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Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animalby Jennifer Mclagan
Not So Odd After All
Just what do I mean by this strange title, Odd Bits? Most of the meat we eat—the tenderloins, the racks, the steaks, the legs, and the chops—is only a small percentage of the animal carcass. These prime cuts, once expensive and special, are now, thanks to industrialized farming, very cheap. Simple to cook, these familiar and common everyday cuts fill our butcher shops and supermarkets. What were once uncommon and prestigious pieces of meat have become banal and boring.
Well, I’m not interested in these cuts and you won’t find them here. This book is about the rest of the animal: the pieces we once enjoyed and relished but no longer bother with. Unfamiliar and odd, they have become the “odd bits.” I am not talking just about offal or variety meats. Yes, I am interested in the strange wobbly bits and they’re here, but alas these pieces are not the only animal cuts considered odd today. So, I chose this term because it is broader and more inclusive. Odd Bits covers everything from tongues to tails, cheeks to shanks, brains to bellies. They are all animal parts we have forgotten not only how to cook but also how to eat. This book, Odd Bits, is an introduction to cooking and eating the rest of the animal.
Today we are so removed from the sources of our food that we rarely think of meat coming from living, breathing animals. The steaks, chops, and ground meat we buy shrink-wrapped in the supermarket give no hint of the animals they came from, while an ear, a kidney, or a tail all remind us very tangibly that they were once parts of a living creature. These pieces of the animal now seem odd and strange to us, something we don’t want to eat. But why is it stranger to eat a beef cheek than a cow’s back? Why do people chew a rib chop but recoil at roasted marrow bones? Why do we happily eat lamb chops but overlook lamb neck? And why do so many people know, without a doubt, that they hate brains? Should we care that these odd bits go unappreciated? Isn’t there more than enough cheap meat for us to buy and eat?
As a percentage of our income, food is cheaper than it has been at any time in the past—especially meat. We spend much less of our income on our food than our grandparents, and we spend less time sourcing it, cooking it, and eating it. The application of industrial principles and economies of scale to farming have lowered the cost of our food dramatically. (Still, while factory farming has reduced the cost of meat, it hasn’t improved its quality or taste.)
However, dirt-cheap food is not sustainable and, in the long term, it can only be a blip on our culinary landscape. We are already rethinking our relationship to our food and recognizing that there are other costs incurred with this type of farming: polluted and infertile land, shrinking biodiversity, and, worst of all, wretched treatment of animals. Those of us who care about what we eat—and we should all care—must demand that the animals we eat are raised naturally and humanely, treated with respect in both life and death. This is the only way a thinking carnivore can continue to eat meat.
Yes, the meat produced this way costs more, but that in turn has its benefits. By paying the true costs of production, we no longer rely on factory farms that pollute the countryside, the animals can be well cared for, and we will have better quality and better tasting meat. Paying more for our meat is good in other ways. If our meat costs more, we will not waste it, we’ll take more care when we cook it, and we will eat less of it—a good thing because most of us eat too much meat. My time in France has shown me that where meat is more expensive, portions are smaller and waste is less. I also see the way meat is handled and displayed there—with care and respect. More expensive meat forces us to look beyond those now familiar prime cuts for less popular and often cheaper cuts, the odd bits—it encourages us to cook and eat the whole animal. All these positive results come from keeping our side of the bargain we made when we domesticated animals: in exchange for their meat, eggs, and milk, we provide them with food, protection, and care.
