The Offal Truth

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Everett House, New York City. Photograph. New York City, n.d. Museum of the City of New York.

The Everett House menu of Wednesday November 8, 1865, shows a great overview of the typical cuisine enjoyed by the upper classes of America at this time in history. Lists of jellies, joint meat, offal, and even a bear steak show the diversity that these restaurants presented. Additionally, the menu does not list the costs of the food, a practice common in the late 19th century. The aspect of the menu that this paper will investigate is the prevalence of offal, as well as the different cooking techniques of the organ meat. Something happened between 1865 and modern day to eliminate the American interest in offal meats, and this paper aims to explain what that something was.

Eating offal meats reduces the amount of food waste produced from every animal slaughtered, yet American cuisine, with the exception of emerging trends in fine dining where offal is making a come back, seems to avoid utilizing organ meat. Offal is a highly nutritious part of any animal. It is packed with protein, and, therefore, excellent for those practicing a ketogenic or paleo diet. Liver, for example, is a nutrient rich food that is not inherently hard to prepare and can be stored for a long time without spoiling.  Americans just seem to be too obsessed with image to care about the benefits of offal. While organ meats are still consumed regularly in the United States, they are often put into sausages or similar substances or eaten by immigrant cultures who still practice traditional culinary methods. The offal that Americans do not consume often will be sent overseas, where it remains a predominant aspect of cuisine. There are a few primary reasons as to why Americans avoid the organ meat at all costs. The first is the growing American economy and standards for what meat should be, which ties into the mass production of food in America. The second is the association of offal with being poor, as well as the accompanying racial bias associated with offal.

When Americans go to a standard grocery store, such as Winn-Dixie, the options in the meat section tend to be relatively varied. There are countless cuts of beef, pork, chicken, and other foul, yet there is a lack of offal meats available. Unless the sausages are considered, in which case, there are a few organs available for purchase. As mass produced meat became more readily available , people began to turn to the parts of the animals that were arguably easier to cook in a delicious manner: the muscles. Organ meat became cheaper and cheaper as fewer people wanted to buy it, until, eventually, it became equated with poverty. Serving offal showed a guest that their host could not afford even the simplest luxuries in life. Related to this association with poverty, offal also became associated with African American cuisine. At a time when African Americans had recently been freed from slavery, yet still were denied most of the rights and jobs afforded to other people, poverty was rampant, a static directly related to racism among lower classes still seen today. Therefore, offal served as a cheap substitute for other proteins in cooking. 


During WWII, American government propaganda attempted to bait Americans into eating more offal, saying that it was patriotic to eat organs like liver in order to provide more muscle meats for the boys overseas. Offal was one of the foods not rationed by the government during the war, same as rabbit and other game meats. However, after the war, the nation experienced  economic prosperity, meaning offal fell out of fashion once again, this time, even with the poor. Meanwhile, meat production continued to grow, and American exports of organ meat grew with it.

The American cold chain also likely played a role in decreasing the popularity of offal in American cuisine. As of the 1950s, almost any American could go to the store and purchase any cut of meat from any animal and keep it stored for a prolonged period of time, and, if they had a freezer, even longer than that. It was no longer necessary to purchase or butcher an entire animal and eat it or salt it all before it expired. As such, people no longer had to buy the parts of the animal that were commonly seen as less desirable. Buying two steaks would be cheaper and more efficient that buying an entire portion of a cow, especially in terms of space, and it came with only the parts that a person wanted to eat. Once again, efficiency and convenience in terms of cooking won over the American people.

In terms of American cooking, offal is significant for a reason other than its strange decline in popularity. There are a lot of laws regulating what parts of an animal can and cannot be sold as food in the United States. For example, haggis, a popular dish in Scotland and Europe, cannot be made properly in the United States because of legislation that prevents the consumption of sheep’s lung, a primary ingredient in the organ meat laden dish. The reason as to why lungs are illegal to sell for consumption in the United States is health related. The FDA banned this because lungs are porous, and, therefore, susceptible to picking up blood and juices from other carcasses in slaughterhouses. Banning the sale entirely avoids the problem of cross contamination all together. Other offal such as calves brains also carry some risk in terms of consumption. Calves brains have the chance of transmitting bovine spongiform encephalitis, also known as mad cow disease, to those who consume them. Because of this, the organ is rarely sold or cooked for consumption anymore. However, it is possible that the banning of lungs warnings about consuming beef brains may have led to a generalized distrust of offal meats by the American people.

