Friday 15 November 2013

An Offal Idea

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.

The Story of Game

Q. What is the difference between a Northern zoo and a Southern zoo?
A. The Southern zoo has a description of the animal along with a recipe.

As with many jokes, it’s funny because it’s close to the truth. Prior to the nineteenth century, natural histories routinely remarked on the taste of exotic birds and mammals captured in the wild, including those held in the first public zoos. For centuries, royalty enjoyed roast swans, peacocks, and blackbirds for supper. Hence, in “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” the “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie” is part of an actual recipe. Indeed, until very recently, no living creature was exempt from the gastronomic gaze, a gaze that evaluated dormice, lions, hyenas, and other unlikely stewpot candidates according to the vagaries of taste -- and then put that assessment to the test by giving the unlucky creature to Chef.

Today, I doubt even the most socially ambitious hostess would eyeball swans on the pond and think to herself, “When my Emma marries Harry, I’m roasting that flock for the Prince!” Of course not. For in correct English, these birds don’t come in flocks but in “whitenesses.” To wit:           
A whiteness of Swans,
                  A gaggle of Geese,
                  A team of Ducks,
                  A trip of Widgeon,
                  A whisp of Snipe.

Nowadays, they’ve all become “flocks,” just as pretty much all the birds eaten by Homo sapiens sapiens have become “chicken.” As goes language, so goes taste: we’re a generation away from double-ungood McBurgers on every plate. Oddly, obscure languages are going extinct almost as quickly as flora and fauna on this planet, and they die out for the same reason: the inability to reproduce in an indifferent world.

Globally speaking, swans, geese, ducks, widgeon, and snipe remain plentiful in numbers, and are legal to hunt in many regions. Depending on the time of year, they are quite edible. Some of them are wild. Some are semi-domesticated. Most gastronomes have never tasted any of them, because they’re more familiar with widgets than widgeons. In some countries, game meat is cherished as a delicacy. In others, it’s mocked as a symptom of poverty. The difference has nothing to do with the tastiness of the species, and everything to do with social history, culinary traditions, and the law. Endlessly fascinating and often surprising, the history of human hunting for food articulates a particular relationship between man and nature that defies simple categorization. Though true “wildness” in today’s world is perhaps impossible to achieve, certain birds and animals live outside narratives of human caretaking. How those creatures become human food is the story of game meat. 

Text by Paula Young Lee, author of Game: A Global History now available to purchase from our website.

Tuesday 12 February 2013

Pancakes on the BBC

American readers of this blog may be unaware that today is Pancake Day in the UK. It's kind of a big deal. It is, of course, Shrove Tuesday, on which day many countries celebrate by eating rich food before entering Lent the next day. In Britain, this means thin, crisp-edged pancakes served as a dessert, often with lemon and sugar.

For more on pancakes round the world, have a look at this slideshow on the BBC website, which features comments from Reaktion's author of Pancake: A Global History, Ken Albala. You can find out more about the book here (in the UK) or here (in the US and Canada).

Monday 21 January 2013

Shaken, Stirred and Straight

The Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, Providence, interviewed Vodka author and historian of Russia Patricia Herlihy about the history of vodka, and found out some of her tips for drinking it. This video is from their website at


Thursday 13 December 2012

Cheese Author Interviewed by BBC

Hannah Briggs of the BBC consulted our own Andrew Dalby, author of Cheese: A Global History, when writing this piece on new evidence that's been uncovered in Poland that reveals more about mankind's oldest methods of cheese-making. If you'd like to know more about the history of cheese and cheese-making – including that seasonal staple, the mighty stilton – why not pick up a copy of his book to add to your Christmas stocking?

Thursday 22 November 2012

BBC Radio 4 - Hot Dog Revisited

Bruce Kraig, the author of Hot Dog in Reaktion's Edible Series, appeared on BBC Radio 4's Food Programme in the episode 'Rethinking the Hot Dog'. If you missed it, you can listen here.