Recently, in the world of professional cooking, there has been a renewed interest in odd bits. When it comes to food, often the impetus is top down: chefs discover “new” foods and “new” techniques, which then migrate into home kitchens. Fergus Henderson, the English chef-owner of St. John restaurant in London, has become a cult figure for his philosophy of “nose to tail” eating. This is good, and I love Fergus’s cooking, but I am sure he would be the first to say that he is just making proper English food, cooking dishes that have a long history in England’s cuisine. My mother, whose roots are Scottish, cooked many similar dishes when I was young—not with Fergus’s skill, perhaps, but there is not much in his books that she doesn’t recognize. Unfortunately, as with many new trends, this enthusiasm for odd bits can lead to excess and one-upmanship. Cooks compete to create the weirdest dishes that anyone would want—or more often not want—to eat. This doesn’t help. It makes people already unfamiliar with odd bits think that they are difficult to cook—that only trained chefs know how to handle them—and strange to eat—something to be tried only in a restaurant. This is the reverse of true. At cooking school, chefs get very little exposure to odd bits, apart from the fashionable sweetbreads and calf’s liver, and few of them understand the art of butchery and where on and in the animal a given odd bit is found. Most know less than my mother about cooking odd bits—and if she can cook them, so can you.
But where do you turn for advice in cooking odd bits? As odd bits have disappeared from our consciousness and our kitchens, so has our savoir-faire with them and our recipes for them. So in the following pages I hope to coax you into cooking odd bits by giving you some basic information and techniques. I want you to think beyond the familiar chops, steaks, and roasts when making dinner, and to realize there is a panoply of delicious, tasty morsels waiting for you to welcome them into your kitchen. At present, many are relegated to pet food: they all deserve a better fate. I am not trying to shock, although I am sure I will: my goal is simply to demystify the rest of the animal, to give you sound advice and to show you that cooking odd bits is really not that difficult.
Odd Bits Past and Present
When man began hunting, he consumed all of his kill. First he enjoyed the animal’s heart and brain. People of many cultures believed that by eating them they would acquire the animal’s strength, bravery, and intelligence. Next the intestines, liver, kidneys, and sweetbreads, the most perishable odd bits, were enjoyed, either by the hunter as reward for his success, or reserved for an honored elder of the group. The Romans enjoyed lavish banquets that included bird tongues and stews of goose feet and cockscombs. The ancient Greeks delighted in eating splanchna, the animal viscera. There was less of it, so it was more precious than the animal’s meat, and merited respect and special handling. In Greece, kokoretsi, skewered lamb offal wrapped with intestines, remains a popular dish. In France these odd bits are still called les parties nobles, the “noble’s pieces” or “prized parts,” and odd bits like liver, tongue, feet, and tails, were popular with the great cooks Taillevent (1398), La Varenne (1651), and Grimod (1803–1812), who all included recipes for them in their books. Odd bits’ prestige still remains high in Europe, Asia, and South America, Africa, and the Middle East, but their fortunes have fallen in the Anglo-Saxon world.
One argument put forward to explain why odd bits aren’t popular in the kitchens of the English-speaking world is that we don’t appreciate their taste and texture. This is nonsense. Sausages and puddings made with intestines stuffed with mixtures of blood, liver, lungs, heart, marrow, brains, and tongues then simmered in stews were part of the early English diet. They were not perhaps gourmet treats, but with the arrival of the Normans in 1066, the range of odd bits used and the methods of cooking them became more varied and sophisticated. Liver, giblets, and sweetbreads along with testicles, tripe, palates, and cockscombs graced the royal table. King Henry II feasted on boar’s head and the Elizabethans enjoyed bird tongues. Later, Hannah Glasse described how to cook ox tongue and udders and how to stuff a calf’s head in her Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747).
At the end the eighteenth century, the growth of abattoirs in Britain facilitated the killing of large numbers of animals in a single place, which resulted in an oversupply of odd bits. As they were very perishable and difficult to ship, they were given to the poor instead of being thrown away. The result of this generosity was that many odd bits came to be seen as food for the poor, and their prestige fell. The arrival in England, starting in the late eighteenth century, of French chefs displaced by the French Revolution made odd bits fashionable again. Eating marrow with special spoons became popular among the aristocracy, and the middle classes enjoyed oxtail soup and tripe stew. Odd bits remained popular until the Second World War, when, as one of the few protein sources not subject to rationing, they became a regular part of the English wartime diet. Then, when the war was over, eating them reminded many of hard times, and so they were often passed over for now-affordable, and more sophisticated, steak.
