21 August 2008

The joy of organs: National Offal Week

"And now for something completely different..." Here's something I wrote four or five years ago for an in-house newsletter when I worked for a large science research organisation.
Warning!! This is not for the squeamish, nor for those who believe eating animals is morally reprehensible.

Vulture, Ghana

"There are things he stretched, but mostly he told the truth." —Mark Twain [1]

It's Tuesday, so we eat Phil’s kidneys. They're delicious: simmered with mushrooms and onions in a white wine sauce, they put National Offal Week back on track after Monday's abysmal beginning.

National Offal Week is the brainchild of offal-eater extraordinaire Chris, the man with New Zealand's highest iron count (I arrived early at work one morning to find him clamped to one of the magnetic door locks). Keen to share the joy of offal-eating with his colleagues, he's volunteered to set the mountain oyster [2] rolling by promising "a bucket of tripe and onions" for Monday's lunch. Unfortunately he keeps his promise. I walk into the common room kitchen to find Harley retching over the pig bucket while Chris looks affronted.

I peer cautiously into the pot, which contains a speckled, porridge-coloured sauce. Quivering sections of pale stomach belch their way to the surface before the sauce envelops them again.

"Try some?" Chris says. "It's not my best effort," he explains. "I curdled the sauce."

I can feel the sauce in my own stomach beginning to curdle, but reach for a fork. The lump is soft, resilient, apparently impossible to break down by chewing, and it tastes like the smell of carrion. I shoulder Harley away from the pig bucket, then hurriedly make up a Milo [3] to kill the taste. Clare’s next; her reaction is similar, but she's tougher than Harley and me, and she swallows her portion. Within seconds she ages ten years.

But not everyone is as discerning. The two Australians spoon it down, at first tentatively, then with relish. "Hmm, not bad," Dave says. Peter agrees, although he suggests that the flavour is like really old mushrooms – the sort you find marinating in a brown puddle at the back of your fridge. The real champion, however, is Keitha. After her third plateful, Chris has to swat her away from the stove. He's worried there won't be enough left for him.

So Phil's kidneys raise the standard. They're an unexpected treat after all his promises about the can of haggis he found, swollen and dangerous, at the back of a cupboard. Things are looking up, and sure enough, Chris redeems himself on Wednesday with a fine dish of liver and bacon. Perfectly cooked, in a tasty sauce; it may be the best liver I've eaten, and I've eaten some mighty fine livers. I'm tempted to say that the toss-up for best dish is between Chris' liver and Phil's kidneys, but far and away the winning toss-up is, of course, Chris' tripe.

Thursday morning, and Dave can't find his brains. "There are no brains in Palmerston North!" he rants. Somewhere he finds some, and later that day I follow the smell of smoke into the kitchen. Dave has fried his brains. He's also blackening a black pudding. I've never eaten brains before, but spurred on by Phil's assurance that the risk of contracting scrapie [4] is absurdly small, I sample a morsel, carefully selecting Blowfly, Pohangina Valleythe reptilian part of the brain to minimise what tiny risk there might be. Several hours later, I experience an overwhelming desire to bask in the sun on the ledge outside my window, and I'm eyeing up a large blowfly and thinking how wonderful it must be to have six drumsticks – oops, I mean legs.

Dave's brains are like semi-congealed fat. But they're a hit with quite a few people. Sue makes little exclamations of delight as she polishes off another and licks her fingers. "Ooh, they're lovely!" she says. She tells us how she used to cook them for her kids, then lets slip that her daughters have left home and gone overseas. Harley, too, is into them in a big way. Never having had a brain before, he's apprehensive at first, but finds the experience to his liking. He peels away the crumb coating and drools over the little, wrinkled, lump of grey matter. Meanwhile, Peter’s making short work of his portion.
"Hey, look!" someone exclaims, "Peter's only got half a brain!"

And so it goes on.

The week finishes on a high note. KK offers her tongue to anyone who wants it, and there's no shortage of takers. Sandwiched with picallili between slices of soft white bread, it's a sensual delight. Nyree has prepared kidneys vindaloo, a deceptive dish that seems fine at first but gradually heats up until my eyelids are sweating profusely and I'm thinking of renaming the dish as kidneys portaloo [5]. I'm saved only by my own contribution to National Offal Week — the fresh date chutney I'd prepared earlier in the week as an accompaniment for the crumbed chicken livers that I've been too busy to prepare. The chicken livers would have been great — little, golden, crumb-encased parcels of patĂ© — but the chutney goes at least as well with the vindaloo.

