As a child, like millions of other kids from peasant stock, I used to happily eat tongue. Then came the ill-fated day somebody told me where it came from. And that was the end of tongue and the start of the Great Age of Squeamishness—a long, unfortunate era of well-done hamburgers and the avoidance of anything obviously animal.
Time spent in Europe as an adult helped correct this defect. I discovered the pleasures of live Irish oysters and raw steak tartare in Paris, and of deep-fried unmentionables in Rome. But a slight terror of unadorned organ meat lingered, and each time I encountered a lamb's heart, menacing like an angry little fist, or a suspiciously stinky andouillette sausage, I recoiled.
Yet such scary delicacies have become hard to avoid lately even here in New York City. Chicken-liver parfait has started popping up everywhere; pigs' trotters have escaped the brasserie, and beef cheeks loom on the most unlikely of menus. Offal, long the most unchic of entrees, is suddenly cool. So early this fall I resolved to investigate the trend—and see if I could overcome my vestigial squeamishness in the process.
Determining how exactly offal—an archaic English word for those bits of meat that "fall off" the animal during butchering, now used to refer to all entrails, organs, and extremities (tails, feet, and head)—became so popular again proved tricky; the chefs most responsible are surprisingly coy about their motives. Fergus Henderson, the godfather of "nose-to-tail eating," first started serving "variety meats" like brawn (headcheese) and pig's ear salad when he opened his London restaurant, St. John, in 1994. "It's just being polite to the animal," he told me. "Knock it on the head; use it all."
But the challenge was clearly part of the appeal. "Using the whole thing—well, the possibilities that arise when you go beyond usual cuts of meat are fantastic," says Ferguson. Mario Batali, who has made offal a mainstay of his New York restaurant Babbo since it opened in 1998, says he was just following his palate. But it's clear that he too enjoyed the difficulty. While he insists, somewhat disingenuously, that "it's no harder to cook these things than other cuts of meat," he admits that "anyone can put a steak on the grill; this was a bit of a provocation."
Whatever their inspiration, he and Henderson began a crusade that a generation of younger chefs and butchers (the food world's latest celebrities) have taken up with sometimes alarming zeal. Their enthusiasm can be explained by the confluence of several trends, I think. First came the mid-'90s vogue for macho eating that brought steak and martinis back into the limelight, and then, thanks to celebrity omnivores like Anthony Bourdain, morphed into extreme dining (Google "stylish placenta feast," if you dare). Soon Slow Food, with its emphasis on ultratraditional cookery, migrated from Europe to America. Then came the more recent cultural interest in sustainable food practices, which also argue in favor of eating the entire beast. And then came the craving for tradition and authenticity. Eating organs is the ultimate expression of all these vogues; what could be more adventurous and responsible and traditional and manly? As Jessica Applestone of Fleisher's Grass-Fed and Organic Meats, a sustainable butcher shop in New York's Hudson Valley, puts it, offal is "kind of sexy. It's earthy, back to basics. There's blood and guts involved—literally."
So much for the theory. How do the kishkes (as my grandmother would've called them) taste—and can they be consumed by the, er, faint of heart? I started my immersion at Batali's Babbo, where, about a month ago, I sat down with a friend and ordered all the most frightening things on the menu. This included pig's foot Milanese, warm tripe alla parmigiana, testa (a different type of headcheese) with pickled pears, stuffed lamb's brain pasta, and yes, tongue.
An interesting thing happens when you look down at your plate and find a truly terrifying dish staring back at you. Your skin starts to tingle and you get tunnel vision—all you can see is the food. Every other worry—death, taxes, the state of journalism—vanishes from your mind. Then you make your peace with the Almighty and take a bite. And two more things occur in quick succession. First, you likely discover that whatever you're eating, despite its odd texture or offputting appearance, hasn't killed you. In fact, it is strangely delicious. For as Batali points out, "people wouldn't eat these things if they didn't taste good." Or, as Ferguson says, offal is "unctuous, sticky, rich, and meaty." To which I'd add: funky, gamey, slightly rude—and utterly arresting.
The second thing that happens, if you're like me, at least, is you find yourself craving more, and in less prettified presentations. This led me on a quest to St. Andrew's, one of Manhattan's only Scottish restaurants, for haggis (sheep's intestine stuffed with oats, hearts, liver, and kidneys). And then to Flushing, in Queens, N.Y., and a tiny, dimly lit Sichuan restaurant called Little Pepper.
There, over beef tendons in spicy sauce (crunchy, like pickled cabbage) and ox stomach sautéed in pig's blood, I had my second set of revelations. First, it's incredibly liberating to know that you can eat virtually anything, and while I may not order the ox stomach again, I'd happily eat much of the rest. As I paid the bill, the other big reason for offal's current appeal—and the reason it's likely to outlast other trends—hit me. This stuff is cheap, really cheap (at least in Chinatown and at butcher shops, if not at Babbo). Not for nothing was it once known as "umble"—hence the expression "humble pie." That's the reason that many of our parents, or their parents, grew up eating and loving organ meat. And it's the reason our kids are likely to as well—at least till we tell them where it came from.