yes, the histories of eating organs come down to classism, essentially. You can even see it mentioned in modern texts. Jacques Pepin, in his cookbook Heart and Soul in the Kitchen, recalls: “When I first came to New York City, obtaining the organ meats that were a much appreciated part of any Frenchman’s diet required a lengthy sojourn up to an African American butcher shop in Harlem that specialized in offal[.] …[W]hat began as commonsense frugality became ingrained in the culinary culture.” (pg 265)

Offal was, in essence, peasant food. So it had a wide base in colonial Brazil, in Europe and Asia, and around the world.  But America came too late to the party: our first colonies were established in the late 1500’s, in a post-Feudalism world.  We never had a huge ‘peasant’ population.  Except in one region, and wouldn’t you know it, that’s where offal in America held on. From pickled pig’s feet, pork chitterlings, and hog snout, offal did make a strong showing in one major region.

I warned you all the images would be somewhat off-putting. ZING.

The South, as the early American agricultural powerhouse, was the heart of offal consumption (pun intended) as well. Further, it shared a notable point with the demographics of South America, post Spanish Conquistadors: offal was seen as ‘slave food’.

But, post-Civil War, (no, not the one with Chris Evans) most of America walked away from offal. Why? Well, I hold it’s tied to a core American principle, as paraphrased from John Steinbeck: “[In America] the poor see themselves not as an oppressed proletariat, but temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Everyone in America feels they deserve the best they can have. And to make that claim worth something, you have to draw a line for what you won’t accept. And it’s easy to put offal in that box. Organs look weird, they have strange strong flavors, and if cooked wrong, aren’t a pleasure to eat. They’re food for the poor the world over, so you can refuse to be poor, by just not eating them.

But what I’m saying is that, in so doing, we’ve lost a lot of interesting foods. Foods with definite health benefits, with bold flavors, and, in many cases, with bragging rights. Think about it. How fucking metals is it to say “I’ve eaten the heart of a lamb”? How many questions do you think people have about what it was like to take a slice of bull penis? And if someone judges you for trying haggis, ask them when the last time they ate a hot dog was. Offal has been ignored so long, it’s becoming trendy, cool, something new. So why not give it a try? The worst you can learn is that you don’t like it.