Read Offal: A Global History Online
Authors: Nina Edwards
Offal Taste: Snood
, 2009. These apparently formal portraits are subverted by their offal clothing, here with a medieval snood made from plaited intestine.
Offal Taste: Tongue
, 2009. The rawness of a beef tongue mohican plays with the idea of what should be inside being outside.
Norman Douglas’s book of aphrodisiac food,
Venus in the Kitchen
(1952), offers a variety of offal dishes, though he
does not elaborate exactly how fried cow’s brains with herbs and spices, lamb’s ears with sorrel or macaroni with finely chopped kidneys are erotic in tone or physical effect. There is about the recipes a hesitancy between self-conscious naughtiness and snobbery. Douglas quotes Aristotle as recommending sparrow’s brains,
propter nimium coitum, vix tertium annum elabuntur
(on account of too much sex, they scarcely survive three years), and gives a recipe for lamb’s testicles with cinnamon, cloves and saffron from Bartolomeo Scappi, personal cook to Pope Pius
. There is implicit ribaldry concerning sexual parts, such as with ‘Pie of Bull’s Testicles’, again from Scappi, and he mentions
, a dish of sow’s parts from
praised by Horace, Pliny and Martial.
Killing a pig, particularly when it has been reared as part of the family in rural communities, can be distressing. In Thomas Hardy’s
Jude the Obscure
(1895), Jude is forced to make the kill himself when a professional pigsticker fails to turn up, goaded by his more callous wife, Arabella. Just as Julie Powell’s learning to butcher clarifies her feelings, so this slaughter exposes the incompatibilities in Jude and Arabella’s relationship, and Jude is emasculated. Arabella insists that he try to kill the pig slowly, for ‘every good butcher keeps un bleeding long’, but Jude in his distress knocks over a jug of fresh blood which she had intended for ‘blackpot’, a type of black pudding, and she despises him for it. Jude judges himself a ‘tender-hearted fool’: ‘Jude felt dissatisfied with himself
as a man
at what he had done’ (my italics). Arabella is proud of being part of a rural tradition that wastes nothing, valuing every part of the pig. Yet she throws its penis, ‘the scrap of offal’, at Jude as a gross insult. The description of its ‘soft cold substance’ evokes an image of Jude as impotent.
Chicken’s feet have very much the appearance of old ladies’ hands.
Given its generally beleaguered position in the West, clubs have been formed to promote interest in offal. Many of these are male-only affairs. In New York a dining club for adventurous eaters delights in sampling bizarre, ‘fear factor’ foods. It calls itself The Gastronauts, as if its members boldly go where no man has gone before.
In England a Manchester-based group of friends gets together to promote and celebrate offal, ‘a much maligned food’; their aim is partly to shock, partly an opportunity to enjoy male solidarity. The language they use is deliberately raunchy, calling one meeting ‘Nads and Glands’, serving lamb’s testicles with citrus, muscovado sugar and paprika as Mexi-cojones, joking that they could not
get any cock’s tails for a prawn cocktail. Even the pudding must contain gelatine, a thickening agent derived from boiled animal hides and bones.
The restaurant critic Giles Coren has noted the tendency of fashionable restaurants to use spare, unambiguous language on their menus of late, which he designates as com bining ‘brevity and the vernacular’ in a form of ‘pretentious unpretentiousness’.
Yet Cay Tre, a Vietnamese restaurant in London, was reluctant to name a dish of pig’s trotters ‘mock dog’, though dog is a popular choice in Vietnam; clearly the owner is aware of his customers’ limitations. Offal eating may be contentious, but pet eating is obscene. There is a certain appropriateness about a restaurant following, say, a long tradition
of Turkish grilled offal, displaying a clutch of large, raw lamb’s testicles in its window, but offal clubs are reintroducing something into their diet for reasons that go beyond cultural authenticity or questions of flavour alone.
Despite our cultural complexities, many would nonetheless still associate haggis with a masculine Scottish tradition. The food historian Alan Davidson suggests that haggis derives from Roman times. A pudding made from offal and oats within a sheep’s stomach or caul, haggis’s precise ingredients remain mysterious, but since it is known to contain sheep’s lungs, the
. Food Standards Agency has prohibited its import into America for the last 40 years, a decision reinforced by the fear of
that has been present since 1989. The origins of the word are Scandinavian, derived from the Old Norse
, or the Icelanic
, meaning to hew or strike with a sharp weapon.