National Offal Week has been a raging success, even for those for whom (to quote Ruth) "offal is vile filth which I will eat under no circumstances" [6]. For those people it's been wonderful entertainment to watch the reactions of the more courageous; for those who love offal it's been a marvellous week of feasting; and for those like me who swallowed their preconceptions but not Chris' tripe — well, all I can say is: it took guts.

Female agama lizard, Accra, Ghana

1. While reading, please bear in mind the Mark Twain quotation.
2. Mountain oysters: sheep testicles — a delicacy
(apparently); available during the docking and tailing season.
3. Milo: a supposedly nutritious, somewhat chocolate flavoured drink; its manufacturer, Nestlé, got a Heart Foundation tick for milo despite its being 47% sugar.
4. Scrapie: a fatal disease of sheep. It's similar to BSE ("mad cow" disease); like BSE, the causative agent of scrapie is a prion. Neither scrapie nor BSE occur in New Zealand.
5. Portaloo
: a portable toilet; a transportable outhouse.
6. The quotation is originally from Geoff Dyer: "...seafood is vile filth which I will eat under no circumstances." P. 64 in Dyer G 1997 Out of sheer rage: in the shadow of D. H. Lawrence. London, Abacus. 242 pp. ISBN 0 349 10858 7.

1. Hooded vulture, Necrosyrtes monachus, on the coast of Ghana. That object it's standing over is the carapace of a green turtle. Ironically, vultures throughout the world might face similar or even greater extinction risks than sea turtles. Why? Because the common veterinary drug diclofenac sodium (for human use we know it by brand names like voltaren) kills vultures — it causes renal failure. Cattle that die carrying accumulated diclofenac kill the vultures feeding on the carcase. Throughout much of Asia, vulture populations have declined catastrophically; now, diclofenac is being sold in Africa for veterinary use. Imagine Africa without vultures? What would be the consequences? Well,here's just one effect: in India, the increase in cattle carcases has boosted populations of feral dogs, leading to more cases of rabies. Rather than rant on, I strongly recommend you read Charlie's post about this on 10,000 Birds.
Blowfly, Calliphora sp., Pohangina Valley (click to enlarge it).
Female agama lizard, Accra, Ghana.

Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor


Anne-Marie said...

And I thought this was a nice blog. I'm no vegetarian but I did feel slightly queasy reading this. Thanks Pete!

Any way, I hope you're not suggesting we restart National Offal Week. Coz I won't be joining you for that.

Chris is the most devoted meat eater I know, although I wasn't aware he was in to offal [doesn't surprise me though]. I remember visiting him in Owhango and casually stirring the stew [possum? venison?] he had going on the stove.

Get away from it, woman! he growled. You'll probably do some thing disgusting to it like - adding VEGETABLES!!

P.E.A. said...

Jack The Ripper would have enjoyed joining you for this gastronomic extravaganza. Offally well-written, too - as ever!

jacqueline b said...

Another taste of the old Pete. Amazing what four years can do.

When I was a kid I remember being fed brains and white sauce with parsley, 'as a treat'. How gullible.

Emma said...

Ahahahaha! Brilliant! PS, My husband would gladly have joined you for this; I would have been retching in the next county.

Kathleen said...

PERFECT, how did you know it was the first day of my fast?

Sarita said...

Delightful as usual.

But I may never eat again.

Emma said...

PPS, I can't believe I didn't say this in my previous comment: what a perfectly offal entry. Har, har, har!

Zhoen said...

I just can't get past what most offal does, move shit, filter out toxins. Brains can contain prions. I'm fine with hearts and reproductive organs - though I have not tasted the latter.

Funny bit in Making Money (Terry Pratchett) involving sheep's head (Leave the eyes, it has to see us through the week) and minced collops.

Duncan said...

After reading that Pete, I'm looking forward to a good feed of vegies to cleanse my soul, or whatever. But you know, over here there's a restaurant reviewer, thinks he's just so good, and he just raves and drools over tripe. I seriously doubt the poor sod's sanity.

nz-ajb said...

Excellent stuff Pete! Although I'm strictly a muscle-carnivore myself (not mussel or other shellfish either :). I've done the haggis thing a few times but mostly out of respect for whoever was having a birthday at the time and generally after a few ciders or whatever...


pohanginapete said...

Anne-Marie, I have no intention of restarting it. Once was enough. ;^)

P.E.A., doubtless JTR's delight in joining us would have been visceral.

Jacq, anyone who considers that a treat obviously needs a brain.

Emma, for the most part I'd be there in the next county with you. My taste for offal is highly selective. And thanks — I think — for the pun ;^P

Kathleen, glad I could help ;^D

Thanks Sarita. If you want to regain your appetite, I suggest checking out Clare's return to blogging. An entirely different — and delicious — kettle of, er, steak.

