A scene from my childhood: My father comes home from his early morning trip to the market with a whole head of pig, cleans it then takes it to the neighborhood bakery where he asks the owner (a friend of his) to roast it.
Hours later, he retrieves the pig’s head from the bakery and we sit down to lunch. My father carves the pig’s cheeks, slices the ears and the snout. With all the meat almost gone, he splits the roasted pig head through the bone with a heavy cleaver and hands me the best part — the brain. My mother cringes; my brother’s face is inscrutable.
I’m done with lunch so I place the pig’s brain in a bowl and, taking a spoon, I run next door to my grandparents’ house. I go up to my aunt’s room, sit on the floor and eat the pig’s brain with my spoon. My aunt cringes and tells me I will get sick from all the fat in the pig’s brain. I keep eating.
I was about seven years old.
I’ve lost count of how many times similar scenes played out in our house. And it wasn’t always pig’s brain. Sometimes, it was chicken brain or bangus (milkfish) marrow. But I knew — I knew — that, for the rest of my life, I would crave things that many people won’t touch.
What is it about offal that turns a lot of people off? The perception that non-prime meat cuts are dirty? Filthy even? Or is it the not-too-pretty looks of offal? Or, perhaps, something else? A lot of possibilities. Personal bias, class prejudice, culture and tradition are only some of them.
Fast forward to a decade or so later. I was reading The Immigrants by American novelist Howard Fast and decided to pick up the sequel, Second Generation. The protagonist in the second book is Barbara Lavette, daughter of a poor-Italian-immigrant-turned-millionaire Dan Lavette and the born-with-a-silver-spoon Jean Seldon. The story begins with The Great Depression and Barbara is a volunteer in a soup kitchen.
I don’t remember much of the story except for the first part because that was what made such an impression on me. Barbara and their housekeeper (or is it the cook?) are discussing the cost of food for the household. The housekeeper (cook?) scoffs that Barbara’s mother’s penchant for prime cuts when the tastier meats are actually the cheaper cuts (ah, the implied ignorance and snobbery of Barbara’s mother). The tirade of the housekeeper (cook?) was a refrain that would get repeated in many, many books that I would later read. And I finally concluded that “prime cut” actually means the prettiest looking meat cuts and the rich don’t care to look at ugly things.
What does a fictional housekeeper’s (cook’s?) sarcasm have to do with eating offal? A lot. She nailed it, to my mind. It’s a class thing. If one has money and can afford prime cuts, why buy trimmings and offal which are considered scrap? It’s the same attitude about fish. Why eat fish head when the thickest meat is in the body? It’s as though eating certain parts of an animal — the rejects after the prime cuts have been carved out — is something that one only does when one is poor.
But that doesn’t explain why offal is traditionally eaten in some countries while others consider it as scrap.
Guess which countries balk at offal? Offal is eaten in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America. In the United States, only in the South does offal make a significant appearance, and the American South’s cuisine is heavily influence by Creole (African) and Cajun (French) cooking. In Australia, offal figures in ethnic cooking.
What do all that information mean? The way I see it, the appreciation for offal (think of it as the appreciation for every part of an animal) is, in a broad sense, related with a population’s relationship with the soil (farming; animal raising) and living off its produce. People who know animals know meat. People who only see meat after they have been cut and sold don’t really know animals and, hence, the perception that only the pretty cuts taste good. An urban versus rural thing, perhaps, if we have to simplify it.
The urban versus rural theory finds support when we realize that offal dishes in countries where offal is eaten are essentially peasant food. The “humble pie” of Medieval England, the Welsh faggot, the Spanish callos, haggis, black pudding… Tradition kept them alive.
So, it’s not surprising that offal has been traditionally part of the cuisine of regions where agriculture (including dairy farming) has historically been an integral part of life. But in places where industrial manufacturing fires the economy, eating offal is not so common. Too bad, North America, you’re missing a lot.