It may also possibly stem from Old Hebrew
, meaning that which causes one to stagger. Some claim it was an easily transportable food for travelling cattle drovers, others that it was the reward to workmen-slaughterers after the laird had taken the prime cuts.
An air of comedy attaches itself to haggis. There are claims that it comes from a rare beast with a pair of short legs along one side and long on the other, ideal for tearing round Scottish mountains. A Monty Python poem relates the sad tale of a boy who ate himself: ‘His liver and his lights and lung,/His ears, his neck, his chin, his tongue . . .’.
Outrage broke out in the press recently when the historian Catherine Brown dared to suggest that the Scottish national dish had been enjoyed in England 200 years before.
Whether a recipe in
The English Hus-wife
of 1615 proves that haggis is English in origin, or merely shows that the English were keen to adopt tasty dishes from their neighbours, it is revealing that such a notion was seen as undermining Scottish
sovereignty. Alexander McCall Smith defended his birthright in the
New York Times in
mock-macho horror, recommending that visitors to his country try some haggis and wash it down with a thimble of whisky ‘to neutralize the taste’.
Robert Burns’s famous ‘Address to a Haggis’ (1786) has Scotland as female and haggis as brave male warrior:
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer,
Gie her a Haggis!
I have implied that offal is an expression of rugged masculinity, yet some of the greatest chefs, while happily incorporating offal into their menus, have disguised and thus made light of its potential effect. Carême would disguise one dish as another, delighting in intricate and ostentatious presentation a world apart from a desire to show offal as straight from a beast’s insides or extremities. The experience of the French Revolution may have encouraged him to develop elegant techniques to distance himself from what might have reminded him of its barbarities, but its effect was both to camouflage and feminize, gaining for offal a hybrid status and access to the tables of those in power.
A character in Petronius’s
prepares a feast that is entirely made from every part of the pig, but dressed up as other foods. Perhaps the idea of hiding offal in prepared food is not always a matter of shame: the disguise itself may be pleasing to us, one thing presented as another, like a moment of food theatre. We may think we want to know what we are eating, macho guts and all, but in practice we often do not.
The Runner in the Slaughterhouse
, 2007, oil on canvas.
Elina eating a sheep’s eye, Cyprus, 2012. The head is the most pungent in both smell and taste and considered the greatest delicacy. Children are often given the brains as the easiest parts to eat.
The chef Heston Blumenthal enjoys such illusions and in his
(2010) he chose a fairy-tale theme to make a pig’s head out of pig offal. Cock’s testicles were coated and coloured to present them as magic Jack and the Beanstalk beans, which his diners could then find charming rather than alarming. Blumenthal undercuts any expectation of real offal by presenting it as a fictional huntsman’s kill from the story of Snow White, each part becoming ‘sexy’, though one might argue that a testicle unadulterated is quite sexy enough. Presenting real as pretend offal in a fanciful feminized setting is a means of allowing the different pork body parts to be tasted without prejudice, in all their variety.
However, one actual pig part that was not included was the eyeball. Seen as a succulent delicacy in many cultures from Sudan to Iceland, Blumenthal was forced to admit that he simply could not bring himself to eat one, and made a substitute instead. We see him try to eat an eyeball, but he finds it impossible, seemingly amazed to have found something he is not able to sample without prejudice, appalled at himself for such a ‘knee jerk reaction I couldn’t control’. The apparently macho chef allows us to see him caught out for once in a very modern distaste.
If you purchase a chicken, you may still come across a small package inside that contains the liver, heart, kidneys and neck, all swimming in a pool of blood. These are for making gravy or stock but also confirm a bird’s former life. They have the look of a talisman, a bag of tricks for telling fortunes, a magical scapular of uncertain significance.
Since the Old English root of ‘to bless’ comes from
, meaning to sprinkle with sacrificial blood, one might claim that offal is the most blessed of meats, and so blessed are the offal eaters. But what is blessed can seem cursed. We are carnivores in part, asserting our supremacy over the animal world, but this fact also confirms our animal selves. When an animal was sacrificed to the gods in ancient Greece, the entrails, and particularly the liver, would be excised immediately after slaughter and examined to judge whether it was acceptable to the gods. While the muscle meat would be cooked and shared out, the offal would be retained by the priests and cook-sacrificer. In Roman culture the internal organs, or
, of a sacrifice might foretell the future.
