Read Offal: A Global History Online
Authors: Nina Edwards
In Inuit culture seal blood is thought to strengthen human blood. After slaughter hunters divide and eat the seal liver,
then drink the blood in a shared cup, taking pieces of brain and fat together with the muscle meat. Finally the women and children are allowed to join in the feast. This shared ritual is intended to show respect for the kill, and is comparable to Catholic transubstantiation beliefs in that the Inuit believe that thereby they incorporate the body and soul of the seal into themselves. In similar vein the Ohlone tribe, of what is presently the California Bay area, undertook a solemn ritual after the killing of a deer. After ‘a prayer and gesture of thanks to the deer’ the carcass was taken back to the village:
The stomach is removed, stuffed with certain entrails and choice pieces of meat from around the kidneys, and presented to the men who accompanied the hunter. The liver is set aside for an old woman who has fed him mush and seed cakes since he was a child.
Human sacrifice among the Aztecs was complex in its refined symbolism and bloody practice. Either slaves or captured enemies might be sacrificed, and it has been argued that it was considered an honour to meet death in such a way. On the night of the O’ Nothing Days, a captive would be stretched out across a high altar as the evening star reached its zenith. The priest would set light to the heart, excise it and hold the organ aloft in honour of the sun god. After sacrifice, vessels of blood would be carried through the streets and the flayed pelts of the victims were worn by the exuberant warrior, even as they began to tighten and rot. Banquets held after such ceremonies served up the sacrificed flesh, heart and internal organs with contrasting decorum and culinary grace.
Bodily organs are also sometimes held to affect both character and disposition. In European culture the bodily
humours were thought to be affected by diet. Eating brains or heart, for example, was thought to produce melancholy. The role of the inner organs in human personality and health were also important in the school of
Unani or Unani-tibbi
, a system of medicine that continues to be of significance in the Islamic world, particularly in the Middle East and Central Asia.
This in turn was derived from Greek and Arabic learning, in particular from Galen, physician to Marcus Aurelius in the second century.
The critic Ambrose Bierce wrote of these shifting associations in his satirical
The Devil’s Dictionary
. A large organ thoughtfully provided to be bilious with. The sentiments and emotions which every literary anatomist now knows to haunt the heart were believed to haunt the liver . . . It was one time considered the seat of life; hence its name – liver, the thing we live with . . .
He goes on to extol the virtues of Strasbourg pâté.
Divining the future, or the will of the gods, from animal entrails (extispicy) was practised in many ancient cultures. Geology has been described as the art of divining the future by splitting open the earth and examining its innards; extispicy might have seemed just such a reliable practice in ancient Greece. Seneca’s version of
has the blind prophet Tiresias sacrifice a bull and heifer to discover the murderer of the late king; he finds their entrails to be rotten.
In sacrifices made by Greeks and Romans before battle, a blood-red liver promised victory; if it were pale, it augured defeat. Thus when Macbeth calls his servant ‘thou lily-livered boy’ (
, 3), he is implying that the sickly, pale servant seems to Macbeth to prophesy defeat.
|‘Aztec Human Sacrifice’, from the 16th-century Spanish|
World Cup in 2010, ancient
magic was the reason for the illegal harvesting of rare South African Cape vultures.
Traditionally, smoking the birds’ brains was thought to reveal the future, and gamblers who had bet on the results of the football matches felt this practice was worth spending the birds’ black market value. In Europe of late there have been various reports of ritual killings that involve the removal of bodily organs, linked to Yoruba medicine of Nigerian derivation. Such
practices can involve the removal of ears, heart and genitals, considered to be parts of special potency.
Television crime dramas, films and suspense novels provide accounts of murder investigations in which the intimate conditions of a corpse’s organs reveal the cause of death. Although we may feel reassured by such apparent certainties, the aura that surrounds the postmortem and the gravitas of the pathologist or
investigator has come to assume much of the mystery and charisma of divination. The world-weary doctor holds aloft a slippery organ for the reverential detective to see. She uncovers the secrets of the human body: trauma, overdose, poison, strangulation, disease.
