The Big Frill

July 9, 2011

Adventures in Offal, Part I

For some time now I’ve been thinking the origins and illogic about my squeamishness about offal. This was prompted by my coming across a rather wonderful essay titled ‘Picky Eating is a Moral Failing’, by Matthew J Brown, in this book, Food and Philosophy.

Brown’s essay elegantly articulates the frustrations I usually feel when I hear someone say “I don’t eat olives / oysters / pumpkin / spinach /whatever”.  The crux of his argument is that to be a ‘picky eater’ – he exempts ethical vegetarians and people with physical conditions like peanut allergy or lactose intolerance – is not only to create distance between oneself and others (especially a host who may have offered the prohibited food), but to choose a narrow, ignorant path through life. He says picky eating is a wilful decision to close one’s mind, shutting down the possibility that a previously unpleasant experience could at another time be found bearable or even pleasurable, and leads to the limiting belief that obstacles should be avoided rather than overcome. In short, Brown believes that to cordon off various foods on the basis that you ‘don’t like’ them is generally to limit one’s potential to grow into an open-minded, generous, fully rounded human being. I love what he says, and agree with pretty much all of it.  And I love the fact he’s prepared to take the risk of such a provocative title, too.

Anyway, of course the article challenged me to think about my own food aversions. I like to tell people I eat anything, and I certainly would eat any food offered to me by the person who cooked it – but reading this essay made me think more about my own quite extreme squeamishness where offal is concerned. Although I am an enthusiastic meat eater, I have never really eaten innards, apart from the odd taste here and there, when I have been surprised into enjoying some of it (most particularly in Asian restaurants, Chinese and Laotian especially). But I have certainly never cooked it, nor chosen it from a menu of my own volition.

At the same time as I became enamoured with Brown’s essay, I was reading a little about the US academic Paul Rozin’s research into the emotion of disgust – and how much of it relates to animality. After decades of research Rozin and his colleagues have concluded, it seems, that the things that most disgust us in Western society are those to do with what might be called base bodily functions – shit, piss, vomit, snot and so on – and with the breach or violation of the ‘body envelope’. With the deep taboo, that is, of innards. Rozin thinks we are disgusted by these things because they remind us of our own animality – and, closely related, our mortality.

So it would seem that according to Mr Rozin, my aversion to liver, kidneys, tongue, brains, gizzards and so on can be traced to a quite natural human fear of my own death. I see a cow’s tongue on the plate, which looks so like a tongue – looks, indeed, so like my tongue, with its entirely recognisable tongue-y shape and little bobbles of tastebuds. And so, deep in my mind is drawn a connection between the death of the creature who owned this tongue, and my own death.

It all makes perfect sense to me, this theory of disgust and my own fear of death – for my aversion to offal doesn’t extend to beef cheeks, say, or pig’s trotters. I love meat of all kinds – the outer casing, if you like, of an animal. But it’s the innardness that has always made me squirm.

But all of this makes no logical sense, of course. And it’s wasteful  – to decide that some bits of an animal are perfectly fine to eat, but others taboo, goes against all the other views I have begun to hold dear about not wasting food. And surely eating meat is slightly more acceptable if the whole creature is put to use, rather than the more decadent-seeming practice of picking and choosing small bits and wasting the rest?

So far, so psychological.

In light of all this I decided it was time to have a good look at and begin to test these fears of mine, to see exactly how strong was my aversion to handling, cooking and eating offal – and whether my squeamishness was purely psychological or did have something to do with taste and texture after all.

So begins, friends, my adventure into offal. Enter the frilliest of all innards – tripe.

I chose tripe (the lining of an animal’s stomach, as you all no doubt know – in this case, cow) as offal adventure number one for a couple of reasons. First, because I have only ever eaten it once before, as a child, and it was so disgusting (in sludgy white sauce, natch) that even my parents didn’t eat it and allowed us all to leave it on our plates – unheard of in our house. But as adulthood has brought many examples of how decent cooking methods and recipes can render previously disliked foods into new favourites, and if the Italians love tripe, smothered in tomato, garlic, parsley and so on, I figured – how bad could it be?

Second, I decided that tripe could surely be no more squidgy and bouncy and rubbery than squid or octopus, both of which I love, and must be bland enough in flavour to allow the aforementioned tomatoey goodness to mask any creepiness of taste.

So today, I tried Stephanie Alexander’s ‘beginner’ tripe recipe – “Tripe with tomato and lots of parsley”.  Here is my introductory tripe dish, Ms Alexander writes, a blend of French and Italian traditions. It can be prepared well ahead and reheated before serving. If you don’t like this, you don’t like tripe. 

First job was to thaw the tripe we bought from the ordinary butcher across the road – if I was going to do this thing, it was a case of seizing the moment and I hadn’t seen tripe on the list at www.featherandbone.com.au, though I’m sure they would have got me some if I’d asked. Tripe is often sold frozen, apparently – I guess because hardly anybody wants it anymore.