It is no wonder that superstitious beliefs have grown up around offal, so associated is it with our thoughts and feelings. In Harar, in eastern Ethiopia, one can still see an ancient
open-air ritual in which men wrap offal around sticks, which are then held in their mouths for wild hyenas to snatch. Since hyenas have one of the strongest bites of all animals, the hyena-men earn money through this display of risk and primordial chutzpah. In Liberia a traditional belief holds that strength may be gained from eating the heart of a child; the former rebel leader Milton Blahyi admitted to taking part in such ritual practice during the civil war of 1979–93.
The medieval English punishment for a man who committed high treason was to be hanged, drawn and quartered. This involved castrating and disembowelling the subject while they were still conscious, forcing them to observe their organs being burnt before their eyes. Such executions were practised in other European countries with some variations: the viscera were sometimes placed in the victim’s mouth, as if he were consuming his own substance. This finds a nightmarish parallel in an account of the Srebrenića massacre of 1995; the International Criminal Tribunal Judge Fouad Riad reported that a man had been ‘skewered to a tree and made to eat the innards of his grandson’.
There is something about the internal organs, and particularly the heart and blood, that seems to represent the individual. In the Roman Catholic Church transubstantiation is believed to convert the bread and wine used in the sacrament of the Eucharist into the body and blood of Christ, so that the priest and communicants believe they are consuming actual flesh and blood. Miracles are sometimes attributed to saints’ bodily parts, the most powerful relics being from saints that had come into direct bodily contact with Christ.
Catholics, Anglo-Catholics and Lutherans honour the idea of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which is typically represented by an image of the Christ-child or adult Jesus with a flaming heart pierced by a lance, as at the Crucifixion. A cult grew up around this notion in the sixteenth century, and the Sacred Heart image is still common on medals and scapulars, stuck to a small square of blood-red flannel.
Apparition of the Sacred Heart window
, designed 1918, clear, coloured and flashed glass. The exposed and bleeding heart represents the idea of Christ’s love and mercy, and also his martyrdom.
Blood, or the idea of blood, can be imbued with magical powers. In Judaism, following Old Testament law, blood should be drained from animal and bird meat, while the Philippine
Iglesia ni Cristo
prohibits the eating of
because this popular stew is made with pork blood: ‘For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life’ (Leviticus 17:11). Thus blood and the wounded heart of God made man stands for human culpability. In the Old Testament the destruction of offal can extinguish sin: ‘the fat, and the kidneys, and the caul above the liver of the sin offering, he burnt upon the altar; as the Lord commanded Moses’ (Leviticus 9:10).
In some branches of Judaism it is permitted and even encouraged to donate organs to save another’s life. Jehovah’s Witnesses, on the other hand, will only allow organ and tissue transplants if all the blood has first been removed, since they do not permit blood transfusions. Their position brings to mind Shylock’s dilemma in
The Merchant of Venice
when, about to cut away Antonio’s flesh according to their contract, he is warned by Portia: ‘This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood; The words expressly are a pound of flesh’ (
). Since blood is an integral part of flesh, arguably Shylock does not receive justice, flesh being of its nature bloody.
Japanese Shintoism considers the body, once dead, to be unclean, so it can be problematic to harvest organs. This is also thought to injure the connection between a dead person and those they leave behind, termed the
. Romany gypsies also resist organ donation, believing that the body should remain whole so that the soul may retrace its steps a year after death.
One story that occurs in many versions in European and Far Eastern folklore is ‘The Legend of the Eaten Heart’, in which an unfaithful wife is usually served the heart of her lover by a vengeful husband. In one of the stories of
, Tancredi kills his daughter’s lover Guiscardo and sends her the heart in a golden cup. She adds poison to it, drinks it and dies, clutching his heart to her own. In another tale Guillaume de Roussillon murders his wife’s lover and gives her the heart to eat, disguised in a dish of boar. When Roussillon reveals his deception, she throws herself from a high tower. These stories establish the heart as the seat of the emotions, and of love in particular. The murderers attempt to dishonour their victims, but their actions effectively unite the lovers in both a physical and spiritual sense.
