The Offal Truth
How to overcome Americans' aversion to innards
An autumnal chill is in the air, but fluorescent cherry tomatoes, dusky eggplants and bell peppers in lipstick shades still crowd every cranny of the Burlington Farmers' Market. Veggies rule at the weekly open-air food fair, except at a handful of meat-slinging farmstands. At the one occupied by Fairfield's Stony Pond Farm, Tyler Webb is carefully topping a slab of focaccia with a juicy organic burger when a tough-looking man in a bulky leather jacket ambles over, his motorcycle helmet dangling from two fingers.
"Hey, man, do you have a heart today?" he asks, taking in the chalkboard that promises in cheerful, periwinkle-colored letters, "We have hearts and livers."
"I just sold the last one to her," Webb tells him, pointing to me. I'm gingerly holding a 2-pound, frozen beef heart packaged in cryovac.
"Too bad," the biker replies. "I was lookin' forward to it."
The biker dude is not Webb's typical customer. Few people actually request beef hearts, the farmer reports, and even fewer ask for kidneys or tongue. Which is somewhat surprising. Plenty of Vermonters care enough about the ethics of eating to create a market for locally raised and organic beef, pork, lamb and chicken. But they have yet to embrace those cuts that, although rich in nutrients, are routinely and unnecessarily wasted: the animal products euphemistically referred to as "variety meats."
It's easy to forget that for every "deluxe cut" such as prime rib and beef tenderloin, there is a certain amount of associated offal: liver, heart, tongue and kidney. In fact, according to the California Department of Agriculture website, a 1000-pound steer yields just 432 pounds of meat and 568 pounds of "byproducts." These include bone, hide, hair, glands, fat, inedible organs - and 27 pounds of edible organ meat.
What happens to all those parts of the animal that don't end up on the table? Huge factory-farm producers can dispose of inedible animal byproducts in a number of creative ways that might surprise people who studiously avoid meat: Waste from slaughterhouses goes into lipstick, crayons, chewing gum, tennis racquet strings, hydraulic fluid, felt, artists' brushes, film, cellophane tape and steel ball bearings. According to USDA regulations, edible byproducts can be added to treats such as breakfast sausage, bratwurst, hot dogs, bologna and pretty much any meat product with "loaf" in the name.
Beef offal used to go into animal feed, too, and rendering plants would pick up - and pay for - the materials discarded by slaughterhouses and large farms. Now, with that practice severely limited because of mad-cow disease, slaughterhouses have to pay $25 for every 25 pounds removed, according to Jim Kleptz of LaPlatte River Angus Farm in Shelburne. Given that each animal produces about 50 pounds of guts, it's cost-prohibitive.
John Wing, of The Meat Shop slaughterhouse in Benson, has noticed a trend: Farms that sell mainly to supermarkets don't ask for the organs, he finds, while those that sell to natural food stores often do. On-site USDA inspectors perform rigorous visual evaluations of the edible organs, and discard any that appear to be even slightly blemished, about 60 percent.
Not one to squander good food, Webb has developed a taste for organ meats. He enjoys liver "steak and cheese" sandwiches prepared with sautéed mushrooms, onions and bacon, and also likes heart when it's sliced thin and sautéed. Organ meats are "some of the most nutritionally dense . . . cuts available," he points out. And he believes that these vitamin- and mineral-rich items are even better for you when they come from organic, pasture-raised animals.
Whatever Webb doesn't sell or eat, he composts, so nothing gets wasted. In essence, composting animal byproducts is like composting other kinds of matter. The animal products are sometimes mixed with vegetable compost or with manure, and the resulting mixture is aerated a nd cured. Once the process is complete, which can take up to eight months depending on the method, the compost can be spread onto fields. The American Milking Devon, the cattle breed Webb raises at Stony Pond, uses nutrients very efficiently and thus produces poor manure. Composting those portions of the animal that aren't eaten lets Webb fertilize his fields with a rich product from his own farm, creating a sustainable farming cycle.
