“Excuse me ma’am, are you enjoying your brains?”
Where would you hear such a question asked? In a horror movie? In a book on the zombie apocalypse? In science fiction television from the ’50’s? In a satirical Broadway play from the ‘20’s? Probably all of those apply but it’s something you might also hear uttered in my restaurant.
You see, I am a lover of offal. What is offal? It’s everything left over. When you butcher, there are parts that most people do not consume. Most people who make up the vast majority of American society that is. Those leftover parts are generally relegated to the trash when slaughter time comes. What exactly makes up offal? Let me run through the list with you. Are you weak of stomach? Then avert thine eyes, it’s about to get messy. Brains, kidneys, liver, stomach linings, glands, hooves, heels, feet, fins, lips, eyes, tails, ears, and snouts. That’s offal. And why is it relegated to the trash? Because somewhere along the way we forgot how to cook it. We decided it’s far tidier to lay a steak on the grill or put a patty on the flat top and simply be done with it. But what of the parts left behind? Don’t they deserve their own reverence too? Certainly it takes no convincing for most that a ribeye steak is a marbled and meaty thing of beauty. But convince the same diner enjoying it that sweetbreads are the best accompaniment and you’re sure to get a frown or at the very least a shake of the head and a shudder.
It’s these other bits that have tremendous flavor though. The flavor of the animal.
I started this blog piece talking about brains. Nowadays they border on impossible to get your hands on. After the Mad Cow Disease outbreak that became widely televised and wildly over exaggerated, brains were suddenly medulla oblongata non grata, or not welcomed, for the lay person. The only ones you can get your hands on are provided by small independent butchers who have USDA inspectors come through to check, not only their processing facility, but the individual butchered animal itself. This is great for me because that’s who I use anyway. So when I ask my butcher to save the brains, his USDA inspector looks at the solid mound of gray matter awaiting its place in the freezer and, most likely shaking his head, puts a little blue stamp on it that says it passes muster and can be consumed. Then I get it and I cook it! I learned from Tela, whom all of my readers may recall from a previous blog, that the best way to eat brains is with scrambled eggs and sour cream. You scramble the brains up with the eggs and the consistency of the two become indiscernible from each other. When you bite into it, only then do you taste the meaty richness that is the gray matter and the creamy fluffiness that is the egg. You top it off with sour cream because it just smoothes everything out. And you eat it with toast, because that’s just the right thing to do.
Now I’m sure many of you find that appalling. Well you’re not required to eat my brains so no worries there. But for those of you who enjoy such delicacies, know that I have a great many planned for the upcoming months. While brains is on that list, it’s a little further down the road. It takes quite a few calves to gather enough brains for a menu addition.
What of the other bits. I’ll relay one of my favorite stories of a friend who I hold in very high regard and have the utmost respect for. When I was still in high school, one of our neighbors asked if I’d go to a cooking class with her at the Billings Depot. I was still in school at the time but I was also working at the Trading Post as well and I wanted to know anything and everything that I could learn about food. Renee, our neighbor friend, said that Mike Callaghan would be teaching the class and at that age, I had only heard whispered stories of one of the titans who started good food in Billings. I jumped at the chance to attend.
Renee said that the class had no title, it had just been billed as an interesting evening with Chef Callaghan. I was told there would be about twenty other attendees. When we arrived it was all women, most of them followers of Chef Callaghan and his classes from a fair amount of time before, and we gathered with the throngs and sat down to watch as Mike entered the stage.
He said his hellos and chatted for a minute before revealing that the menu for the night would be offal. The women chuckled and he grinned and said, “Allow me to explain. Offal is the nasty bits.” And then he gave what his menu would be for the night, liver pate and a steak and kidney pie.
There was nearly a riot. I had never seen so many jaws dropped and green faces in my life. But here was the beauty part. Nobody revolted, nobody left, and everyone paid rapt attention as Chef Callaghan prepared his dishes for the evening. The addition of wines, vinegars, herbs, and spices and suddenly the room was full of watering mouths and anticipatory faces. A vast change from the moment before the fat hit the pan. When dinner was served everyone got to enjoy something they’d never considered consuming before. And they learned it from someone who did it for a living.
So maybe using the nasty bits wasn’t such a bad idea. I can tell you, with full conviction, that after consuming steak and kidney pie, there is nothing you can do to a kidney to stop them from tasting of piss. That said, just because it’s not my taste doesn’t mean I feel others shouldn’t eat it. Quite the contrary. If you like it I better learn to cook it so that if you ever want to see it on my menu you I’m doing it the justice it deserves.
What of all the other pieces?
My sister has consumed raw buffalo liver, pulled still steaming from the carcass on the open prairie where it was killed with reverence and thanks.
And Rocky Mountain Oysters? I’ve been to brandings where they were pulled freshly from the donor and dropped onto the scalding branding pot, eaten moments later once they were seared to perfection on the outside.
How about heart? I personally have eaten elk heart tartare with a hen’s egg yolk because as you know from my very first blog, there is nothing that cannot be improved with the addition of an egg.
Tripe? Dear Tela ate it with beans and bell peppers.
Pigs feet? Grandpa ate them with mustard and white bread.
Eyeball? Plucked from a sheep and destined for the stew pot I watched a family fight for it because it was the “best part”.
Chicken feet? The hutterite colony where I grew up regularly ate them in the late autumn when the pads were softer.
You see, if you are resourceful, and you believe that everything can be good if it’s done right, there is no part of the animal that isn’t delicious in its own way. And that’s what has always made me a believer that all those end pieces are really some of the best pieces. And if you are a non-believer, just remember that there are people out there who think the consumption of fish, ground meat, Brussel sprouts, broccoli, and even yams is absolutely appalling. To each their own. As for me…pass the salt, my brains are getting cold.