Nose-to-Tail: Meats and Feats
I finally got up the nerve to cook the beef liver that had been taunting me from the back of the freezer all this time. So this installment of Nose-to-Tail is alternatively entitled “Don’t Be a Punk.”
Details will follow. First, let’s have a history lesson:
The majority of us know at least a little bit about our cultural food history. Most cultures use some type of offal (organ meat) or animal byproduct in a favorite dish. For example, the UK has black pudding, a sausage made from pork blood and oatmeal. Here, we have hot dogs. They are typically made from skin, blood, liver, head meat, feet, muscle and fatty tissue. This stuff is mushed into something that looks a bit like muffin batter that has lost its joy. Then, it’s encased and cooked.
In the US, we have a long history of eating the whole animal, beginning with the indigenous peoples. We haven’t always loved organ meats, though, mainly because they’re gross. Just kidding, kinda.
The hunter-gatherer lifestyle required resourcefulness. Most often, an animal’s internal organs were eaten, and other parts were turned into useful items like fancy fedoras and pot-holders. Or not. Maybe they just made boring tipis. Even after the introduction of domesticated livestock, this was the case. Take their use of the sheep, for example: They made blankets from the wool, clothing from the skin, glue from the hooves and beads from the bones – no part was wasted. There is a traditional recipe, originating with the Passamaquoddy tribe of Maine, simply called “Curlies,” which utilizes pieces of sliced sheep stomach and fat which are wrapped in the intestine and then cooked on a hot grill until crispy. You’d eat it. I would, too. It’s crispy fat, for Pete’s sake.
America has always been a meat-eating country, but in the earlier days after the usurpers settlers arrived, meat was mostly eaten on special occasions or by the very wealthy. Access to the animal at all was the issue, not necessarily which parts were eaten. Where there was access, usually there was also someone who got to decide how the animal was divvied up – this meant that the man of the house or breadwinner would have first choice. Others were given the leftover parts.
In the Southeast, our cultural food history speaks of the ingenuity of slaves who, though they were given only what others didn’t want, relied on culinary traditions they had brought with them from West Africa. Blending traditional cooking methods with creative use of less-desired ingredients, they began what grew into the tradition of soul food in the South.
The industrial revolution brought a wave of anti-offal sentiments. (That totally wasn’t a real phrase … until now.) Industrialized meat processing increased Americans’ access to what were considered high-quality meats, if they could afford them. The belief at that time was that only poor people bothered to eat organ meats.
The SPAM-ification of America:
There was a period beginning in the 1940s when, thanks to Herbert Hoover and a WWII propaganda effort, variety meats got some skin in the game … literally. Organs meats went from being the food of the poor to the resourceful, patriotic choice. There were cooking classes focused on adding variety to regular dishes by slipping in some organ meat – hence the term “variety meats.” There were slogans like “Every husband will cheer for steak and kidney pie” and “Food is a weapon – don’t waste it!” That last one is a little weird, but it got the job done.
Americans took waste-not-want-not ideals into the 50s and beyond. By 1967, statistics show that we consumed 11 lbs. per capita of organ meats. What happened next? I think we just took it too far (Two words: potted meat). Here’s the short version of the story:
1969 – Mechanically-separated chicken, also known as “meat slurry,” happened (‘Nuff said).
1970 – SPAM’s downfall began (Even Monty Python got in on the fun-making).
1971 – Frances Moore Lappe published Diet for a Small Planet. Meat, in general, became less popular.
1986 – Mad Cow Disease came to the party. (This primarily contaminates the brain, spinal cord and digestive tract, so it led to regulations on high-risk offal in some countries, and the general fear trickled over to the US.)
It wasn’t until 1999 when Fergus Henderson created and popularized the “nose to tail” philosophy that we decided to tripe it again. (I can’t help it.) Henderson wrote a book called Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking. This gradually grew in popularity and reached the United States under the title The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating in 2004.
And here we are today. Over the past month, I’ve had many conversations with friends and family about our personal opinions toward variety meats.
My brother said, “The idea of organs makes me judge the book by its cover even though I’m sure they are good when made well.”
That makes sense to me. As a society, we are accustomed to seeing the flesh of another animal sliced into neat, manageable pieces. Those of us who think too much about it may sometimes avoid eating animal-based food that looks too much like what it was in its original form.
There are very few, if any, organ meat products that form cute and tidy packages. I mean, have you seen souse? It’s a type of head cheese. Head cheese. (Really? I can’t, with that name. The alternative, “meat jelly,” isn’t helping the situation). Made with pig ears, feet and tongue set in a naturally-formed gelatin, this Southern specialty looks exactly as you’d expect it to look … sous-y. Head-cheesy. Not glamorous.
Despite the way it looks, many people love it. It’s not exactly on my bucket list, but what does interest me is how to take an odd bit and make it delicious.
So, back to the liver.
Raw beef liver is a deep-red, gelatinous, flabby, flaccid, bloody pile of goo. I bought frozen livers so that I could give myself time to freak out about it. Let me lead by saying that when I finally cooked them, they were delicious.
Below is what I did when I cooked them. I had a lot of time between buying the livers and avoiding cooking them, so I read a lot of recipes. Then, I just did what I thought I would like. The great thing about cooking beef liver is that it’s very easy, so you can wing it.
Here’s what you will need:
– Canola oil
– 1 Small red onion
– 1 Bottle of red wine
– Flat-leaf parsley
– Beef stock
– Paper towels
Some people recommend soaking the liver in milk because it takes out the iron flavor. I don’t see the point. I actually like the flavor.
Here’s how you do it:
- Take liver out of freezer, move to fridge and thaw completely.
- Remove liver from fridge and freak out at its appearance. Rejoice that it’s trapped inside plastic packaging and can’t get at you. Place liver back in freezer.
- Drink some wine. Calm down. Reward yourself with a nice green salad.
- Take liver out of freezer. It hasn’t been in long enough to re-freeze, but it’s cold enough to retain some shape. That’s what you want. It will be easier to work with and less scary-looking.
- Place filets (Are they filets? I mean, they are whole beef livers which look like … livers) on paper towels and pat dry.
- Put flour in a wide dish and add salt and pepper.
- Salt and pepper the dry filets, and then dredge them in the flour mixture. (Salting inside-and-out helps with the flavor.)
- At this point, you can let the livers sit in the dish with the flour. The flour will absorb any excess moisture while you prep the other ingredients.
- Slice the entire onion into strips and sauté in a shallow pan with butter until golden brown. Deglaze the pan with a splash of red wine and a splash of beef stock. Reduce this a bit and then remove from heat.
- In a separate skillet (I used cast iron), heat the canola oil on medium-high.
- Cook liver for 2-3 minutes on each side to brown. Transfer to pan with onions, and place pan back on stove on medium heat.
- Serve atop the starch of your choice, topped with a sprinkle of flat-leaf parsley.
I served it on top of mashed potatoes. It was really, really good.
What’s next in this adventure? I’m looking forward to three more months of procrastination, followed by two weeks of avoidance. Then, I plan to reach out to someone who is an expert in offal, and have him/her teach me a thing or two. I still have a lot to learn, and so much more to eat. I’m gonna need more wine.