That is, 'variety meats' in polite company


by Sydney Bender


Carrie Mae Smith

Just like any meat, the quality of these parts depends on how the animals were raised, what they were fed and how they came to market. As with any cut, look and smell for freshness and if in doubt, talk to your butcher.  

I was in fourth grade when I learned how sausage was made. My friend’s dad came in and talked to our class about the multifaceted job of a butcher. His demonstration included him pushing, jerking and stuffing handfuls of mixed-meats into flimsy calf intestines. He showed us how to twist the casings up and section them off into links, similar to the way a balloon animal artist makes a duck out of a long, flimsy yellow balloon. As my desk mate and I braided friendship bracelets under our desk, I couldn’t help but acknowledge my callow food thinking: I had been unaware of what parts of the animal I had eaten for breakfast.

Offal, or variety meats, offers new flavors and textures to cooks of all culinary-calibers. Like a painter playing with new shades on the color wheel, using these meats of a different sensibility is like a circus clown with a new bag of tricks literally up his sleeve.

Offal swings open a merry-go-round-like revolving door for omnivores when it comes to nose-to-tale eating: livers, cheeks, feet, tongue, testicles, skin, kidneys, lungs, intestines, tripe…
As a food class, offal includes all the slabs and slices and scraps of an animal not normally butchered for cooking. Offal is extracted from the Old English off fall, affald (Danish) and abfall (German), all literally meaning to fall-off.

And as a polyseme-noun, offal has connotations that extend way beyond meat department doors, definitions that expose us to the offal truth. Offal is also a word for trash, rubbish, guts and dead bodies. If offal had a smell, some would say it would be rotten, foul, nasty, offensive, repulsive, a smell that makes you gag. Like a turkey vulture takes to decaying flesh, offal is the aftermath of what once was something else, shattered and stripped and labeled as waste.

But chefs and gourmets have a different meaning in mind.

It’s hard to ignore that offal is a homophone with awful, so make sure it’s pronounced oaf-FALL. Think: “Oh-Full!” from being stuffed after a great meal of fried jalapeño tripe or pig’s brain butter.

Crispy cartilage, smoky hearts, head cheese and velvety brains sound risky, and even a little gross, but you’ll never know about those new shades of red until you start dipping your paintbrush into them. Who knows? Maybe you’ll eat offal on purpose. And at the very least, you’ll know a little bit more about your breakfast sausage.