Stephanie makes it clear the tripe should be bleached and parboiled, though our butcher (who seemed quite averse to the whole thing himself) couldn’t tell us whether it had been parboiled. A re-reading of Stephanie’s tripe section seemed to indicate that if it’s white or creamy coloured you can assume it’s bleached and parboiled, but times vary (unbleached tripe is grey, apparently, and I can tell you now there is no way I would have managed to be grownup about this if I were faced with grey innards – euurrgggh).

Once thawed, the whole bit of tripe (about 200g) was quite a pretty little pouch of a thing – a kind of soft, frilly sea sponge, and lovely to the touch. Next step was to cut it into strips, make the soffrito, add some bacon (mmm), tomato & vinegar, and then bung in the tripe bits, cook for 30 to 45 minutes. This is where I grew a bit nervous, not knowing what exactly the texture should be.

I decided that I would pretend the tripe was squid – both as a textural guide and to start bending my resistant mind to the possibility of eating it – and was hoping for a similar texture once cooked to tenderness. I consulted Twitter’s resident expert on all things culinary, @crazybrave (aka Miz Zoe who you will recognise from the comments round these parts) who confirmed that I was on the right track. It should have ” a little resistance to the tooth and then be slippery and springy”, she said.

I ended up cooking it for a bit over an hour to get this texture, which was almost right I think. I wonder though if another 10 or 15 minutes might have made it just a tiny bit softer and more pleasing. I tossed a few big spoonsful into a ramekin, topped it with parmesan cheese and bunged it under the grill for a few minutes., as suggested by Stephanie.

Then came the big moment – I tried one piece, and found it really quite revoltingly springy and chewy, though it was tender enough. What was really quite fascinating to observe was how it was my mind that caused the problem. With every chew, my mind screamed: Stomach lining! Quivery Slimy Thing! Animal Innards! DEATH! 

I decided the size of the piece was an issue, and cut the remaining pieces into much smaller ones – Stephanie recommends a strip 2cm by 6cm, but I would suggest for tripe novices these are too confronting. A much smaller slice, eaten with lots of the extremely delicious sauce, is far easier to contemplate. In this way, and by focusing very hard on imagining how my mind would be working if this were squid – Yum! Springy! Tender! Lovely Surprising Texture! – I chomped happily away on a small ramekin full of tripe. Yes, there was a teeny tiny odd twinge of an unusual flavour – which could just as easily have been my imagination – and yes, the frills certainly added a textural frisson that might take some getting used to. But all in all, it was completely fine.

Senor arrived home just as the eating experiment began, and wolfed into a bowl of tripe himself. Being the iron-guts and utterly unflappable gourmand he is, of course he had no truck whatsoever with my mental carry-on, and pronounced it delicious. We still have three more bits of tripe in the freezer, and Senor has declared he’s going to get into a bit of tripey experimentation himself.

So what’s my verdict? What’s the disgust quotient? Well, it was perfectly fine. I was not revolted, as I had expected. But I didn’t love it, and I am fairly sure it will be a long while before I try cooking it again. I have other adventures in innards to pursue, after all.

But if I visited your house and you plonked down a huge bowlful of this stuff, I would no longer stiffen in terror and allow my stomach to flip over itself in panic and revulsion. I already feel much more grownup about tripe, and as a result have much more interest in exploring other offally avenues. And who knows, on another tasting or two (Senor’s cooking next time) I might even find, as I have with so many foods since childhood, from chilli to muesli to oysters, that it soon grows on me and I like it very much.

So what about you? Any offal fans? When was the first time you ate it, and what made you like it?


  1. What an admirable approach. I was surprised to see you say though that you were inexperienced with offal, because you’d said on twitter that you had made lovely pate. For a long time pate was the only kind of offal I though acceptable, too 🙂

    I started to eat it because I think it’s the responsible way to eat meat, and because my meat guy gives me great big bags of it. There’s a couple of hearts in the freezer that I shall have to get my brave apron on for 🙂

  2. I have no problem with kidneys, liver, sweetbreads or brains (crumbed and deep fried) but I baulk at tripe, lungs and hearts. Crazy, I know. Tripe because I had the same disgusting childhood experience as you (white sauce and onions – the only thing more disgusting was choko), lungs and hearts because, well, they’re lungs and hearts. I can’t even begin to untangle why I can eat some offal and not others. Mum cooked terrific steak and kidney pies and good lambs fry and bacon with super rich gravy so I think I accepted them both long before I really knew what they were. And since she didn’t cook lungs and heart for us (although she loves stuffed hearts herself) I’ve never been able to get past what they are.

    Can’t wait for the rest of the offal journey.

  3. I just made pate for the first time yesterday. You have upped the ante. May have to give steak and kidney pie a go.

  4. Marcella Hazan “The Classic Italian Cookbook” p 247. Brilliant Tripe recipe.

    I came to offal via insatiable pregnancy cravings for Tony Bilson’s Kidneys in mustard cream sauce. Mmmmmmm, kidneys.

