There’s an awful lot of offal in the world. If you’re a meat eater, then every time you opt for chicken breast or prime steak, there’s offal going begging. Offal, by definition, is what falls from butchers’ knives as they carve out cuts of leaner, blander flesh. It slithers to the floor, glistening with recent life, in all its shining tubes and bloody organs, a sponge of brain matter, a pure white glandular ovoid or two swathed in transparent film. We think of medical operations, of ritual disembowelling, of our own tender hidden parts. Offal was once highly valued for its variety of taste and texture – and sometimes for its scarcity alone. It has great nutritional value, and is fitting food for the infirm or for children who need extra sustenance. Offal needs to be fresh, so it was once a luxury food for those of means. Then fashions changed, and offal became humble (as in humble pie, from the entrails of deer, thought fit for the poor alone).
Today, in the West, most offal is used for animal feed, disguised in processed meat products or exported to those parts of the world where it has never ceased to be enjoyed – to China in particular. Yet chefs have long maintained the superior culinary possibilities of the stuff, and in recent years offal eating has become fashionable again. Dishes like steak and kidney pudding and devilled kidneys, which had survived a more general proscription, are now served in the most elegant modern restaurants. No longer mere survivors of the past – of wartime rationing and school dinners, perhaps – they are elevated to fine dining.
Offal has a certain shock value. Like the precarious pleasure of eating Japanese fugu liver, or the Ethiopian custom where offal is skewered onto sticks, then held in the mouth to feed wild hyenas, the enjoyment of eating some organ parts, such as testicle or eyeball, can be a finely balanced experience. Part of the attraction lies in its teetering proximity to disgust. It can seem manly to resist revulsion, making offal eating feel morally courageous. In women it can sometimes seem to suggest a provocative self-confidence. This aesthetic playfulness is at the heart of our attitudes to offal eating. When what we eat – what we take into our bodies – is the vital inner organs of other creatures, the metaphorical parallels can seem troubling. To eat offal is to transgress, to become a cannibal.
While writing Offal, I was struck by just how gender-specific reactions to the project appeared to be. It was more often men who seemed interested in it and women resistant to it. This was an immediate – one might say a gut – response. I think this betrays not so much a culinary or even moral reaction to offal, but rather what the idea of offal eating represents to us. Offal is delicious and to refuse to eat it seems wasteful. Not to take pleasure in its esculent nuance seems churlish. The extraordinary variety of dishes across the globe and its lauded position in so many cuisines might seem to outweigh any consideration of disgust, but I suggest that it’s this response that makes it so particularly interesting. Not disgusting or delicious, but disgusting (sometimes, in the background, but a palpable presence) and delicious.
Text by Nina Edwards, author of Offal: A Global History available now.