In the eyes of much of the world, Americans are culinary dilettantes. We eat only the tender, the lean, and the attractive parts of our feed animals, and that’s a reflection of our relative wealth compared with much of the world. For most of human history, only the rich could afford to eat those choicest cuts of meat, and the poor resorted to eating liver, brains and whatever else was left over, no matter how tough, stringy, or distasteful.
Today, these leftovers are called “variety meats” or “offal,” and many chefs consider the ability to skillfully prepare them to be the truest test of culinary prowess. After all, anybody can grill a steak, but only a consummate professional can make calf’s brain palatable. With the rise of Slow Food, locavore cuisine, and “nose to tail” cooking styles, offal is making a remarkable comeback, and the variety meats found in restaurants today not only are delicious but also have significant nutritional value.
Whether or not they enjoy it, most people have consumed liver at one point or another. They’ve eaten beef liver stewed with onions, they’ve tasted goose liver foie gras or duck liver pâté, or they’ve tried chicken liver, which is often made into a mousse and served with toast points. Regardless of what animal it comes from, liver is an excellent source of vitamin A, which promotes healthy skin, teeth, and eyes, as well as full of iron, zinc, B vitamins, vitamin C, and vitamin D. Beef liver contains huge amounts of copper and good amounts of healthy fatty acids.
Since the heart is a hardworking muscle, the texture can be a bit tough, so heart is often served stewed or braised in order to allow the meat to become tender. Heart is low in sodium and very high in iron. It also contains selenium, zinc, phosphorus, niacin, and riboflavin.
Brains are a delicacy in many parts of the world, especially Asia and Europe. Calves’ brains are popular items in French provincial cooking, and some peoples in Africa and Indonesia even eat monkey brains. They are high in niacin, phosophorus, B12, and vitamin C. Eating brains can potentially transmit bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, so it’s important to procure brains for consumption from a reputable source.
Just about every cuisine in the world features some form of tripe, from Italian tripa alla Romana with tomato sauce, Cajun andouille sausage, and Vietnamese ph?. Since it consists of various kinds of stomach and intestinal tissue, tripe must be cleaned meticulously before it’s served. It contains vitamin B12 and significant amounts of protein. Tripe is also commonly used in making processed meats like commercial sausage and hot dogs.
The traditional British steak-and-kidney pie is the most well-known recipe utilizing this organ, but kidneys from veal, lamb, pork, and beef can all be braised, roasted, sautéed, and even grilled. They’re high in protein and contain many B vitamins, such as riboflavin and niacin, as well as iron and zinc.
They aren’t brains, as many people believe. Sweetbreads are the thymus glands, usually taken from veal, but occasionally from lamb or young pigs as well. They contain a large amount of vitamin C, which is unusual for a product of animal origin. They are also high in protein, niacin, and phosphorus, with trace amounts of potassium, zinc, iron, and vitamin B12.
Although some people are still squeamish about eating offal, it provides legitimate social and environmental benefits, as well as the nutritional ones. Eating offal shows respect to animals, discourages waste, and fosters a more understanding and intimate relationship between an eater and his food. Plus, as many chefs have pointed out, much processed commercial meat—including ground beef, hot dogs, lunch meat, and sausage—is of indeterminate origin, but offal is impossible to fake—while it can be hard to know exactly what’s in a hot dog, there’s no mistaking that a kidney is a kidney, so you always know exactly what you’re getting.
One downside of variety meats is that, with few exceptions, they are extremely high in cholesterol. Among many of the more common types, a single serving provides significantly more than 100 percent of a person’s recommended daily cholesterol intake. Also, much of the fat in offal is saturated. Eating it may be an exciting culinary experience and a good way to enjoy “nose to tail” cooking, but because of its cholesterol and fat content, diners should consume it in moderation, just as they would other meats.
Our human ancestors didn’t have much choice in what they ate. No waiting for prime rib … they consumed organ meat, bone marrow, and any part of an animal that they could get their hands on. We may be lucky to have more choice in our modern diet, but eating offal has proven for thousands of years to be good for the animal, good for the environment, and good for the body, too.