Eat the whole pig

January 20th, 2011
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Meat is back. Well, if it’s not a “consensus”, then at least a number of right-eating opinion leaders and gastronomic stars are pushing back against the watercress and shrinking footprint crowd. Once limited to the unreconstructed traditionalists and Atkins Dieters, meat eating is now almost fashionable.

Near the forefront of this movement is gonzo-chef Anthony Bourdain.  Bourdain, known for his unapologetic culinary machismo has long prided himself as “one of the few vendors of old-school hooves and snouts, French charcuterie and offal.” Offal is pretty much as it sounds. Derived from the German “Abfall“, or waste, it refers to all the nasty bits that normally fall under the descriptor of “meat by-products”. Or if you’ve ever seen an item on a Chinese restaurant menu offering “six different kinds of meat”, it’s usually the last two or three of the six kinds. Not to put too fine a point on it, we’re talking about entrails and internal organs.

Like some of the old-school relatives of my youth, Bourdain and his colleagues seem obsessed with ways of getting unwitting customers to eat all this, and like it. As he says in his book A Cook’s Tour: “Chefs adore this kind of stuff.  We like it when we can motivate our customers to try something they might previously have found frightening or repellent. It makes us proud to see (them) sucking the marrow out of veal bones, munching on pig’s feet, picking over oxtails or beef cheeks.” OK.

Compared to this, I guess my love of California cuisine – fresh ingredients, freshly prepared and heavy on the veggies and pasta – makes me a sissy. But I’ll at least try an intelligent critique. On holiday in South Tyrol we once had a very nice consommé, with homemade noodles containing something vaguely liver-ish – you know Germans make dumplings out of liver. To satisfy my curiosity, I asked the server (owner) what was in the noodles. She replied “Milz“. Not having taken anatomy in German I had to think for a minute what this was, what organ or gland. Then it came to me – spleen. Like I said, eat the whole pig.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t bad. However, what has put me off many of these obtuse body parts, as much as the thought of them (sweetbreads indeed!), is not the taste, but the texture. As the post-modern food marketer would say, the “mouth-feel”. Kind of like the difference between liver fried to the consistency of shoe leather, and paté or liverwurst.

Then there’s the inescapable heaviness of it all. It seemed to particularly afflict us during our sojourn in central Canada. All of a sudden, pork belly was on every menu. Only to be outdone by duck confit. Another one of those deceptively nice sounding French words – like guillotine and malaise – what it really means is salt-cured duck leg, submerged in rendered fat. As if duck didn’t have enough fat on it already.

To be fair though, this whole food debate is all about context. If you’re a subsistence farming peasant, rather than a white collar lard ass staring at a screen 10 hours a day, immersion in duck fat sounds pretty good. And so does using every part of the pig.

Cook’s Tour devotes one whole chapter to just such a practical exercise – fattening, slaughtering and eating a pig in rural Portugal. It could have been written by any number of my older relatives and, for that matter, anybody living in vast parts of the Third World today – if they’re lucky enough to have livestock.

Bourdain quizzes his buddy before the slaughtering ritual, on-site in northern Portugal:

“‘And you eat everything’?  ‘Everything. The blood. The guts. The ears. Everything. It’s delicious’.  ‘Wait!  We don’t eat everything. The pig’s bladder?  We blow it up, inflate it, and we make a soccer ball for the children.”

… and of the repast that followed he writes)…

“We ate slices of grilled heart and liver, a gratin of potato and bacalao (salt cod) and grilled and sliced tenderloin of our victim…”

If this is making your mouth water, you may also know that it may be good for you too! The advocates of what’s been termed the “caveman diet” are now out there flogging their wares. They insist that man is really best adapted to the food we had in the Pleistocene and anything added since then is killing us. So meat lovers take heart; literally.

I have to admit some bewilderment at this turn of events. But it may auger well for my secret wish, the return – in force – of the cuisine of Old Austria. Well, if you believe what’s described above, stranger things have happened!

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By John Weissenberger