Of the offal available for legal consumption in the United States, there were three available for consumption at the Everett House: liver, brains, and sweetbreads, or intestines. Of these three choices, I myself have sampled two, the liver and sweetbreads. In terms of preparation, the sweetbreads are cooked with lard and peas, the calf’s brain is on toast with a butter sauce, and the calf’s liver is sauteed and served with rice. Due to a fear of contracting mad cow disease from an improperly cooked calf brain, I will be cooking the calf liver with rice, following the recipe for “Calf’s Liver Italian style” found on page 518 of Charles Ranhoffer’s The Epicurean, a standard reference work of turn-of-the-century fine dining culinary instruction.

I began with collecting the ingredients. Onion, shallot, mushroom, butter, and wine were easy to come by. Shockingly, so was calf’s liver. It was available prepackaged in the meat section of Rouses. Essence of truffles, while easily purchased, was far outside of my price range, so it was excluded from the recipe. Veloute gave me a bit of trouble until I googled a veloute recipe and found out it was a standard roux based gravy. So I purchased my ingredients, went home, and prepared them for cooking. I also added one ingredient of my own: cranberry ginger shandy.

The next step in this task was to figure out measurements for my ingredients. Six slices of calf’s liver became four since Rouses sold calf’s liver pre sliced in four slices. One tablespoon of chopped shallots, two of onion, and six of mushroom were laid out for me in the recipe. All of the spices were to my tastes. The two main areas of trouble came with the veloute and the wine. Figuring out the necessary amount of wine fortunately took only a Google search. A gill of wine is about five fluid ounces. The veloute measurement was explained in the recipe as the very specific quantity of “a little,” which, shockingly, was not very helpful. I decided on one ladles worth of veloute, or about half a cup.

The process of cooking began with me making the veloute. It was nothing big, just butter, flour, chicken stock, and salt and pepper. Easy peasy. Then came the cooking of the liver.Of all of the things I have cooked with in my life, liver is, bar none, the worst substance to hold. It was like holding a vaguely sinewy and very slimy balloon filled with Jell-o. I melted the butter and cooked on both sides of each slice until it was cooked through, but not tough. The smell of cooking liver? Not super pleasant. After I removed the liver slices, butter and fatty liver bits remained in the pan. I added the onions and shallots to this. The recipe says to fry slowly, so I cooked them at a medium low heat until the onions and shallots were translucent and slightly browned. After that, I added the mushrooms and cooked the mixture until the mushrooms had lost all of their moisture. When the mushrooms were done, I began to ladle in the volute. When the volute bubbled, I added the gil of wine to the pan, and a swig of shandy to my mouth. That reduced for about 10 minutes before I took it off the heat and added the liver slices back in for a minute. Finally, I took the slices out of the pan and placed them on a plate and covered them with the gravy. Ta da! Calf’s liver, Italian style has been created.

The liver, in my opinion, was not the best. It had an intense flavor, and almost a metallic tang. The texture was also a bit off putting. In all, I likely won’t eat a liver fillet again, but I am glad that I gave the offal a try. I brought the dish to my taste tester, who does not care for liver, but was kind enough to taste it for me. He did not care for the liver, but said the gravy was quite good. 

Niles enjoying his meal

You may notice that while I started with four slices of liver, there are only three on the plate. That’s because I needed to pay my sous chef, Cassius, for all of his help in this task. He liked the liver. I’d say 50% approval is good enough for me.

While there is no way to know if the recipe I made was anything like the one that was served under the title of “calf’s liver” in the Everett house, the recipe I followed created an example of what may have been served at the time that the menu was created. Other than the previously stated reasons as to why offal declined in popularity in American cuisine, I have developed one more. Offal, liver specifically, is not great. Unless you are Cassius. Then it is delicious. 

Bibliography

Rees, Jonathan. Refrigeration Nation: a History of Ice, Appliances, and Enterprise in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016.