(The following was originally posted in February of 2011–updated with a few minor changes)
My friend Mandy was visiting one day, sitting at my yellow 1950s Formica kitchen table as I tossed chopped vegetables into the Wok, preparing chicken stir-fry. We began reminiscing about some of the foods of our respective childhoods.
I think the conversation actually began when she asked if I had a copy of Gertrude Berg’s Jewish cookbook. “Funny you should ask,” I responded, and then launched into a long story about Myra Waldo, whom I had just finished writing an article about for a cookbook newsletter.
I found my paperback copy of the Gertrude Berg cookbook for Mandy to look through while I continued to stir-fry, and she began exclaiming over some of the recipes of her childhood.
“Brisket!” she exclaimed, “Oh, how I loved brisket!”
I replied, “We never had brisket or roast beef or steak of any kind when I was growing up. We ate a lot of organ meats,” I said. “I think it was primarily because kidneys, brains, liver, and sweetbreads weren’t rationed during World War II, but it was most likely also because those meats were really cheap.” Those were, after all, War years and the stringent period following World War II.
My friend said she had never eaten kidneys or brains or sweetbreads but that she loved tongue, until she saw a raw one in a butcher shop. (ew, ew).
“I liked my mother’s kidney stew when I was a child,” I replied. “That was before I knew what kidneys DO”.
Americans (probably more than any other nationality) have a lot of funny (as in weird) ideas about the parts of the animal that they eat (or prefer not to even have anything weird in the refrigerator).
M.F.K. Fisher wrote about this particular American quirk in her book “HOW TO COOK A WOLF”, published in 1942 (which just goes to show how far back our aversion to funny meat goes). Actually, quite a few cookbook authors have written about our distaste for eating “the less desirable” cuts of meat.
Fisher wrote the following, “One way to horrify at least eight out of ten Anglo-Saxons is to suggest their eating anything but the actual red fibrous meat of a beast. A heart or a kidney or even a sweetbread is anathema. It is too bad, since there are so many nutritious and entertaining ways to prepare the various livers and lights. They can become gastronomic pleasures instead of dogged voodoo, so that when you eat a stuffed baked bull’s heart or a grilled lamb’s brain, or a “mountain oyster” you need not choke them down with the nauseated resolve to be braver or wiser or more potent, but with plain delight.”
Fisher goes on to explain that she was no exception, “I must admit that my own first introduction to tete de veau was a difficult one for a naïve American girl” she writes. “The main trouble, perhaps, was that it was not a veal’s head at all, but half a veal’s head. There was the half-tongue, lolling stiff from the neat half-mouth. There was the one eye, closed in a savory wink. There was the lone ear, lopped loose and faintly pink over the odd wrinkles of the demi-forehead. And there, by the single pallid nostril, were three stiff white hairs.”
At first,” Fisher continues, “I thought the world was too much with me, and wondered how gracefully I could leave it. Then what I am sure was my good angel made me stay, and eat, and finally ask for more, for tete de veau when it is intelligently prepared, can be a fine exciting dish…”
Fisher goes on to ask, perhaps rhetorically, “Why is it worse, in the end to see an animal’s head cooked and prepared for our pleasure than a thigh or a tail or a rib? If we are going to live on other inhabitants of this world, we must not bind ourselves with illogical prejudices, but savor to the fullest the beasts we have killed”.
Fisher continues, “People who feel that a lamb’s cheek is gross and vulgar when a chop is not are like the medieval philosophers who argued about such hair-splitting problems as how many angels could dance on the point of a pin. If you have these prejudices, ask yourself if they are not built on what you have been taught when you were young and unthinking, and then if you can, teach yourself to enjoy some of the parts of an animal that are not commonly prepared….”
Fisher goes on to provide recipes for liver, calves’ brains, heart, kidneys (in sherry), and pigeon – although, she remarks, “It is not easy to find pigeons, these days. Most of the ones you know about in the city are working for the government”. (Presumably, she referred to carrier pigeons).