Composting is also important at LaPlatte River Angus Farm in Shelburne, where Kleptz and his sons run an all-natural operation. The resulting Black Angus beef is a favorite at local restaurants and grocery stores. Kleptz began farming as a hobby around 30 years ago, but it "got kind of out of hand," he says. Now the farm processes enough animals each week to "keep my two sons employed full-time." Because the demand for their products exceeds supply, LaPlatte prefers to "accept new customers based on their ability to use lesser cuts." Kleptz points out that kidneys, hearts, liver and tongue aren't the only underutilized portions of animals. Tripe and sweetbreads are other wasted edible opportunities. He also mentions oxtail, which he thinks is "very tasty" when made into soup. He gets very few requests for it these days.
Poultry parts are an easier sell - in part because they don't carry the mad-cow stigma. At Misty Knoll Farm in North Haven, Rob Litch has made it his personal mission to have zero-percent waste. "We are very close to reaching that goal," he says. Misty Knoll processes about 3000 chickens in-house each week. Many birds are sold whole while others are broken down to make packages of breasts and legs. Livers are packaged separately; most of those end up as pâté. Extra bones, backs and necks find their way into chefs' stockpots. "There is a very small demand for hearts," Litch says, but the customers who request them get first dibs. Any that remain get sold to a local pet-food producer or are composted. The same is true for other bits, such as the kidneys, which are too small to be used for culinary purposes.
Small, high-end farms can sell most of the organs from their animals to the tiny number of consumers who are interested, and mega-farms can afford to send away their byproducts for use in various industrial sectors. However, consumer disinterest leaves medium farms having to dispose of hundreds of pounds of edible organs. Composting is a good solution, but developing markets for livers, hearts, tongues and kidneys would be far preferable: Farmers would reap the economic benefits and manage less waste; customers would benefit from inexpensive, all-natural or organic organ meats rich in iron, copper, zinc and vitamins A and D.
What seems to stand between American menus and tantalizing organ meats is cultural taboo. Although the cuisines of France, China and Peru couldn't be more different, organ meats are commonplace in all of them. Why are Americans so squeamish? Amy Trubeck, an assistant professor of Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont, notes that consumers in the U.S. are "distanced from the animal-ness of meat."
And while a hamburger is safely uniform and generic- looking, organ meats are not - kidneys, hearts, tongues and liver all remind you of parts of yourself. Trubeck suggests this makes eating those parts of an animal seem more like cannibalism - we don't like to anthropomorphize our food. The irony here, she says, is that if American consumers "really knew how their hamburger was raised and processed, they would probably be more disgusted than they are about organs." But, she continues, "Everything in our culture reinforces that they don't have to know."
A complex web of social and cultural factors also feeds into the modern anti-organ sentiment. In We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans, Donna Gabaccia explains how the "domestic science movement" of the early 20th century pushed immigrants to abandon their native dishes for "healthier" American fare.
Funny-sounding dishes like rognone con salsiccia e funghi - kidneys with sausages and mushrooms - and gebackene rindszunge - breaded beef tongue - were swapped for, say, hamburger casserole made with Campbell's tomato soup. Cooking like "an American" became an important marker of cultural assimilation. As immigrants abandoned traditional foods in an effort to "fit in," recipes for variety meats were discarded.
The nail in the coffin was World War II, with its food rationing, Sylvia Lovegren notes in her book, Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads. With access to juicy cuts curtailed, Americans relied more on poultry, fish and innards, according to Lovegren. When the war was over, she concludes, ". . . the cry was for meat, meat, and more meat." The American taste for organs, it seems, has never recovered.
Trubeck suggests that much of how we eat today is about "letting go of peasant and working-class status," and part of that shift means moving organ meats "into the realm of disgust rather than the realm of desire."
But understanding the origins of a prejudice doesn't necessarily make it easier to overcome. As I cleaned and sliced the beef heart I'd bought from Webb, I felt grossed out, queasy and disgusted by turn. Once cooked, though, the heart slices seemed positively luxurious in a sauce made of beef broth, fresh oyster mushrooms, butter and onions, with just a touch of 12-year-old balsamic vinegar. I nestled them on a plate with cubes of herb-flecked Yukon Gold potato and a mesclun salad with apples and walnuts. Once I'd worked up my nerve to actually dig in, I found that heart tastes almost exactly like "regular" beef, with a texture like steak's, only denser.
While I have no intention of battling the biker dude for Tyler Webb's next heart, I have learned that eating organ meat is not as offal as it sounds.