In a past that I can remember, odd bits were still widely eaten. Dorothy Hartley’s Food of England (1954) includes recipes for giblets, pig’s ears, cow heel, brawn, and oxtail. These dishes were part of my childhood culinary horizon, eaten at home and in restaurants and pubs. My aunt never missed an opportunity to order crumbed brains and bacon at the local watering hole, and she was famous in our family for her oxtail stew. My first job as a cook was in a large Melbourne hotel, where I was in charge of making breakfast. One of the most popular dishes was a mixed grill that included lamb’s kidney. So until quite recently, English cooks at home and abroad were eating and cooking odd bits. It is the drop in price of other cuts and the association of odd bits with hard times and poverty that has led to their decline.
But what about North America? It’s true that there is more squeamishness around eating odd bits on this continent than elsewhere, despite strong culinary traditions of using the odd bits. Native Americans ate the entire animal, and early colonists could not afford to waste any part of the animals they slaughtered. As the West opened up, son-of-a-bitch stew (see page 167) and bone marrow (see page 189), called prairie butter, were common dishes. Buffalo tongues (see page 58) became a delicacy featured on restaurant menus along with ox heart, pig’s feet and kidneys.
Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking (1936) has recipes for tripe, liver, oxtail, sweetbreads, brains, tongue, kidneys, and even testicles and cockscombs. While not every American was eating odd bits, a good percentage of the population was, as noted in the Joy of Cooking: “Variety meats provide welcome relief from the weekly round of beef, pork, veal, chicken, and fish.” The author goes on to note a rise in their popularity, which she attributes to her compatriots’ broadening culinary horizons due to the new American passion for travel. Americans, like Australians and the English, did travel more as airfares became affordable in the 1970s, but there was no parallel surge in the eating and cooking of odd bits. Despite Rombauer’s assertion, odd bits continued to disappear from Anglo-Saxon kitchens in the late twentieth century. What happened?
Loss of Food Literacy
The way our food is produced changed dramatically in the second half of the twentieth century. The family farm nearly vanished, swallowed up by industrial farming based on fossil fuels and monocultures. This has led to a dramatic drop in food prices—we now spend a third of what our grandparents did on our food. Chickens, once a prized bird reserved for Sunday dinner, are now cheap and ubiquitous. Steak is inexpensive enough for us to eat every night, and it’s quick and easy to cook. So why bother with the odd bits that often took time and effort to prepare? With a few exceptions, odd bits disappeared from the marketplace. To a great extent, this is because when an animal is slaughtered, the odd bits must be carefully separated from the carcass, and many require further processing before they can be sold. With meat prices so low, these cuts were no longer viable. Except for calf’s liver and sweetbreads, with their special cachet, most odd bits are not worth processing and the result is that many never find their way out of the abattoirs or often end up as pet or animal food.
The US government has also helped create and reinforce prejudices against odd bits by banning some of them from sale for human consumption, notably lungs and blood. In Europe both can be purchased from a butcher, and in some countries blood is available in the supermarket. Other, temporary bans, such as the removal from sale of oxtail, brains, marrow, and sweetbreads during the outbreak of mad cow disease (BSE), have further stigmatized odd bits. It is interesting to note that if we had allowed our cattle to graze instead of feeding them ground up animals, the ban wouldn’t have been necessary.
At the same time as farming was being industrialized, the food supply chain was being centralized. Supermarkets became our prime source for food, and small food shops, notably independent butcher shops, closed. Without someone to recommend a cut, save us a set of brains, brine a tongue, or share an odd bits recipe, we were left to our own devices. Even the most informed shopper must rely on the advice of experts, but supermarkets rarely provide any skilled personnel to help us shop, and they don’t employ butchers, as the meat arrives precut. This is also the situation in some of the remaining butcher shops, where there are no real butchers left: they’ve been replaced by meat slicers. We are all easily seduced by the convenience of buying everything in one place, but with no one to ask, and less and less knowledge of our own, it is hard for us to make good choices. We don’t, and often can’t, use our sense of smell or touch. Even our common sense leaves us, and we shop by price and appearance, believing these are more important than taste.
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