Why upscale chefs are serving euphemistically named "variety meats."
Should you be whipping up a platter of crispy pigs' tails for a cocktail party any time soon, you might find, after persuading your butcher to order the tails for you and getting the squiggly things home, that they're bristling with little, unappetizing hairs. Fear not. In his new cookbook, The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, British chef Fergus Henderson, of London's trendy St. John restaurant, advises, "By the by, dealing with any slightly hairy extremities of pig, I recommend a throw-away Bic razor (hot towels and shaving cream not required)." If you can't imagine hacking away at the peach fuzz on the curlicue tail of a dead swine, think again. The publication of Henderson's book heralds a new fashion in food, already discernable in various hot restaurants in New York: offal, the organs and extremities (nose, cheeks, tail, feet) of butchered animals, has become chic.
Foie gras, truffles, and other traditional staples of gastronomic excess now find themselves cheek by jowl on upscale menus with, well, cheeks and jowls. When diners at Babbo, Mario Batali's elegant New York Italian restaurant, fork out $10 for "Testa," they're paying top dollar for a substance made by boiling the head of a pig, skimming off bits of brain, gristle, and other effluvia that bubble to the surface, and turning it into a salami. Is this irony? Slumming? Or a culinary example of "The Emperor's New Clothes"?
Though animal brains, intestines, hearts, and other "variety meats," as they're known in the trade, have generally been assigned to the scrap heap in American butcher shops, in Europe there is a venerable tradition of dining on tripe, sweetbreads, and the like. That tradition sprung out of agrarian necessity, as did the resulting conviction that if you're going to be so indulgent as to slaughter an animal, you'd better make use of all of it, even the nasty bits. Today, Europeans rich and poor dine on offal, but it has retained a certain earthy reputation. The Italians call it la cucina povera, or "poor food," as a reminder of the utilitarian origins of these dishes.
American tastes, however, have been formed by a different history. Jack Ubaldi, founder of the legendary Florence Prime Meat Market in Greenwich Village and author of Meat Book (1987), traces the American aversion to eating the heads, tails, and organs of animals to the late 19th century, when the surplus of cattle raised in the western states caused meat prices to plummet. "[W]e became a nation of muscle-meat eaters and could afford to throw out the innards and other exotica," he writes. (Immigrant communities in American cities continued to consume variety meats through the 20th century, but these items were relegated to the fringes—difficult to find outside of ethnic butcher shops and absent from all but the most adventurous restaurants.)
In the last few years, though, these unmentionables have become fashionable, and for this we have Fergus Henderson to thank. The man responsible for bringing entrails out of the abattoir and onto white tablecloths everywhere is a London chef whose proselytizing about the gustatory pleasures of brined pork belly and cold lamb's brain (on toast!) has earned him cult status among chefs on both sides of the Atlantic. The 1999 edition of The Whole Beast was only ever published in London and has been out of print since. But chefs hoarded and fought over used copies of Henderson's tome and began spreading his message to their customers. "Any time you see cheeks, tripe, or marrow on a New York City menu, you can feel the ripples of his influence," Anthony Bourdain effuses in his introduction to the newly reissued The Whole Beast.
True devotees of Henderson's cuisine make the trek to St. John, which is located a stone's throw from the slaughterhouse at Smithfield Market in North London. Some of his dishes are transportingly good. Roast bone marrow and parsley salad consists of four little veal marrow bones that you dress with rock salt before scooping out the hot, dribbly contents—viscous, redolent of cooking fat, and delicious. In fact, the flavors are surprisingly tasty across the board; the textures are what disturb: Potted pig's head is clammy and gelatinous; honeycombed tripe is rubbery and unforgiving; and ox heart, while remarkably soft considering you're eating a very big muscle from a very big animal, is still quite an undertaking for the knife and the teeth.
What draws chefs and diners to this curious cuisine? The reactionary nature of the food clearly plays a part; currently there's an anti-PC tendency among diners who want to outdo even ardent carnivores in sheer carnivorousness. This is clearly the appeal for Bourdain, who declares, with characteristic hyperbole, that Henderson's food is "a thumb in the eye to the establishment, an outrageously timed head butt to the growing hordes of the politically correct, the PETA people, the European Union. ..."
But part of the resurgence, at least among chefs, also seems to spring from the sheer challenge of making bad things taste good. As Thomas Keller, proprietor of The French Laundry in Northern California (generally held to be the finest restaurant in America) and the recently opened Per Se in New York, writes in The French Laundry Cookbook: "It's easy to cook a filet mignon, or to sauté a piece of trout, serve it with browned butter à la meunière, and call yourself a chef. But that's not real cooking. That's heating. Preparing tripe, however, is a transcendental act."
At Babbo, Mario Batali seems to want to transcend the ingredients themselves. Whereas Henderson makes little effort to disguise his ingredients—his recipes are pared down, his ingredients unvarnished—Batali goes to great pains to mask his, in texture if not in taste. Pig's foot Milanese is pounded so thin and breaded so thickly that the flavor of the pig's foot is not readily discernible through the fried bread crumbs. Beef cheek ravioli are delicious, light and pillowy, with only a hint of fibrousness to the meat and a telltale chalky aftertaste. Lamb's brain francoboli are so heavy on cheese and so light on brain that they taste almost vegetarian. While all of these dishes are delicious, the question inevitably arises: If the recipe requires that you camouflage the central ingredients, why use those ingredients at all?
One reason seems to be the frisson of naughtiness associated with eating such things. Due to the crackdown on the consumption of various meat byproducts in a post-mad cow U.K., lambs' brains are still illegal in England. (But this hasn't stopped Henderson from jotting down a few recipes, "so that when lamb's brain is freed from its sentence we shall be ready to celebrate its liberty.") Wondering about the legality of lambs' brains—given that I'd eaten them, or at any rate trace quantities of them, at Babbo—I went to Ottomanelli's butcher shop in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. Frank Ottomanelli told me that lambs' brains are legal in America. "What happens is you buy the whole head, and then I'll get the brains out for you, as a courtesy," he smiled. I ran through a list of other Henderson ingredients I was curious about: pig's head? pig's spleen? pig's feet? "The only thing on the pig that we don't have is the squeal," Frank said. So, tally your ingredients, intrepid chefs, and get thee to a butcher shop. And for those of adventurous tastes but milder temperament, just head to your local restaurant. I hear the Testa's good.
Patrick Radden Keefe is is a fellow at the Century Foundation and the author of The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Photograph of lamb on the Slate home page © Corbis.