  5. Unlike Charlotte, I know the origins of my tripe-phobia. As a young child I lived in a very small town that had one butcher, who had been there forever, and who had no modern things – such as refrigeration. A cool room out the back, chilled by blocks of ice, did the job.

    Inside the shop the counter were fly-screened with a small opening to pass parcels of meat to the customer and receive the payment. Inevitably one or two winged creatures would zip through with the payment. This butcher had tripes hanging in the window, which was also encased in screening.

    One day I asked my grandfather what the white stuff was. ‘Cow stomach’ he said. When I looked closer there, in the folds and frills of the tripe were several small black flies.

    This visual is engraved on my food-brain.

    However, pate, steak and kidney, liver cooked quickly with mushrooms and onions are all fine and were part of the normal menu until cholesterol entered the public conversation.

    But brains are definitely in the tripe category – maybe there’s something about the off-whiteness of both that is so unappetizing, whereas the richly coloured bits are more visually stimulating.


  6. Charlotte, just for you I not only ate tripe in Italy (and brains – though really that was just for me: yum) but lampredetto – otherwise known as the fourth stomach of a cow. And I loved it! I think I’ve discovered the secret to eating scary things: put them in a sandwich. (In the case of lampredetto, smother it with salsa verde and salsa piccante too.) The only thing I’m really squeamish about is tongue – that texture is just too eerily familiar. But perhaps on a sandwich…?

  7. I love nearly all offal though I’m not mad about kidneys. My new fave is sweetbreads. So rich and velvetty inside, golden and crisp outside. Mmmm. Charlotte, do you recall having that tripe salad in Canley Vale at Twelve Spices? That was great and I’m pretty sure you liked it. It was shredded really finely and tossed with fish sauce, lemongrass, chilli, green onions etc. They call it ‘bible’, don’t know why.

  8. Mmm. I love offal – I grew up eating tripe at yum cha, and I’ve always liked the chewy, squishy texture – but I’ve learned that that’s more of an exception than the norm. (Maybe I’m still in youthful denial about my mortality?) I admit, I’ve never prepared tripe myself, though it might be time for me to add it to the to-do list.

    Kudos for confronting your aversion!

  9. I am awed by your offal project, Charlotte – brava! You are setting a great example, but one I am far too (brace yourself for the irony) gutless to follow. One of the chief delights of adulthood is, in my view, choosing one’s own food (and yes, I do consider this an extraordinary privilege), and those memories of tripe in white sauce, lambs fry in gravy and yes, choko in butter, are too potent and painful to usher into the present day and my own kitchen. I agree wholeheartedly that the aversion is psychological as well as sensory (Glenda’s flies! Horrors!!! Now I can see them too!!!), and in the balance I am happy to leave offal locked up nice and safe in the Shudder Box. But god – I salute you!

  10. I’m with Di, Charlotte – all strength to you, but I can’t go there. Any meaty thing that is spongey, dry, ‘creamy’, or slimy is gag country for me. It was one of the many traumas of childhood when I discovered that this ‘creamy’ thing called ‘brains’ was actually BRAINS. You believe as an English speaker that many meanings are contained in one work. In this case, I’d been duped.

    So, the texture of offal is a big stumbling block for me. Even getting a rubbery little cross-section of vein or artery in an anonymous mouthful of meat pie used to be enough to almost make me faint as a kid. Also have hideous childhood memories of lamb’s fry – so foul. I’ve made delicious buttery chicken liver pate over the years – but deliciousness relies on convincing disguise of the organ in question.

    And there’s something so PERSONAL about offal. Heart, kidney, liver, pancreas, brain, tongue. It’s a ridiculous, irrational line, but one that is drawn in indelible ink for me.

    I’m heading in the opposite direction, eating less meat. Logically, of course, it is consistent that we should eat nose to tail if we eat meat at all, and not waste all that good food between prime cuts. Went to http://www.stjohnrestaurant.com/ in January, which is a must if you get very serious about offal. Lovely food, very gorgeous and pure – w warnings about possible pieces of shot in the game, etc. But definitely not for anyone who is squeamish about meat!

  11. Great piece! Offal I’m ok with. Vegemite, on the other hand, makes me wretch. Only thing I don’t eat. Have you read Jeffrey Steingarten’s ‘The man who ate everything?’ he does a great version where he tries to convince himself to overcome all of the things he hates. Admirable stuff.

  12. Admirable adventures! Loved reading your tripely tale, though the number of adjectives triggering rather visceral responses in my digestive tract was traumatic;) Although brains and tripe and liver fall a long way from my preferred-eating tree, at least I know I can eat Vegemite (@Tori) 🙂

  13. […] read the whole horror show then if you like), an attempt to overcome the aversions I spoke about a while back. And while I certainly received a comprehensive innard education this time round and the experience […]

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