Easting internal organs of animals is on an upward trend
// Luke Warkentin

Have you ever eaten lungs? How about stomach? Intestines? These, along with all other internal organs and entrails that are found in butchered animals, are referred to as offal. The etymology comes from the words “off fall”, because they literally fall out of a butchered carcass. They are also referred to as organ meats and variety meats.

In mainstream North American media, eating offal has become the stuff of extreme eating TV shows, Man vs. Wild, and jokes about chicken feet and haggis. When was the last time you ate organs? Did a parental figure in your childhood ever make you sit at the table until you ate your liver? Do the words “It’s good for you!” conjure up nightmarish evenings staring at dry grey bits of cold unidentifiable innards?

Fat of the Land

In many societies, offal is not something as extreme or traumatizing as it is in our own. Rather, it is a very regular part of some diets, and has been so since prehistoric times. Homo sapiens, or humans, have evolved from huntergatherers – traditionally eating all edible parts of killed animals, and finding uses for all nonedible parts such as sinew and hides. There is evidence at archaeological digs that shows early humans intentionally opened bones to get at the nutritious marrow.

Protein and fat from hunted animals (as well as insects) provided valuable nutrition for the caloric needs of an active lifestyle and the new trait of walking upright. Organ meats are “incredibly nutritious,” says Gillian Crowther, professor of anthropology at Capilano University. Loaded with protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals, they are very nutritionally dense, and were an excellent food for early humans. One simply cannot afford to be squeamish when every calorie counts.

“The Inuit, like the Netsilik, used to eat a seal’s liver at the kill site as a mark of respect to the animal, and as a nutritious delicacy,” says Crowther. “Sadly, the livers of seals are now laced with toxins, making this act of reverence a dangerous practice.”

Describing the preparation of caribou by First Nations people, 18th century explorer Samuel Hearne writes this in his journal: “Of all the dishes cooked by the Indians, a beeatee, as it is called in their language, is certainly the most delicious that can be prepared from caribou only, without any other ingredient. It is a kind of haggis, made with the blood, a good quantity of fat shred small, some of the tenderest of the flesh, together with the heart and lungs cut, or more commonly torn into small shivers; all of which is put into the stomach and toasted by being suspended before the fire on a string.”

Hearne refers to the Scottish haggis: a sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs cooked in its stomach. The French make foie gras from poultry liver, people from Norway make smalahove which is essentially a whole sheep’s head, tacos de ojo (eyes) are served in Mexico, and finally, in China, pork intestines are common street food. The list goes on, and includes all cultures where people have been eating animals for thousands of years.

So why the move away from offal? Why don’t we see brains proudly displayed in freezers at the supermarket? Crowther explains that “as the distance from food production to food consumption grows wider, there is a need to preserve foods to ensure it is still edible.”

As people are increasingly separated from the slaughter of the animals they consume, the heavily industrialized food industry ends up playing a central role in what is available for consumers in grocery stores. Alternatively, if you buy your meat from a local butcher, you may have better luck tracking down some offal.

Demand also plays a large role in the common scarcity of offal. Typically, the average consumer does not want to buy a whole pig head, or a heart, and bring it home to cook for dinner. But the average consumer does not account for everyone, and there is a growing trend of people who are getting increasingly interested in animal organs for culinary purposes.

The Fifth Quarter

On Nov. 9, Vancouver’s Campagnolo Roma restaurant is making offal the centre of attention. This special evening is called Quinto Quarto, Italian for “fifth quarter” (of the animal), and is comprised of six dishes featuring a variety of offal including heart, intestine, tripe, brain, and snout. For dessert: blood pudding.

Ted Anderson is the Chef de Cuisine at Campagnolo Roma, and has also cooked at Refuel and Campagnolo, all three being sister restaurants under the ownership of Robert Belcham and Tom Doughty. Anderson is a big fan of nose-to-tail eating: “I’ve always been intrigued by it, but lately it’s been something I’ve been really pumped up for.”

