About a month or so I received a email from the UK asking about offal and different resources to help with a paper being written on the decline of offal consumption. I just received the finished paper and have learned quite a bit, and felt that I should share it with you. Remember this paper is written for the decline of offal consumption for the united kingdom, I am sure there are a lot of similarities here in the United States.
Guest Author Nathan Hoskins is 22 years old an studying at the University of West of England, Bristol, UK.
Who Are the Modern Offal Eaters?
As late as 1861 mainstream cookery books such as Mrs Beaton’s Book of Household Management included recipes for a wide range of offal including boiled calves’ heads. Today there is a widespread revulsion for offal particularly amongst Anglo-Celtic cultures and the younger generation. According to the Meat and Livestock Commission in 1977, 105,000 tonnes of organ meat were sold in the UK but by 2002 this had fallen to 19,500 tonnes. Although overall consumption has decreased, these figures do not recognise and account for the place of offal in contemporary food culture. This investigation will argue that through a combination of squeamishness and the perceived low culinary status of organ meats the modern offal eater is no longer the home cook nor the working classes but the affluent restaurant diner who seeks culinary differentiation and gastronomic adventure. These developments highlight interesting sociological trends.
According to the view of Beardsworth and Keil, in mainstream contemporary British food culture offal is generally regarded as cheap, low status and not particularly palatable. There has been a long association between offal and the underprivileged going back to a time when organ meats from newly slaughtered animals were given to the poor. The reason being that unlike carcass meat offal cannot be kept long and must be eaten quickly. Anissa Helou further accounts for this trend as a result of wartime rationing. Offal was one of the few forms of meat that was readily available during the Second World War and this association with hard times explains why British cooks have turned away from it in favour of the now more readily available higher status meats. Britain today is more affluent which allows people to spend more on food resulting in higher spending on more expensive items. This is one explanation for the fall in offal consumption.
Squeamishness is another factor which accounts for the unpopularity of offal with the mainstream cook. Through his research the Belgian sociologist Leo Moulin ranked feelings about offal in ascending order of repulsiveness running through from liver through kidneys, tongue, sweetbreads, brains and tripe to testicles and eyes. In interviews carried out by Lupton the reasons given for not eating offal were due to a number of factors: texture, taste, smell, appearance and the fact that offal was the ‘innards’ of an animal. According to Lupton the extent to which an organ is internal and is therefore unseen and unidentifiable is a factor in this distaste. Liver and kidneys are further down the revulsion list because they are internal whereas eyes and testicles are much higher up the list. The very names of offal display their animal origins as being not far removed from humans: heart, lungs, liver and kidney etc. This is compared to the euphemisms given to conventional meat such as pork, beef and lamb. Stephen Mennel attributes people’s increasing ability and tendency to identify themselves with animals to help explain the revulsion at eating brains, eyes and testicles. This revulsion can however be overcome when fashions dictate as in eighteenth century France when social pressure for fashionable tables resulted in a catholic range of dishes. Noelie Vialles identifies two interesting logics in regards to the consumption of meat: ‘zoophagan’ logic is favoured by those who like to acknowledge that what they are eating was a living and breathing entity and who therefore have no qualms about eating offal. A ‘sarcophagan’ logic is held by those prefer their meat to be abstract, divorced from its living origins and who therefore find consuming offal repugnant.
So far this investigation has accounted for the unpopularity of offal with the mainstream British consumer. Conversely there has been something of an offal boom in British restaurants in recent years exemplified by London’s St John Restaurant which regularly serves dishes such as bone marrow salad and crispy pigs’ tails. In the view of Jeremy Strong the very foods that Pierre Bourdieu associated with the working classes as signifying the values of ‘salty-fatty-heavy-strong-simmered-cheap-nourishing’ have enjoyed a surge in popularity amongst middle class British and American restaurant diners, with offal being a case in point. There are several factors influencing this trend. Strong argues that the consumption of offal has become largely the preserve of an affluent culinary ‘cognoscenti’ whose cooking and eating habits are significantly influenced by what they see and read. He contends that TV cooks such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who constantly espouse the thrifty virtues of organ meats are not appealing to the working classes but to middle class diners seeking to differentiate themselves through what they eat. The least prosperous in our society who are the stereotypical consumers of offal are in fact the least likely to be enjoying ‘nose to tail’ cuisine. It has of course always been a very middle-class characteristic to attempt to individualise oneself through food.
