Read Offal: A Global History Online
Authors: Nina Edwards
Published by Reaktion Books Ltd
33 Great Sutton Street
First published 2013
Copyright © Nina Edwards 2013
All rights reserved
Page references in the Photo Acknowledgements and
Index match the printed edition of this book.
Printed and bound in China by C&C Offset Printing Co., Ltd
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Offal : a global history. – (Edible)
1. Variety meats. 2. Cooking (Variety meats) – History.
In the beginning there was offal. Offal – organ or variety meat, entrails or viscera, innards and extremities – has been eaten since man first hunted down prey. It can be brazenly meaty or subtle and refined. Consumed all over the world, it exists both as staple food and sought-after delicacy. Even before we had fire to cook with, inner organs were easier to consume, cut straight from the newly killed animal, more palatable raw than muscle meat, yielding to the teeth and still warm with life. Lean, wild animals store valuable fats within their inner organs. The extra surge of energy these hidden parts provide fuelled the hunter, wholly reliant for survival on personal strength and stamina.
Aboriginal food cultures that have survived to this day provide some understanding of what and how early man ate, and provide evidence to support the idea that offal would have been a valued food that was eaten raw, held over an open fire or baked in mud in the embers. The advent of fire meant it was possible to combine the qualities of taste and texture of different cuts of meat, muscle and offal. Gradually, with the use of pelt receptacles and, later, clay pots, it became possible to boil and stew meat, infusing it with seasoning, herbs and spices. Arable farming brought a greater range of
cereals and vegetables to the pot. Raising livestock meant that dairy products could be used and meat could be bred. Domestic animals could be relatively sedentary, kept safe from predators, allowing their internal organs to grow large, fed with grain and cultivated grasses, depending on the culinary purpose they were to serve.
From tomb paintings we can gain some insight into what offal was eaten in ancient Egypt and how it was prepared. Food left for the mummified dead includes heart, which was believed to be a source of strength for the departed, and evidence of cooked kidneys has also been found.
The fact that liver is the most accepted form of offal today owes much to ancient Egyptians noticing that geese would feed themselves up before their long migrations. Those caught and eaten during such periods were found to have abnormally large livers, and so the practice of cramming birds was born.
Painted geese, ducks and cranes process around the walls of the tomb of Ti, a high-ranking official from the end of the Egyptian Fifth Dynasty (2498–2345
), now housed in the Louvre. The reliefs were taken from a chamber showing other types of food preparation, and significantly scribes are shown recording the servants’ methods, perhaps confirming the existence of early recipes. Small sausages of dough are being hand-rolled and arranged ceremonially in gilded vessels. The birds’ necks are then massaged to encourage them to swallow the food. Liquid, probably oil, is poured into their bills to help them swallow. The birds seem to be queueing up, stretching their wings in apparent anticipation. Offal husbandry is shown to be an elaborate skill, and liver a food fit for an important landowner, worthy as sustenance for the afterlife.
Sheep offal stewed in a huge casserole with lots of onions, a few herbs, olive oil and white wine and served with yogurt. In Greece and the rest of the Middle East more spices tend to be used than in this Cypriot dish.
Maydum geese, Egypt,
, from the tomb of Nefermaat and Itet. Further paintings show the geese being force-fed pellets of bread, dates and oil to enrich and enlarge their livers.
There is written evidence of offal consumption from the times of classical antiquity. Accounts from the chronicler
300) and the physician Galen (
129–199) bring to life the beginnings of fine eating, with offal at its decadent centre. The Spartans’ severe warrior society relied on a rich pork broth, infused with blood before battle.
The pig was the most widely eaten and affordable animal, with the breasts and uteri of young sows considered a particular delicacy. Hippocrates (
) and Galen both refer to ox liver and there is evidence of a wide range of animal and fish innards and extremities being enjoyed, in the comedies of Aristophanes, for example, and in banqueting-scene illustrations on black- and red-figure vases.
While the ancient Greeks may have tended towards a frugal diet, and food preparation was so disregarded as to allow even women to cook, the influence of the Persian diet, rich in fruit, nuts, spices and offal, meant that the wealthy at least were open to more elaborate food. There is something about offal, in its relation to our own bodies, that appeals to those seeking luxury and excess.
