Editor’s note: Counting down to Halloween, The Post-Star is examining “discomfort” food in a weekly Swallow Your Fears series appearing each Thursday. Next week, read about meals that lurk in the dark.
On AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” human survivors of a zombie apocalypse are forced to reconsider their niche in the food chain.
“Everything is food for something else,” Carl, a preteen protagonist on the horror series, surmises.
In times of prosperity, people can afford to be picky eaters.
“I think food is a window into cultural values and beliefs. It corresponds to the economy and cultural ideas of what is appropriate to eat,” said Rebecca Krefting, an assistant professor of American studies at SkidmoreCollege in Saratoga Springs.
Hunger, however, is a dietary game changer. The phrase “waste not, want not” is especially true when food is scarce.
“Necessity breeds invention,” Krefting said.
Eating offal, a blanket term used to describe organ meat, has gone out of favor in the United States, but it remains more mainstream in other countries, especially underdeveloped nations. Americans find steaks or chops desirable cuts of meat, but heart, liver, tail, feet, entrails and tongue are primarily considered waste.
“We don’t have to eat the offal, which has been designated as the ‘bad’ parts of the animal. If we can afford the ‘good’ parts of the animal, we are going to go for those,” Krefting said.
In the American hierarchy of food, offal has become synonymous with awful.
Put your money where your mouth is
Offal could benefit from a Madison Avenue marketing campaign.
Eating animal organs seems gruesome to the average American, but repackage those same parts in a different way, and the product might just fly off the supermarket shelves.
Take the hot dog, for example. Considered as American as apple pie and Mom, the popular sausage is encased in mystique for most consumers.
Hot dog manufacturers mark packages with words such as “beef,” “turkey,” “chicken” and “pork.” A closer inspection of the labels might reveal the term “mechanically separated” turkey or chicken, which means the meat is actually a “paste-like and batter-like poultry product produced by forcing bones, with attached edible tissue, through a sieve or similar device under high pressure,” according to the USDA. Pig meat also is “recovered” in a similar manner, although hot dogs can contain no more than 20 percent of pork prepared by this process.
Fast food can be just as mysterious.
Dr. Richard D. deShazo of the University of Mississippi Medical Center recently analyzed two brands of chicken nuggets for an American Journal of Medicine report. One company’s nuggets featured 50 percent muscle tissue from the breast or the thigh. The remainder was a mix of what most people consider unpalatable parts — fat, blood vessels and nerves. The second nugget was only 40 percent muscle, with the rest made of cartilage and bone.
Consumers actually have no way of knowing exactly what they are eating at many restaurants. According to law, a product described as “all-beef” only has to be 70 percent meat.
Meat “waste” also finds its way into a variety of processed foods, as well as many household products. Cookies, cheese, soft drinks, breakfast cereal and cake all can contain ingredients derived from animal processing.
Everything old is new again
The decline in the consumption of offal in the United States can be linked to the construction of an American identity. As immigrants poured into the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, first-generation Americans often strived to become part of the melting pot, rather than appear to be outsiders.
“The pressure to assimilate
absolutely extended to our food ways,” Krefting said.
Cooking “waste” parts of animals was frowned upon in the prosperous new country.
“Young students who were bringing in the food their immigrant parents were making for lunch were ridiculed,” Krefting said. “Lunch programs were developed that gave a standardized food fare that reflected ‘American food.’ ”
Because women were expected to pass culture on to their families, many charitable organizations established “homemaking” schools.
“Cooking classes were developed to teach women how to cook ‘American’ food,” Krefting said.
“American” foods were promoted, while “foreign” foods were discouraged.
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Offal didn’t make the cut.
Organ meat, however, is coming back in vogue. European chefs began breathing new life into the “peasant” food around 20 years ago, and the trend, which “United States of Americana” author Kurt Reighley calls “nose-to-tail eating,” is catching on in America.
The offal resurrection is a result of consumers gaining an interest in sustainable cuisine, food that maximizes resources and reduces waste. Part of the reduction of “waste” involves finding creative culinary uses for often discarded animal parts.
“It coincides with a lot of environmental beliefs,” Krefting said. “People want to make sure we are being responsible eaters and not discarding parts of animals that are nutritious and do have value in some way.”
Mack Brook Farm in Argyle makes some of the offal from its Angus grass-fed cattle available to customers.
“We get the tongue, the heart, the kidneys and the liver from the processor,” said Karen Christensen, co-owner. “Some of the customers who buy a side of beef keep them.”
Christensen sells offal — including tongue, oxtail and bones for marrow — to local restaurants that focus on locally resourced cuisine. She would like to see more home cooks take advantage of the forgotten parts.
“First of all, offal can be very affordable and terrifically nutritious. It’s a nice, easy meal, but you have to like the taste,” she said.
Chef Kim Klopstock of Fifty South Restaurant in Ballston Spa is one of the leaders of the “locavore” pack in upstate New York.
“This whole resurgence of offal is because of the farm-to-table movement,” Klopstock said. “I’ve had to really educate myself on the beauty of using the whole animal. It’s extremely sustainable.”
Tongue tacos were a recent special at her restaurant.
“People love it. It’s all in how it is prepared,” Klopstock said.
The chef makes sure the beef tongue, which arrives whole from Long Lesson Farm in Buskirk, is thoroughly cleaned.
“You rinse and rinse and rinse it for a couple of hours,” she said.
She braises the whole tongue in a sauce of tomatoes, cumin, garlic, peppers, chives and bay leaves for about two hours and serves the meat sliced in a tortilla with a side of fresh salsa and a spicy sour cream dip.
“It has an intense beef flavor,” Klopstock said.
Beef hearts also have made it onto the menu.
“Cow heart tastes like roast beef. Heart is a muscle, so it is very lean. When you cook it, you have to braise it with a fat, otherwise, it comes out very tough,” Klopstock said.
Cooking offal requires a greater understanding of an animal’s physiology.
“Isn’t that half the fun? You have to be creative,” Klopstock said. “That, to me, is why you cook. You cook to be inspired. Those are the goodies, as far as I am concerned.”
Fifty South, according to Klopstock, seems to attract more open-minded diners with its focus on locally sourced ingredients.
“I’m pretty lucky. I have a really wonderful group of people who come here regularly and would try just about anything,” she said.
With the growing interest in sustainable food, offal could be the next big thing.
“We have to change our ideas about what is appropriate or inappropriate. Right now offal isn’t popular, but I could see it rising in popularity. Our culinary tastes are increasingly globalizing,” Krefting said. “Offal is making a comeback, and it might just be a matter of time before it becomes part of everybody’s diet.”
Fifty South Restaurant is at 2128 Doubleday Ave. and Route 50 in Ballston Spa. For more information, go to www.fiftysouth.com or call 884-2926.