I leave it to Norman Lewis who, in describing the butchers’ shops of war-torn Naples of the 1940s, captures the respect we may come to feel for offal:
Their displays of scraps of offal are set out with art, and handled with reverence . . . chickens’ heads . . . a little grey pile of chickens’ intestines in a brightly polished saucer . . . a gizzard . . . calves’ trotters . . . a large piece of windpipe . . . Little queues wait to be served with these delicacies.
There are age-old reasons for respecting offal. The connection between food and health was developed in the second-century writings of Galen, who derived it from earlier practices. His work is based on scientific observation and experimentation, and in his theory of the balance of bodily humours. He condemns brains as phlegmatic and unwholesome, ‘being both slow to pass, difficult to digest and bad, too, not least for the stomach’; but when they induce nausea, with admirable pragmatism he recommends them to be served at the end of a meal in oil, when an emetic might be required.
Eating spleen is too astringent, producing melancholy, while the lungs are at least easier to digest. Kidneys he particularly mistrusts, because they are wholly indigestible; belly, womb and intestines need time to digest properly. He finds liver to be the most nutritious of offal dietary aids.
Most offal is high in vitamins and minerals, and kidneys are particularly rich in zinc and iron. The heart contains taurine, which in turn is good for the heart. Tripe contains probiotics and phytonutrients, which are said to be highly nutritious. Tripe and kidneys are particularly low in calories and fat, so are suitable for the weight-conscious, though in this respect sweetbreads need to be avoided. Liver is packed with complete proteins and with iron, needed for haemoglobin, which transports oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. It also helps in the healing process and increases our resistance to infection. Yet, true to its contrary nature, offal can also be high in cholesterol, which in excess will fur up our arteries and has turned our svelte French cousins quite off this dish of kings. The effects of foie gras on the greedy gourmet are about as healthy as the forced diet of the goose.
Time Banishes Melancholy
1530, painted glass roundel. Since the time of the physician Galen, the humours, located in and about the inner organs, were thought to govern the human body. Saturn is shown here as a pig in monk’s robes.
In traditional Chinese and much Eastern medicine offal is seen – as in ancient Greek and Roman notions – as food
that promotes and also sometimes challenges health and wellbeing. Right now there are many alternative pharmacies in the West that diagnose and prescribe not just for ethnic minorities, but increasingly for the community at large. Chinese medicine is based on a Taoist belief system wherein the perceived character of an animal is thought to imbue its body parts: snake blood, for example, is held to provide energy and cunning, and pig’s feet in sweet vinegar are said to strengthen women following childbirth. Folklore more simply associates the consumption of a particular body part with the corresponding human organ: eye for an eye, womb for a womb, and so on. Hu Sihui, the fourteenth-century Chinese dietitian, advises taking boiled sheep’s heart to treat heart complaints.
Such a theory of correspondences can also be found in the traditional Jewish diet, though the latter does not extend to the heart, brain and liver.
There is often a quasi-religious aspect to fictional autopsies. Here Amanda Burton playing Dr Sam Ryan in the
, directed by Noella Smith in 1996, reverentially examines the brain of a murder victim.
The renowned sixteenth-century gourmet physician Li Shizhen was influenced by Galen’s approach in his comprehensive
materia medica, Bencao Gangmu
Chinese traditional medicine is essentially non-intrusive, solving health problems with gentle remedies where possible. It often involves the consumption of plants and herbs, and sometimes organ meats, as part of a prescribed dietary change. Sometimes these are in dried form, in potions or pills. Shizhen draws on concepts of the five flavours, each of which is associated with an organ of the body; the seventh-century notion of sapor, or
, the sensation of taste; and the
or ‘temperature’ of a food, which is said to be something more than flavour. In this context
is hot, the
cold. Sometimes certain food combinations need to be avoided: one should on no account eat quail meat with pig’s liver, for example, for fear of getting blackheads. A stock made from rooster and asparagus, combined with the heart, lungs and liver of a black male dog, should be taken to facilitate intercourse. Shizen also investigates the effects of consuming meat from animals that have been treated poorly, and whether wild and domesticated meats have different pharmaceutical properties.
