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Forgotten Meats Making a Comeback: It’s Not All Offal

Cost, taste, trend … what inspires someone to eat a trotter?

After all, it’s not every day that an American decides to order and eat the pink foot of a pig (or cow, lamb, or goat; whichever type of trotter you please) … or is it? As eating becomes more adventurous and a back-to-the land vibe resurges in the form of vegetable gardening, canning, and using all parts of everything, curious cuts of meat are appearing (or really, reappearing) on restaurant menus. For those accustomed to haute cuisine, bone marrow, kidneys, and trotters aren’t anything new. But for those who cling to the notion that sirloin, chicken breast, and pork chops are all the only things our fair farm friends have to offer, there’s a whole new meat on the table.

Playing Footsy
From highbrow to low, offal, also called organ meats, variety meats, or “nasty bits,” are making a comeback, as are seemingly unsavory parts like intestines, skins, and other parts once considered to be rubbish. Now, these cheaper meat cuts compete with sirloins and fish filets, testing just how far a foodie will go.

For example, at Incanto in San Francisco, you can find standard items like pork shoulder and risotto on the menu, but you can also order the “pea brain”—calf’s brain, peas, and tarragon. At Feast, a Houston-based restaurant, the three owners all have pig tattoos, and the British chefs focus on organ meats, cooking in a “rustic European tradition” that offers such delights as pig’s-ear hash and a duck egg, pork cheek and dandelion salad, and a beef tongue entree. At Mario Batali’s famed Babbo restaurant in NYC, appetizers include warm tripe (that’s stomach lining); pig-foot Milanese with rice, beans, and arugula; and testa (that’s head) with a thyme vinaigrette.

I’m All Ears
For most of the world, using and savoring all parts of the animal in this way isn’t anything new. Traditional-style cooking, especially in places like England, Italy, and France, as well as most of Asia and Latin America, uses parts of the animal that most Americans wouldn’t touch. Stemming from cultural practices, a recognition of what tastes good, or a catch-as-catch-can practical attitude, tasty foods parts are used, regardless of their origin. Beef heart is something I’ve ordered from a Bolivian street vendor, the long strands of pig intestines are a regular item in Latin America meat markets, and chicken feet can be found in almost any Chinatown, USA.

Why are most Americans so squeamish, then, when it comes to offal? Maybe we don’t like to recognize our animal parts (although many of them end up in less identifiable, yet widely consumed goods such as hot dogs) or maybe it’s because eating them is associated, as it once was in Britain and the US, with poverty. It’s somewhat ironic that these parts would find their way to some of the most renowned restaurants in the world. Organ meats were once considered fare for the American and British lower class, as without refrigeration, only those living close enough to slaughterhouses (poor people) could eat the highly perishable parts that “fall off” (where the word offal comes from) the butcher’s table.

My Heart Goes Out to You
So it seemed to take a perfect storm to reintroduce the American palate to alternative types of meat. There is the growing interest in sustainably-raised farm fresh goods, including meat, as well an eschewing of mass-produced, packaged food. Then there’s the rise of the celebrity-chef, bringing high-end or exotic eating straight to the masses (if only on TV), and also perhaps a bit of a rebellion against the well trodden health messages of chicken breast and lean cuts of meat so propagated in the eighties and nineties. And from vegetables to vodka, people are simply getting more adventurous with their cooking and eating.

Maybe that’s how bellies, cheeks, cockscombs, spleens, and intestines came to be on American menus. But many attribute the serious culinary use of these ingredients to Fergus Henderson, the renowned British chef who started the restaurant St. John in 1995 and whose book, The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, pays homage to parts once considered waste. Applauded by other chefs for boldly using what they wouldn’t, it returns to a classical cooking style. In the introduction to the book, chef Anthony Bourdain writes that “If the Whole Beast makes a statement, it’s that nearly every part of nearly everything we eat, in the hands of a patient and talented cook, can be delicious—something most good cooks and most French and Italian mothers have known for centuries.”

In other words, what distinguishes a good chef from a great is his or her’s ability to use something that without a tender touch, might be inedible.

It’s also a distinct departure from our profligate past—something that goes over well in the down economy. Parts like heart, kidneys, liver, and pork belly have been the favorite of the penny-pinching chef, even if they are now in vogue.

Head, Shoulder, Knees, and Toes
And far from being reserved to high-end restaurants, the prevalence of animal parts—especially pig—is available to all. In Los Angeles, the two men on the now discontinued show “Two Dudes Catering” started Animal, where pig reigns supreme. On a 2009 sample menu you can get pig ear, chili, lime, and fried egg appetizer for ten dollars or pork belly with kimchi, peanuts, chili soy, and scallions for twelve.

At the paired down menu at DFF in NYC, oxtail soup with orange glaze goes for ten dollars. And at Chez Spencer, a French mobile food truck in San Francisco, you can get escargot lollipops for two dollars or a sweetbread with mushroom dish served in a red and white county fair-style paper carton for eleven dollars.

Of course, these relatively recent introductions of offal don’t compare to the ethnic food offerings that abound in any city. Anyone that’s been to a taqueria in the Fruitvale district in Oakland, California knows that lengua (tongue), cabeza (head), and tripe have been on the menu as long as the joints been open. And an old roommate of mine, who shopped at Asian markets, used to eat beef tendon and knuckles on a regular occurrence.

A Gut Feeling
The more obscure food parts aren’t the only meat cuts coming back; cheaper underappreciated cuts, like flank steak and skirt steak, are also being recognized as economical yet flavorful, if you know how to cook them. There are also the parts of the animal you won’t find on a menu, but are well known as good eats by those willing to try. For instance, chain meat, the fatty flesh cut off beef tenderloin, isn’t served on menus, but can be used in tacos, or as a cheesesteak. The Pope’s nose, the “last part of the poultry to make it over the fence” is a grizzly, fatty, piece of deliciousness that dangles from a fowl’s rear end that my father routinely eats while cutting up the Thanksgiving bird.

Perhaps like sushi, which was once considered weird food, feet, intestines, organs, and the like will become mainstream. A friend of mine in the catering business likes to quote a chef she works with: “The closer you get to the anus, the better the meat tastes.”

Which leads me to wonder: just what will they be serving up next?

(CC) Photos courtesy of - Main: Goosmurf, feet: Ultrastar175g, ears: Sydney, heart: Le Jhe, head: DistractedMind, intestines: suanie.