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17 november 2013

Nina Edwards's global history of Offal for Reaktion is more a random string of miscellaneous sentences than an organized book. Yet perhaps that's what offal is, in world cuisine: bits of this and that thrown together, in the hopes of making a tasty mess.

"Offal" consists of the abject, the thrown-away; one synonym is "garbage." Yet offal is also our most vital organs. Paralleling this contrast in value is the status of offal (like several other foods, notably oysters) as the chiefest of delicacies in some cultures and cuisines, and the cheapest near-famine food in others.

Near the apex of Western cuisine, for instance, you find pâté de foie gras. Near the nadir lies steak-and-kidney pie. Edwards traces some of the immensely complicated social reckonings that orient tastes toward such dishes. To appreciate offal dishes, you may have to have be the soul of effete; or you may have to be the manliest of pluggers. Some people eat offal because they've never acquired any better taste; some people acquire the taste by being born to the finest.

Edwards defines offal as any animal meat (or near-meat) that doesn't come from the muscles of the flesh. Separating the muscles from the rest of the beast has been a culturally-charged cooking practice for many Western societies. Sacrifices in the ancient world were carefully coded to separate offal from meat. Blood is offal, by this definition, and often handled in the most careful of ritual ways: drained from kosher meats, taboo in some cultures, prized in others. Shylock was entitled to his pound of flesh, but not one drop of blood, Edwards notes: sometimes meat and offal are inseparable in practice, but still clearly demarcated in thought.

By an implication that Edwards doesn't directly draw, flesh is the province of the middle class and the middlebrow. Steaks and chops are good Protestant, bourgeois food. You know where they've been. They have a homogeneity and a seeming distance from the vital processes of the living animal that makes them a common-denominator food; at the same time, as only a small part of bony, visceral creatures, muscle meats are often expensive and graded by their expense. Unlike highly perishable offal, muscle meat is often aged and shipped long distances. Offal has to be super-fresh, linking it once more to poor people who will eat cheap unprocessed scraps, but also to rich ones who can draw on a powerful infrastructure to assemble elaborate dishes of fresh surplus food.

My range of tastes and food experiences is broad, but like many people I divide offal into things I'm crazy about and things that I think are crazy. Like many children of the 1960s, I was fed beef liver regularly enough: or at least, squares of cut-up fried liver were placed before me and I pushed them around long enough that my parents gave up and threw them away. Texture, as Edwards notes, is often the dealbreaker with offal. Supermarket liver of the 1960s was a spongy affair interrupted here and there by rubbery tubular vessels.

It didn't help that it tasted like liver, but fried steak also tastes "liverish" if it's steamy and cooked too slow. And in other preparations, I positively loved liver: mildly spicy Braunschweiger – so called not because it had any connection to Brunswick in Germany, but in order to avoid calling it "liverwurst" – was and remains one of my comfort foods. And anyway, proverbially, God himself only knows what offal comprises hotdogs, SPAM, bologna, and scrapple, among other childhood staples and favorites.

Braunschweiger gave me a toehold in the offal world, and I have complemented it over the years with a taste for kidneys (in pies or simply on the side) and blood puddings. Other delicacies I've loved but had only a few times, simply because you can't get them very often even in the currently foody state of the US: sweetbreads, "calf fries," Milzwurst, pig's ears, and the coral of scallops. (The first three involve thymus, testicle, and spleen, respectively). Tripe, however, that staple of three cuisines I've felt at home in over the years (Irish, Mexican, and Vietnamese) still lies beyond. Somebody will have to slip me some while I'm not paying attention.

I still hate liver, though, and I think it's because Americans never knew how to cook it. Forced onto the cheap but undeniably nutritious organ by depression, war, and inflation, my parents' generation ate a lot of liver of dubious freshness and unimaginative preparation. The same slap-on-the-pan treatment that results in passable porkchops results in liver that resembles skived leather. Every American my age hated liver, and couldn't imagine why our parents ate it, except that adulthood was clearly a condition of as little joy as possible. In the Anglo food supply here in the US, that trend has reinforced itself to the point where you can't buy liver any more. When you see it, in a marginal place at a specialty supermarket, it's if anything even more horrible than it was at the Jewel in 1966, because at least then there was some minimal turnaround. But truly fresh liver is now almost unobtainable in this country unless you are very near a reliable source from a community where there's some demand for the stuff. (Frozen offal might as well just be thrown away.) And that's odd, because every luscious steer or pig we consume has a liver: we just want to suppress that fact. As long as it's suppressed into tubes of Braunschweiger, I guess that's OK with me.

Edwards, Nina. Offal: a global history. London: Reaktion, 2013.