Susan Terrio criticises Bourdieu’s treatment of consumption and taste as ‘largely arbitrary and static’. He is charged with failure to recognise the role of cultural taste- makers who influence culinary fashions, exemplified by the fashionable status of offal amongst some gourmets. This is in contrast to Beardsworth and Keil’s acknowledgement that eating patterns related to social class are not static and change over time. Cultural processes drive social classes to develop new tastes and preferences in order to maintain their distinctiveness. Bourdieu’s conclusion that the tastes of the professionals and senior executives leans towards ‘the light, the refined and the delicate’ which differs to the working classes who choose ‘heavy, the fat and the coarse’ appears outmoded when considering the example of offal. He does however cite the teaching profession as being a segment of society rich in cultural rather than economic capital who favour originality and the exotic at the lowest possible cost, which offal now exemplifies. Although the rise in restaurant consumption of offal clearly cannot be solely attributed to teachers it appears that this search for novelty in food is spreading to other segments of contemporary food culture.
Lupton argues that offal is now considered so unusual that in the context of a modern abundance of food it represents a new culinary experience and a means of improving oneself by adding value and a sense of excitement to life. Pasi Falk contends that those who are willing to experiment and are more adventurous in tasting new foods are often considered to be more sophisticated than those who hold many culinary prejudices. The true gourmands are those who are willing to try and taste new foods in the search of innovation. Lupton cites the example of an Australian chef who designed a menu for the Third Australian Gastronomic Symposium consisting mainly of offal but cooked to the highest level of gastronomic elegance e.g. poached lamb’s brains with lemon and tangerine marigolds. For many this menu would inspire revulsion but because it was in the context of a Gastronomic Symposium and the food was prepared for expert chefs, the menu presented a challenge for gourmands to demonstrate their ‘savoir faire’ in relation to their willingness to taste and enjoy unusual dishes. This shows that the potentially repellent nature of a dish will often attract people who consider themselves more adventurous. There are those who are more likely to eat a dish for the status it brings, suggesting a machismo of eating, particularly amongst men. This is a reverse of food snobbery in which the more repulsive the food, the more credit it given for eating such a gastronomically challenging dish. For Lupton this ability to eat foods such as offal represents the ultimate in self-control and demonstrates a healthy contempt for accepted norms and mastery over one’s instinctive prejudices. This approach to food is strongly associated with the professional middle-classes. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the most high profile champion of offal backs this up: “Like those who profess a love for well-hung (or over-hung) game, the offal lover often can’t resist allowing his (or occasionally her) passion to slide into a kind of competitive macho posturing, as in, ‘what’s the weirdest bit of an animal you’ve ever eaten?’”
For the restaurant gourmet offal does not only represent adventure but it has become a means to attain culinary distinction; for the message is that now foreign food in Britain has become the norm and is too common. Choosing offal in a restaurant can be explained by a nostalgic pining for traditional British fare as our food culture is seemingly being taken over by a global cuisine. This corresponds with the middle classes who, with increasing time and wealth, question the origins of their food. This informed approach particularly to meat eating can create a feeling of superiority over those who react with revulsion at offal and the origins of their food. For the modern offal eater their knowledge of organ meats signifies a participation in a distinct culture of food awareness. With majority tastes’ leaning towards convenience and away from the origins of their food offal has acquired a new potential to signify distinction. For Strong: “the new offal eaters can be interpreted as an outcome at the margins, a by-product of a distinction-seeking culture in which fashions are prompted and impelled by trendsetters who revisit, modify, and commodify the tastes and practises of other times and places.”
In conclusion, through a combination of squeamishness and the perceived low status of organ meats, offal eating is no longer the preserve of the traditional stereotypes: the working classes and the home cook. Through a combination of cultural processes and the influence of taste-makers, the modern offal eaters are restaurant diners and gourmets who seek gastronomic adventure and culinary distinction. In the words of Anthony Bourdain: “…I suggest throwing a big, rowdy party, getting your guests all liquored up, and, when they finally start complaining, “Where’s the guacamole and ramaki?” haul out a big, beautiful tub of steaming hot guts. Those who don’t run screaming from the room……might well have a revelatory experience”.
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