No Guts, No Glory

Twenty-six-year-old David Flaugher dices potatoes as he waits for his dinner to cook. Sautéing in a cast iron skillet are slices of beef liver that Flaugher purchased this morning at a local farmer’s market. As the livers cook, the air smells increasingly musty and metallic. “The liver is the best part. It has a bloody flavor, but not a bad bloody flavor, just maybe one you wouldn’t be used to” he said.

Something that many people do not realize is that animals are not made of steaks. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, cuts of meat sold wrapped in cellophane at grocery stores only make up an average of 56% of a cow’s weight. The rest is called offal, defined as parts that can be used as food, but which are not skeletal muscle. The term literally means “off fall,” or the pieces which fall from a carcass when it is butchered. With a name homophonous to “awful” and a definition that includes the words “entrails” and “organs” it’s not surprising that the concept of eating offal makes many enthusiastic carnivores recoil in disgust. However, Megan Perry, policy researcher for the Sustainable Food Trust in the United Kingdom says “eating offal is getting almost fashionable in the sustainability world.”

Flaugher is one of a small, but increasing number of young people who choose to consume a diet that includes offal. He grew up eating this way, but got more into the habit once he moved to a farm with his family when he was 13-years- old and began raising sheep and butchering pigs. “We tried to eat everything because we put a lot of time and effort into raising the animal and you wouldn’t want to just throw that out.”

A similar sentiment is repeated by Brandon Johns, owner and chef at Grange in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Every bit of skin, every bit of bone, every bit of everything- you have to make money on it”. Restaurants like Grange, who focus on local, sustainable food, spend money on whole animals from small organic farms, and when you’re spending a premium price for your meat, you have to get the most out of it. Johns says eating offal is making a comeback in some American restaurants. As American restaurant goers become more conscious about where their food comes from, more restaurants are doing what Grange does- buying whole animals and butchering it themselves instead of ordering pre-cut steaks from large distributors.

According to Megan Perry, buying the whole animal is the most sustainable option when it comes to buying meat. “There is a bit of a problem with there being too many animals in an especially intensive system. Obviously if you eat more of each animal, then you can reduce the overall number of livestock needed, which reduces the overall environmental impact of producing them” she said.

Flaugher says he chooses to buy offal not because of sustainability, but because it is both a nutrient dense and economical dish. Buying organic is something Flaugher tries to do as often as possible, and organic kidney is much cheaper than organic steaks.

Experts echo the health benefits of offal that Flaughter speaks of. “Organ meat is very nutrient dense compared to regular cuts of meat or meat substitutes. It’s higher in iron, zinc, and B12” says University of Michigan Health Services registered dietitian Julie Stocks. However, it is also important to choose one’s offal wisely. At the Sustainable Food Trust, they advocate for buying only grass-fed, organic livestock. “Especially the offal – say liver or kidneys- if they have been fed antibiotics or chemicals, then they might not be very good for people to eat because that is where all of those toxins would accumulate,” says Perry. In addition, it is important to not overdo it. Director of the University of Michigan’s Program in Human Nutrition Susan Aaronson says to be cautious of the fact that offal is often high in cholesterol. “When preparing correctly and incorporating them in an otherwise healthy diet, offal can be included without harm, unless you have heart disease where you might want to be cautious of your cholesterol ingestion.”

At Grange, choosing to buy whole animals has paid off. Now, customers come into Grange with the idea that they will encounter something unusual. One of the restaurant’s signature dishes is fried pig’s head, made by boiling the whole head, removing the meat, and forming it into seasoned patties that resemble crab cakes. Last year, they put it on the menu expecting nobody to be interested. However, it sold out in just two hours. It’s been on the menu ever since. Hollis Wyatt, a young woman whose first experience with offal was the fried pig’s head at Grange said “I was expecting a severed head on a platter, but it was surprisingly normal- very tender and rich.”

Though eating offal may be catching on in some restaurants, Johns says this is not the case in the home kitchen, where most families chose to buy their meat conveniently cut up and plastic wrapped. “People aren’t used to it. They grow up totally disconnected from where meat comes from. Anybody can put salt on a steak and cook it, but you can’t really do that to a heart or feet. You have to have technique” said Johns.

There is a history of the adherence to consuming offal in Western societies, and to why many Americans don’t know the technique Brandon speaks of. According to Megan Perry, everybody ate offal until the end of the Second World War. However, after the war, people got wealthier, agriculture intensified, and importing meat became more common. Soon many of the smaller butchers disappeared and there wasn’t the same system as there had been. “People started buying the expensive cuts of meat, so nobody grew up eating the bits that we think of as not very nice. In reality, we just aren’t used to eating them anymore” said Perry.

However, according to Bob Sparrow, patterns are changing. “Recently, I have noticed an increase in the younger ones [customers]- ages 25-35 asking for things like hearts or kidneys.”

Those “younger ones” Sparrow speaks of are people like Wyatt and Flaugher, consumers who, along with chefs like Brandon Johns, are embracing the offal parts of an animal. Megan Perry thinks this decade is a new beginning for offal. “It went through a phase even until this century when it was seen as gross and what poorer people eat, but it’s changing.”

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The fried pig’s head at Grange in Ann Arbor, MI

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About Julia Paige

I am a senior at the university studying Cultural Anthropology, Sustainable Food Systems, and Writing. I love to bake, cook, ride my bike, and eat cookies.

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