Zhoen, that seems to be precisely what puts many people off offal-eating. For me, it's mostly the sight, smell, texture, taste, and sometimes even the sound (e.g., of Chris' tripe cooking).

Duncan, I just don't understand people who can stomach tripe. When I was a kid my grandmother fed me tripe; I dropped a piece on the floor (accidentally, I insist) and it bounced. Any meat that bounces isn't food, in my opinion.

Andrew: ah, haggis! Now that's almost uncharacterisable. It ranges from delicious to execrable. I've had the real thing in Glasgow years ago, and if you can avoid thinking about its constituents, it's tasty and filling, especially when accompanied by its traditional liquid. But it can be dreadful, in which case the ciders would help, I'm sure.

peregrina said...

This gave me a good chuckle, Pete. My grandmother cooked tripe and onions once when I was staying with her, and I did try it. It was like trying to eat an india-rubber ball.

Since I now don't eat anything that has walked on four legs during its lifetime, the only thing from that menu that would suit me is the date chutney. Still got the recipe?

pohanginapete said...

Peregrina, it's one of Ray McVinnie's recipes, included in his instructions for crumbed chicken livers with fresh date chutney. Feel free to omit the chicken livers (although the only chooks I've met have had only two legs, not four) ;^)

Anonymous said...

I quite enjoyed the post Pete, and it whetted my appetite. But of course I live in a place that has taken offal eating to a whole new level. Inuit are probably the champions for making the most of their larders, so to speak. You don't see much country food that is wasted here.

Back home I wasn't a big fan of brain, but I quite enjoyed the seal brain I've had here. The brain placed in the seal's cavity, mixed with a generous helping of blood and minced finely with an Ulu (woman's knife). Eaten scooped up with the fingers it was tasty, although the strongest taste was iron, from the hemoglobin.

There is no is really no end to what they use, initially no doubt because of necessity, but those who enjoy country food seem to eat it all with relish (not the pickle kind although they do like mustard pickles. But I digress...). I've sampled vitrus humor from seal eye ball, rather tasteless, like thicker water. Boiled Bearded Seal intestine, I honestly thought people were going to fight to make sure they got their share. And on and on.

Don't even get me started on iqunaq

pohanginapete said...

Clare, while I admire the attitude that respects the animal by eating everything, I doubt I could manage even to ingest some of the things you mention, let alone keep them down. I guess National Offal Week never ends, up there. On the other hand, your description of your steak sandwich had me drooling, and I haven't forgotten you've promised me lamb shanks ;^)

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

Actually - reading this made me ask several questions of myself. Why do we consider it acceptable to eat leg, breast etc and allow brains to be used in jelly - yet we are squeamish of eating other parts of animals? Surely to avoid wasting the beast we should be omnivores (eat it all)?

Its amazing how things become tradition so easily (something i have been thinking about for a blog for a while) and no one ever questions why we keep doing them.

Given a couple of months without regular food (as with the starving of the world) and i wonder if we would still be so squeamish?

Bob McKerrow said...

Kia ora Pete

With Ramadan starting next week, you have persuaded me to not only fast, but to go vegetarian rather than eat mt friends.

I love these offally good tongue- in-cheek articles. When I reflect on my many years in Asia, it is the Monkey brains and raw buffalo meat I ate in Vietnam that stands out for me. My wife is from nomadic Kazakh stock and they eat every part of the horse when killed. The eyeballs are a delicacy and the meat and intestines delicious.

Of all there delicacies, the meat from the cheeks of the sheep's head is something I enjoy.

Happy Ramadan !


PATERIKA HENGREAVES, Poet Laureate said...

Kia Ora Pete

I didn't find the blog too squirmy at all. The end notes quite informative. Now I must admit that I'm a mild offal eater I still enjoy chicken livers with onions, and fish brains. So serve me fish with their heads on, please lol. Thanks for sharing your thoughts...great read.

pohanginapete said...

DFT pixies: very true. I suspect it's hard to underestimate the effect of culture on squeamishness, nor to overestimate the effect of hunger on overcoming squeamishness. Nice to see you here, too :^)

Bob, in Mongolia in 2004 I saw first hand just how much of a delicacy a boiled sheep's head seems to be. I say "seems to be" — my participation in that particular delicacy was as an observer only.

Kia ora Paterika. I think I'd draw the line at fish brains, although, as DFTP points out, hunger can change attitudes pretty effectively. And, I admire anyone whose ability to consume offal means nothing's wasted.

Gareth said...

Wot, no faggots and peas?

Or andouillette?

Great stuff, Pete.

pohanginapete said...

Cheers Gareth. Actually, I think Chris would have disqualified anything containing peas (see Anne-Marie's comment). In his opinion, vegetables do nothing more than take up space that could be better filled by meat.