Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Everything but the Squeal: Amusing article in Slate on the surging interest among chefs (or at least the ones with Food Network shows) in variety meat -- typically organ meat, but also jowl, foot, and other typically throwaway cuts. It's hip enough, apparently, to have made its way into the fake-a-loo scene, wherein you can tell your friends you ate brains without having to actually taste them.
At Babbo, Mario Batali seems to want to transcend the ingredients themselves . . . [He] goes to great pains to mask his [ingredients], in texture if not in taste. Pig's foot Milanese is pounded so thin and breaded so thickly that the flavor of the pig's foot is not readily discernible through the fried bread crumbs. Beef cheek ravioli are delicious, light and pillowy, with only a hint of fibrousness to the meat and a telltale chalky aftertaste. Lamb's brain francoboli are so heavy on cheese and so light on brain that they taste almost vegetarian. While all of these dishes are delicious, the question inevitably arises: If the recipe requires that you camouflage the central ingredients, why use those ingredients at all?
Good question. Another one: Why eat it? The article's author, Patrick Keefe, speculates on the many possible reasons for cooking or eating "offal," from "the frisson of naughtiness associated with eating such things" to "the sheer challenge of making bad things taste good" and even "an anti-PC tendency among diners who want to outdo even ardent carnivores in sheer carnivorousness."

What the story seems to ignore is the possibility that variety meats can taste good -- even without being disguised. Sweetbreads are best when prepared simply. I'm not a huge fan of tripe, much as I'm not a huge fan of octopus, but a nice dish of menudo can be dandy. While in the UK, I simply had to try haggis; unless you live next to Groundskeeper Willie, you won't get the chance very often. It was delicious. At a Lebanese restaurant, I had lamb testicles -- prepared very simply, not disguised or hidden -- and they too were excellent.

But you're not going to sell them that way in the mainstream. As I mentioned, we're talking about America's disposable income vanguard, the hip/dorky folks who used to be called "yuppies" and now prefer "bobos." These people are suckers for trend bait, like the folks who just had to try the salad with tobacco leaf shavings (about 1/32 of a teaspoon) that became a minor culinary hit/ironic statement after the great Bloomberg coffin-nail crackdown. At any rate, there are two things to keep in mind about these people: 1) they do most things in order to talk about them; and 2) they are generally white, non-ethnic (or ethnically removed by, say, social status), and urban. In other words, their great-grandparents may have eaten all manner of hoof, entrail, or organ -- on the farm or in the old country.

The point is, there isn't much new under the sun. Almost incidentally, if not accidentally, Thomas Keller (of French Laundry fame) puts his finger on exactly why variety meat fell out of favor -- because falling meat prices allowed for ease:

It's easy to cook a filet mignon, or to saute a piece of trout, serve it with browned butter a la meuniere, and call yourself a chef. But that's not real cooking. That's heating. Preparing tripe, however, is a transcendental act.
Speaking of heating, his "transcendental" rhetoric needs to come off the stove. But he does have a point. Straight muscle cuts, with some exception, don't need to be prepared as much, cooked as long, soaked, skinned, veined, or shaved. The opening of the "Tripe" section of the Joy of Cooking (second edition) reads:
If you start from scratch, cooking tripe is a long-drawn-out affair -- as you will see by the following description.
Similarly, kidneys, widely eaten until a generation ago, must be soaked (for hours in the case of large kidneys), blanched, trimmed, and removed from their membranes. All before you even begin cooking. Compare to a boned filet of fish, a trimmed piece of sirloin, or a rolled roast. As with all things, if you have the money, you can buy leisure. Thus, organ meat, before it became "gross" or "weird," first became symbolic of ethnicity and, more generally, poverty. That's the origin of the disdain.

In any event, it's nice to see this bit of reverse democratization of tastes.

Next up: entomophagy!

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