This theme of unwitting and enforced cannibalism is popular in horror films as well as sadomasochistic and thriller literature. Real-life serial killers, too, have been known to store and eat the offal of their victims. The American Ed Gein, arrested in 1957 on suspicion of multiple murders, kept organs in his fridge and many other macabre keepsakes about the house, such as chair seats fashioned from human skin and a shoe box containing nine vulvas. He is said to have inspired the Jame Gumb (‘Buffalo Bill’) serial killer in Thomas Harris’s
The Silence of the Lambs
(1988), with his bodysuit made of human skin. The elegant cannibalistic tendencies of the character Hannibal Lecter are perhaps better remembered; he describes himself as ‘having an old friend for lunch’ meaning enjoying eating human liver ‘with some fava beans and a nice Chianti’. Armin Meiwes, known as Der Metzgermeister (the Master Butcher), was tried in 2003 for the murder of one Bernd Jürgen Brandes, whom he had cannibalized. His defence was that Brandes had been a willing accomplice and that they had together attempted
to eat the latter’s penis. It had proved too tough when raw, and Meiwes had subsequently sautéed it in wine and garlic. The case inspired a host of films and songs, such as the Marilyn Manson album
Eat Me, Drink Me
There are many mythological beliefs concerning offal. Claude Lévi-Strauss examines the myths of the Bororo Indians of central Brazil and their beliefs about the origins of the distant Pleiades stars.
A murdered man’s ghost demands to be properly buried and have his entrails scattered, and these floating viscera become the stars. Guianian myth juxtaposes two stories, so that when the murdered man’s entrails become the stars, the river teems with fish. An Arecuna myth links the aquatic and celestial with the tale of an old woman who is discovered to have been secretly feeding her son-in-law with fish from her own uterus. Stones that slice and kill the woman fall into the river and are transformed into flesh-eating piranhas. Her liver floats to the surface and becomes
, an aquatic plant, whose seeds are said to be the woman’s heart. The North American Zuni believe that stars spring from the lungs of a dismembered ogre, whereas Navajo mythology holds that aquatic animals are born from the submerged entrails of a huge bear.
Cannibal practices can be a practical business when human flesh is the only available source of nourishment in times of war or famine. Eating the organs of a vanquished enemy might also be seen as a way of gaining spiritual as well as physical ascendancy.
James Bradley’s non-fiction book
(2003) details an incident of captured American airmen being harvested for food on Chichi-jima island, Japan, during the Second World War. What is of interest here is the culinary attention given to human offal. The Japanese soldiers were intensely curious about the removal of body parts, suggesting an aspect of ritual
towards the enemy, and perhaps a degree of objectivity. Choice offal parts were kept for senior officers:
That night Major Matoba and a number of other army officers brought a delicacy to Admiral Kinzio Mori’s headquarters. Matoba had had Floyd (Hall)’s liver prepared specially for the party. ‘I had it pierced with bamboo sticks and cooked with soya sauce and vegetables,’ Matoba said. ‘The meat was cut in very small pieces and pierced together by bamboo shoots.’
As is often the case in Japanese cuisine, there is an emphasis on the health-giving properties of the food:
‘The officers remarked how liver was good for the stomach’ . . . Matoba remembered: ‘Admiral Mori mentioned that during the Chinese-Japanese war human liver was eaten as a medicine by the Japanese troops. All the other officers agreed that liver was good medicine for the stomach.’
Vikramaditya Cooked for Kali, c
. 1800, pigment on paper. The goddess Kali and her entourage of ghosts have tied up the folklore hero and are about to boil him alive.
The bloodsucking vampire figure appears in many cultures’ occult beliefs across the globe, including Eastern Europe, African voodoo and Asian folklore. The Betsileo people of Madagascar are said to hanker not only for the blood but for the nail clippings of the nobility. Ancient beliefs about vampires are also rife in South America.
Vampire figures have gradually become less alarming and more conventionally appealing, and their bloodsucking seems more seductive than threatening. For evidence of this one only has to compare the diseased, seething Count Orlok played by Max Schreck in the F. W. Murnau film
(1922) with recent posters depicting the characters of the
series of films: serious, but young, clean-cut and uniformly attractive, with only a hint of elongated incisor.
In China snake-blood wine is a traditional stimulant, brewed from the living heart of a freshly butchered snake. This idea that a still-living organ has greater potency for the consumer is borne out by stories of rich foreigners who seek out live monkey brains to renew their potency. The monkey is reputedly trapped beneath a table with its head held in a central hole, the better to spoon out its brains. Hunters of the Masai tribe of East Africa traditionally sustained themselves on long treks by drinking milk mixed with freshly tapped blood from their cattle, just as ancient Egyptians, in times of drought, gained essential extra protein in a similiar manner.
Nowadays the Masai drink fresh blood only at ritual events, though it is still given as a nourishing drink to the ill and infirm.