Warning!! This is not for the squeamish, nor for those who believe eating animals is morally reprehensible.
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  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  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  is absurdly small, I sample a morsel, carefully selecting the 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 . 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 paté — 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" . 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.
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.
2. Blowfly, Calliphora sp., Pohangina Valley (click to enlarge it).
3. Female agama lizard, Accra, Ghana.
Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor