You Game for Offal & Game?
On Nose to Tail Eating & Sustainable Omnivorism
Offal. Yes, we know how it’s pronounced.
Our monthly farm to table dinners are listed without a menu until the week of the meal. This is a by-product of cooking seasonally; we often don’t know ourselves what produce will be available from the farm, especially during these sparser winter months. These dinners, which are the closest the school comes to operating as a restaurant, frequently sell out far before the point at which we can create a menu. To this end, to secure a seat our diners must somewhat blindly entrust us with developing a progressive meal showcasing all that the farm and season have to offer. And of course, one that is delicious.
These circumstances - a last-minute menu reveal and the knowledge that tables are already booked - also provide us another perk: we’re more able to include “challenging” dishes without the traditional restaurant concern for what might sell (read: chicken (breast), beef (prime cuts), and pork if you’re lucky (but only the loin)). This translates into a freedom to feature nose-to-tail cuts and game meats which ordinarily only the most adventurous eaters might select if given the choice. And this is why we (okay, Shelley is absolved here, this is almost entirely an Ian and I thing) took particular joy in including dishes like Pig’s Head Cheese, Sous Vide Venison Loin with Concord Grape Sauce, Beef Heart and Tongue Tacos, and Venison Shepherd’s Pie in some of our most recent dinners.
But we don’t just include these dishes because we’re able to or because we somewhat enjoy grossing people out (which we very much do). These proteins, game and the organ meats/non-muscular bits broadly called offal (pronounced “awful,” opinions differ on whether this is apt or ironic; our is the latter), are delicious in their own right, and sometimes more so than typically popular cuts.
Game of all sorts connects you with the land from which it comes, and when prepared correctly often tastes of the sweet grass (venison), or grain (pheasant), or algae (duck and other waterfowl) on which it survived. Venison is most common in our kitchen, and given that it’s chosen to thrive (and then not) on our farm, is often the most well-fed protein of any we serve (rivaled only by the chickens and pigs at Goat Hill who enjoy our compost). In fact, the loin from November’s dinner was almost as sweet and tender as the summer squash she was munching before ending up on our plates. And this is because when properly prepared (usually meaning not overcooked), the gaminess to which most people are averse, becomes a strength, an amalgam of location and diet, and an evocation of that animal’s life.
Offal, a catchall term now used to refer to organs and other typically discarded animal parts (feet, ears, heart, etc.), is a bit more difficult to generalize by taste. Organs such as kidneys and liver are intensely minerally, tasting equally of vivaciousness and dirt; tough muscles such as cheeks, heart, and tongue become mouth-wateringly tender when cooked for long enough, and taste intensely of whatever animal you’re cooking; other random external and entrail bits - ears, tripe, skin, etc. - are a textural boon, providing a shattering crackle or pleasant chew of which other food traditions have long known the pleasures.
More than taste though, including dishes such as headcheese and heart pibil provides an opportunity to connect our menus to our broader mission as a cooking school. A meal is a dialogue. One which occurs not only between cook and eater but also between individuals and their land, their bodies, and their pasts. And it’s precisely these internal conversations - navigating histories and tastes - which so often make this edible conversation about farm to table eating a difficult one, especially when it comes to discussing sustainably sourced meats, hunting, and nose-to-tail cooking.
As I wrote this piece I came across New Hope artist Robert Beck’s recent essay for Icon. He discusses the difficulties of conveying concrete meaning through his painting, concluding “In all communication, the story is not what gets told, rather what is heard.” While true of most anything, this feels particularly apt when describing people’s aversion to game meats and offal. After all, cooking with game and working nose-to-tail is very literally one of the most sustainable ways to consume animal protein. For omnivores, the decision should be pretty cut and dried. But obviously, only if you’re first willing to consider eating Bambi's nose and tail (Ironically, in this case, I don’t know that I’d suggest you actually do either. Will test and get back to you).
A wariness of the unknown in food is almost universal. A couple weeks before heading home for Thanksgiving, my grandpa asked me if I could show him how to make headcheese. Its popular in Wisconsin (relatively speaking), and especially among an older generation who remembers the independent German butchers you could find across the state, one for every neighborhood in Milwaukee and sometimes the sole business at the center of the small villages across our ridges and valleys. I told him I would and he began asking around for a head. When I arrived a month later, he’d still been unable to find one, despite calling 8 butchers and (somewhat inexplicably) WalMart. Not the right season he was told. “All the better,” he said. “No one except for you and me woulda ate this shit anyway.” Somehow, in a large family whose patriarch loves all things red-blooded and offal, only one in 18 of the following two generations is even willing to try any.
I brought beef liver paté instead. And my grandpa was right: no one ate that delicious shit except for him and me.
From Head to Head Cheese…
Deeply rooted taste memories and a resistance to the weird and funky - in general, but especially in food - can close some people off, making our menu planning and (I don’t care if you call it) proselytizing (it is) all the more difficult. We see this in the emailed responses to our menu release: “No red meat please.” “Unfortunately, we’re unable to eat the heart and liver. Is there an alternate option?” “We don’t do Venison, could we have a different entree?” “I’m a vegetarian...only chicken and fish for me.” Each of these individually isn’t something we condemn (save, possibly, the last). People can eat what they like whether motivated by health, conscience, god, or taste, and we’re always happy to accommodate (generally, at other more bountiful times of year, our menus are more produce forward anyway). But collectively, the sheer volume of responses such as these to our menus reveals something about our modern American food culture which strikes me as sadly close-minded.
In my experiences talking with people, I think this is partially explained by a generally slow uptake of cooking competence in this country, especially with respect to game and offal. Many people associate these cuts with the over-cooked, “gamey,” tough, and, frankly, awful dinners of our childhoods. And these experiences truly stick with us. How could we forget the memory of our twelve-year-old selves, forced to finish our liver and onions before being allowed some Lime Jello with marshmallows for dessert? Bad food is hell and awful offal is its lowest circle. Which is why it’s so important to us at the school that people experience game and offal cooked deliciously and well.
Moreover, as sad as merely limiting our food experiences is to me (and as sufficient a reason to try these cuts of meat as I feel expanding our palates is), this close-mindedness also presents a huge obstacle to a sustainable future of meat consumption and an omnivorous diet.
While at home for Thanksgiving, I made an effort to learn more about indigenous foodways. It felt important to consider what the holiday could be if native stories and approaches to food were actually central to the meal, as we already (mostly wrongly) pretend they are. At the very least, the food would be much better. More though, it might be the beginning of a renegotiation of our relationship with our land, its plants and animals, and our food system. Thanksgiving, after all, is about recognizing that the earth, if properly taken care of, can provide exactly as much as we need to sustain ourselves.
My research partly inspired the heart and tongue taco on our latest menu, prepared in the style of Mexican Pibil and served on my version of Native American frybread perfumed with sage. This dish, Ian and I hoped, would help connect people with a way of eating that is not only delicious, but more sustainable and, in many ways, more spiritual. When we eat game, it’s with an understanding that it survived only on what the earth was able to provide, and by eating nose-to-tail (whether game or sustainably farmed livestock), we take full advantage of all of the increasingly limited resources which went to growing that animal and better honor the life given to us for that meal.
And when we talk in these terms, people listen. At this past dinner, after Ian had discussed the reasons above as our motivations for both the tacos and the Venison Shepherd’s Pie, numerous holdouts switched from the veggie option to the meat. Ultimately, far more people than you might expect are willing to give our game and offal a shot. More still, they find themselves enjoying it, even if begrudgingly.
Food, its preparation, sharing, and consumption is communication at its basest and most direct. True, “the story is not always about what gets told,” but hopefully through our Farm to Table Dinners, in our butchery classes, and “Cook the Carcass” series we might begin to rewrite it. Better yet, as people are increasingly willing to try game and offal, perhaps we might help them to hear the story a bit differently. Learning how freaking delicious heart and tongue can be is a good first step.