Although some handed-down simple remedies survive in the West – such as the adage warning against eating offal if suffering from depression – there is not the same holistic approach to health when treating a malady as there is in Chinese medicine. There are, of course examples of dishes that promote good health, as in a recipe for ox marrow in Gervase Markham’s
The English Hus-wife
(1915), which is described as ‘both good in taste and excellent sovereign for any disease, ache or flux in the veins whatsoever’.
It is possible that a tendency to see illness as something that requires the attention of a surgeon’s knife has contributed to difficulties with the idea of offal. One might view
the modern history of Western surgery as a craft that gradually gained ground against a more holistic approach, from the barber-surgeons of the battlefield to their elevated status today. Nonetheless, today Westerners seem increasingly open to new health strategies that have their roots in ancient folk remedies: the practice of placentophagia has enjoyed a recent comeback, associated with New Age beliefs. The consumption of the placenta is said to reduce postnatal depression while also providing nutrition for the new mother. Dr Blott of the Royal Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in Britain comments that mothers are already sufficiently well-nourished in the West.
Some Pacific cultures bury the placenta with a sapling so that child and tree will grow up together. Indeed, the Maori word for belonging to a place is the same as that for the placenta,
. In Korea medicine derived from placenta is a popular aid to improving the complexion; hospitals are keen to buy placentas for use in skin treatments.
Offal is often associated with germs, and there is some truth in this. The International Commission on Microbial Specifications for Foods states that ‘offals often have a higher initial contamination, and are more likely to be contaminated with potential pathogens than carcass meat’.
Metals consumed in food tend to accumulate in animals’ livers and kidneys, which mean they contain higher levels of these contaminants than other meat. Fish offal can contain cadmium and dioxins from sea and river pollution, stored in body fat and liver. The fact that offal dishes are sometimes eaten raw can also heighten the possibility of germs and parasites being passed on to the consumer. The digestive tract, for example, can harbour microorganisms such as salmonella, clostridia and E. coli. In recent years fear of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (
) or mad cow disease, and its association
with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, has kept beef brains out of most Western butchers’ shops. Although the risks are marginal, the fear set off a strong reaction which, according to the National Federation of Meat Traders, was ‘mainly due to a lack of understanding “as to what was safe and what was not” and this has never been adequately explained or understood’.
The livers of most polar animals, such as polar bears, are extremely high in vitamin A. Though beneficial to the animal, this can cause life-threatening hypervitaminosis A in humans. From as early as 1596, explorers returned to Europe with tales of suffering a devastating illness, with symptoms including skin and hair loss, after eating polar bear liver. In 1912 Xavier Mertz died on an Australasian Antarctic expedition after being forced to eat husky liver in order to survive.
There is evidence that Inuit metabolisms have gradually become acclimatized to high levels of vitamin A.
However, some people do not feel the need to avoid dangerous foods. The Japanese delight in dodging the potential poison
fish liver. This contains tetrodotoxin, which may induce paralysis and in some cases heart failure or suffocation. In the sixteenth century the warlord responsible for unifying Japan, Hideyoshi, banned
when some of his warriors died from consuming the delicacy.
However, despite further attempts to effect a ban,
has contimued to be prized, even after the death in 1975 of the eminent kabuki actor Bandō Mitsugorō
. Only a limited number of highly trained chefs are licensed to prepare
, the flavour of which is said to be finer than that of the best foie gras. This prohibition has increased the longing for this dish. Recently non-toxic
has been successfully developed, but this has upset aesthetes and those with vested interests alike: ‘When it wasn’t known where fugu’s poison came from, the
mystery made for better conversation . . . in effect, we took the romance out of fugu.’
To risk death is part of the pleasure. In some regions it is nicknamed
, or gun – of the smoking variety, no doubt.
The atmosphere of danger and romance that surrounds
might well be a way of turning the tide of Western attitudes to offal in general. While it is currently only in vogue among gourmets and chefs, it is possible that their enthusiasm will gradually filter through to the majority, as is the way with many a fashion.