Fattened goose liver is referred to by the Greek poet Archestratus (mid-fourth 4th century
) as ‘the soul of the goose’.
Birds that had been fattened were thought suitable political gifts between Athens and Sparta. The Roman statesman Cato describes the Roman process of force-feeding geese and ducks with balls of moistened cereal.
The birds were sometimes fed with pounded figs to tenderize them, and sometimes with honeyed wine, which was also given to sows to improve their livers. Pliny the Elder recommends soaking livers, once extracted, in milk and honey, to make them larger and sweeter.
This early foie gras was often served hot, according to the Roman poet Juvenal. The livers of red mullet, or surmullet, were also something of a craze, valued for their delicate flavour.
Greeks and Romans prepared black pudding from ox blood.
, a book of Roman recipes from the late fourth or early fifth century
, includes directions for making a pudding in which the blood is thickened with chopped boiled egg yolks, onions, leeks and pine kernels, though more everyday puddings would have used cereal; it is stuffed into intestines rather than stomach lining.
, a type of blood sausage, was sold on the streets of Rome. Boiled tripe was another typical dish. In the
Andromache’s laments for her son’s future after the death of Hector are voiced in terms of the offal he will no longer be offered to eat: ‘Once he fed on marrow only and the fat of lamb.’ This ‘fat of lamb’ refers to the fat-tailed sheep, which stores fat reserves in its rump or tail and is mentioned in Leviticus (3:1–11) as an offering. Nowadays around 25 per cent of all sheep are fat-tailed breeds, which are found mostly in arid regions of southeast Europe, North Africa and Asia.
In ancient Rome goose liver pâté was highly valued. This French
pâté de foie gras
is enriched with truffles and cranberries.
Lungs were eaten but kidneys were less popular. Brains were a delicacy, Aristotle referring to them as widely eaten and Galen recommending them for health,
but they could be contentious. Pythagoras and his followers avoided brain and heart because of a belief that the souls of the dead could migrate to other creatures, and that these were parts of particular significance to the individual.
However, the modest
appetites of the Pythagorians contrast with the more affluent reaches of ancient Greek society, and even more so with the excesses of Roman gastronomy.
Offal can be a monitor of class distinction. Larks, thrushes, nightingales and flamingos were hunted for Roman emperors for their tongues alone, an example of sumptuous consumption. Seneca remonstrates against the ‘monstrous sybaritic excesses of those who select only certain portions of an animal out of disgust for the rest’.
But this distaste betrays the strength of the Roman appetite for such foodstuffs.
mentions smoked pig’s liver sausages wrapped in caul and bay leaves, and brain forcemeat formed into little dumplings with lovage, oregano, pepper and eggs, bound together with stock. Fish sauce, or
, was made from mackerel intestines fermented over several months, and is similar to the
fish sauce of Southeast Asia.
used so widely that it tended to mask more subtle tastes, part of a wider vogue for concealing the true identity of what was being served. This might in turn be seen as a forerunner of much twentieth-century offal cuisine, in which elaborate sauces were intended to predominate and conceal what lay beneath as if protecting the sensibilities of the diner.
Stories purporting to describe the behaviour of Emperor Elagabalus, a figure of voluptuous extravagance, portray offal as a symbol of his intemperate appetites. An admirer
, he is said to have eaten ‘camel heels, cockscombs, the tongues of peacocks and nightingales, the brains of flamingos and thrushes . . . and the heads of parrots and pheasants, and the beards of mullets.’
The tongues may have been in part to protect him from plague, but the cockscombs both have rarity-appeal and add the frisson to be gained from slicing the combs from live birds at table. Elagabalus dallied with status by lavishing precious goose liver on his dogs, and for 30 days he is said to have treated his servants to the elevated dish of pregnant sow’s udder, a dish usually kept for high priests and emperors alone. He loved to throw unusual banquets, with slaves and palace servants enjoying prodigious amounts of the viscera of mullet, flamingos and thrushes, the heads of parrots and pheasants, and peacock brains.