He’s also very specific about the source of the offal: the pigs come from Sloping Hill Farm on Vancouver Island, run by Dirk and Bee Keller. Along with Campagnolo Roma, Refuel and Campagnolo all regularly receive pigs they use in their dishes straight from the farm.

Anderson says that “the quality of the pork was amazing. Now we use about eight pigs a month for all three restaurants, and all the gear,” gear referring to the offal. He estimates that only five per cent of the pigs goes unused; this is mostly glands that are apparently not so tasty. Bones are made into stock, heads are the source of brain and cheeks, and the fat is both rendered and used in sausages.

“Generally, it’s a really hard thing to commit to 200 lbs of animal that you need to use in a fairly short time. You don’t hang pigs like you hang beef. You can hang beef for three, four, five, six days depending on your tastes. But pigs you need to use within a day or two of receiving them, so within four or five days of slaughter, before they start to get a little funny. So, it’s a lot of work to deal with them, and you need to have the right sort of infrastructure in place if you want to go about preserving things like making fermented sausage and bacon and such. There’s not a lot of places doing this … I think some people are getting back to how restaurants used to roll. But it’s a tough climate to be able to do that as well. You have to lay out a fair amount of money to purchase said animals and wait for a while to recoup the costs,” Anderson explains.

Crowther says, “It is now ironic that offal has become a trendy food of gourmet restaurants, the once inferior, but highly nutritious, food … is now chosen by the wealthier adventurous diner.” That being said, Anderson hopes that the culinary uses of offal will have a lasting impact on what the common households of the neighbourhood are buying and cooking. “I’d like to think that this generation – the younger generation – that it [offal] is something that they’re picking up on and embracing, but there’s definitely some trendiness involved as well.”

Anderson says that his favourite organ of late is spleen, and speaks highly of testicles, describing them as “creamy.” For the less adventurous, however, he recommends heart. “You can cook it like a steak; all you have to do is clean it and then cook it medium rare and slice it … It’s lean, [contains] lots of iron, [and is] cheap.”

If I Only Had a Heart! If you’re an omnivore, and you feel ethically compelled to eat the whole hog, how do you learn how to if you didn’t grow up eating offal?

Fergus Henderson’s book The Whole Beast is a great place to start. Henderson is a British chef and founder of St. John, a restaurant in London that serves offal and was instrumental in reinspiring chefs all over the world to cook these internal animal organs.

In the introduction, Anthony Bourdain (chef and host of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations) describes Warm Pig’s Head as “a dish so wonderful, so Goddamn amazing that it borders on religious epiphany.” Also quoting Bourdain: “After eating the Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad (page 35) at St. John, I declared it my always and forever choice for my Death Row Meal, the last meal I’d choose to put in my mouth before they turned up the juice.”

Recipes from Henderson’s book range from “Pig’s Trotters Stuffed with Potato” to “Rolled Pig’s Spleen”, going as far as “Lamb’s Tongue, Turnips, and Bacon” and even “Cold Lamb’s Brain on Toast”.

f you decide to brave a recipe like this, or perhaps something a little more humble, you’ll need to lay hands on some actual offal. Some people express concern about eating organ meats, especially liver, as it plays a role in detoxifying the blood, and toxins can accumulate in the tissue. With most of the meat in our country coming from animals that live and die in atrocious conditions, as is the case in factory farms, these concerns do have some sense.

There are, however, alternatives, such as the pigs from Sloping Hill Farm that are raised on vegetables, quality grains, and pasture, and are not injected with any antibiotics or hormones. Pasture to Plate, a butcher shop on Commercial Drive, also offers certified organic, grass-fed beef, pork, lamb, and poultry sourced from BC. They currently also have beef hearts, livers, and tongues (all frozen). Another source is Big Lou’s, which stocks a variety of speciality meats, as well as facilitating special orders. Check out Italian and Chinese butchers as well, which sometimes stock offal as the demand for traditional offal dishes is still present in these and other ethnic communities.

//Luke Warkentin, writer
//Illustration by Alexandra Gordeyeva

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