Another 1940s cookbook author, Margot Murphy (at that time a food editor for the New York Times), published a book called “WARTIME MEALS” in 1942. Introducing her chapter on Meats, Murphy writes, “Some women have the oddest conception of the anatomy of a cow. They apparently visualize it as a petite little animal, made up entirely of prime ribs to be roasted, and sirloin or porterhouse steaks to be broiled. In the same way, they think a pig as constituted exclusively of chops or roasts, and the other members of the barnyard fraternity as being similarly composed of only two or three well-known and constantly purchased cuts”. Murphy goes on to offer recipes for Lamb Neck Slices with Vegetables, Liver Stew, Potted Veal Tongue as well as an assortment of other veal recipes. (Strange to think that veal, offered up as a cheap entrée during World War II is one of the most expensive cuts of meat today–the same can be said about something like lobster–not rationed during the War, along with other foods that come from the sea.
Another Wartime writer, Marjorie Mills, published “COOKING ON A RATION” in 1943 which offered recipes for veal kidneys with tomatoes, calf’s brains saute and broiled sweetbreads.
Betty Wason*, who wrote many books throughout her long career, published “COOKING WITHOUT CANS” in 1943. She offered some recipes for beef, but included recipes for dishes like oxtail ragout, beef kidney A La Diable, beef tongue with cheese, Calf’s Brain Maitre d’Hotel, Brain Fritters, Calf’s Head or Mock Terrapin, Grilled Calf’s Feet, and (surely everybody’s favorite), Lamb’s Tails. It should be noted that there are also numerous recipes for oysters, crab, lobster and shrimp – sea-foods that were, during the War, inexpensive and un-rationed.
(*For more about Betty Wason, please refer to my post “Cooks, Gluttons & Gourmets – In Search of Betty Wason in the January, 2011 Sandychatter).
Now I am sure that neither you nor I will rush right out to the local supermarkets because we can’t wait to try Grilled Calf’s Feet or Brain fritters. And even if we did rush out, – when’s the last time you saw a calf’s head in your supermarket meat section? Although, our local supermarket does carry sheep’s heads periodically, for presumably, special Mexican feasts. I searched through a dozen or more Mexican cookbooks and couldn’t find anything that starts out with “Take one sheep’s head…”
My guess is that all of these odd parts of the animal that we stick our noses up to are either ground up for dog and cat food or made into hot dogs. You see, I am not criticizing anyone about the American distaste for eating odd animal parts, for I am as guilty as anyone, despite growing up on kidney stew, brains, sweetbreads, and, most especially, my mother’s dreaded hasenpfeffer. (Hasenpfeffer is rabbit, soaked for 3 days in a sweet and sour mixture of vinegar and spices, then cooked something like a stew. My mother’s Hasenpfeffer was wild rabbit that my father had killed during hunting season. Dad cleaned the rabbit at the kitchen sink and occasionally, you found a bb in the stew pot. No one else in the family abhorred rabbit. Just me. It was the bane of my childhood; when you came home from school and smelled it cooking, you knew we were having HASENPFEFFER. And don’t think for one minute that you could eat a grilled cheese sandwich instead. What my mother cooked, everybody ate. Hasenpfeffer was right up there with my mother’s boiled cabbage, which she put on to cook at 9 O’clock in the morning. (Dinner was at 6 p.m. every night).
(I only discovered a few years ago that my two younger brothers didn’t come home for dinner if the entrée was something they disliked–and my brother Bill was the cleverest of us all; he’d go to Aunt Dolly’s and hang around until she invited him to have dinner with them. I must have been totally dense; it never occurred to me to go hang out at Aunt Dolly’s or Grandma’s and wait to be invited to stay for dinner.
I don’t want my fish to look like something that swims in the river or the ocean; give me some innocuous looking fish sticks any time. We don’t want any of our meat to look anything like the original cow or pig and we are equally distasteful towards anything that sounds peculiar, such as brains and sweetbreads. Give us a T-bone steak any day.
All those World War II cookbook authors went to great lengths extolling the virtues of what I refer to as organ meats but what my penpal Eileen, in Australia, calls Offal. Even so, I think as soon as the War was over, we went right back to hamburgers and steak and fried chicken. And we were lucky. Rationing continued in Great Britain until 1954. Cookbook author Marguerite Patten, in “OUT OF THE FRYING PAN” explained at length how the English got by in the decade following World War II and tells about trying to get people to eat whale stew. She recalls, “I remember preparing whale meat and the smell was pretty awful; a cross between liver and rather strong meat, with a very fishy and oily smell as well….” Ew, ew!
Americans don’t like eating funny meat. Hmm, maybe that’s why the Australian’s call it OFFAL.
Happy Cooking – and Happy cookbook reading!