People who know me—and therefore know my foodie interests—are often surprised when they hear that I have little interest in eating offal.

Sure, I’ll have a bite of sweetbreads here, a forkful of tripe there, just so I can say I know the taste and texture—but even with my outsized interest in food, I find that when I’m asked to leave the realm of muscle and move into the realm of organs, my enthusiasm withers.

Weird, huh? After all, isn’t that what the cool foodie kids are doing these days—the wised-up urbanites and tattooed chefs and out-there bloggers—eating testicles and brains and spleens, and holding forth afterward to the delight of their audience? If I’m to be a food writer, how can I not get hungry for balut? (Look it up. If you dare.)

Yet I don’t believe that many of the people who are out there talking and writing about and even eating balut are all that hungry for it, either. Their problem—and mine, and yours—is that the media explosion caused by the advent of the Internet left so much space to fill that writers have to keep pushing themselves farther afield to hunt down subjects that haven’t already been covered. And this naturally sends the vanguard to the limits of accepted sensibilities. Why not eat balut? Otherwise, what’s left to talk about? Meatloaf?

There are two primary schools of thought that support eating all parts and types of animals—the first says that eating nose to tail began as a means of survival, and that by eating the entire animal you’re not only showing evidence of biological superiority over your fellow picky eaters (who will starve come winter if they grow squeamish over what’s on offer), you’re also asserting your true nature as an animal that was born to eat other animals; and second, that eating nose to tail is by its very nature an assertion of one’s true commitment to the democracy of the senses. These people seem to be saying, there is no good or bad—there is only more.

So on the one hand you have the gustatory Darwinists; on the other you have the everything’s-all-right sensualists.

Caught in the middle are schnooks like me, who find no real purchase in either camp. I don’t regularly eat sweetbreads. This is because I don’t fear that I will starve to death if I say No thanks. And it’s because I don’t feel that my arena of experience is greatly enriched by the flavor or texture of sweetbreads. The fact is, after about one bite, I don’t like them, just as I don’t like the flavor or texture of other offal. In other words, I don’t feel compelled to eat them for any reason other than the desire to have a new experience. But the new experience ends after exactly the first bite—thereafter, you’ve already had it, and it joins the queue of old experiences now being repeated, and now we must look elsewhere for our excitement.

That’s the problem with experience—it’s always retreating in the past, kissing its lips and bidding adieu. You have it once, and thereafter it’s just old news. And eventually you’ve got to get to the end of things (What do we eat next? Caterpillars? Trees? Dirt?), and accept that perhaps the wise course of action is instead to take what you thought was old and tired and familiar, and find a way—through creativity, skill, and love—to give it fresh life.

You are, after all, what you eat.

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KEITH DIXON is the author of two novels, Ghostfires and The Art of Losing. In May 2011, Crown will publish his memoir-cookbook Cooking for Gracie, based on food-writing first published in The New York Times. He lives in New York City with his wife, Jessica, and his daughters Grace and Margot, and spends much of his free time wishing he had more free time.

You can learn more about Keith's books, and read excerpts of his writing, at readkeithdixon.com.

6 responses to “Against Offal”

  1. Jesse says:

    The other school of thought with regards to eating offal would be that it is wasteful and disrespectful to kill an animal, eat only the traditionally appealing parts, and throw the rest out.

  2. mutterhals says:

    I can’t lie, I would eat a balut egg. But I take your point. I have a friend who loves chitterlings and is always trying to get others to eat them. But I look at it as something that poor people were forced to eat when they couldn’t afford tastier cuts of meat. Also, he claims he can’t make them in the summer time because the smell is too foul. That’s a big red flag for me.

  3. dwoz says:

    If that’s not bad enough, there is a growing noise on the culinary horizon.

    Road kill.

    It’s the new tofu. Or not.

  4. Don Mitchell says:

    Somehow I never thought I’d see balut referred to on TNB. It wasn’t a rare dish when I was growing up in Hilo, although I can’t remember eating it myself. And here I am in the same house, reading TNB and thinking again about balut. It must mean something.

    It’s a nice piece, Keith, and I’m with you about how the new experience ends after the first bite. I’ve eaten many things that didn’t make me gag but I didn’t much care whether I ever ate them again.

    Maybe sometime you’ll write about comfort food — theory and practice, and of course how one person’s comfort is another’s torture.

  5. I used to work on a construction site with this guy who knocked back three balut a day, pulling them from his lunchbox and smiling and chewing and whistling in Tagalog while everyone, even these huge beefy tough-guy iron workers, reeled away in disgust, squealing falsetto “eeews!” It was awesome. I have total respect for the balut.

  6. I remember eating alligator jerky one time. I keep bringing up that in conversations every time someone talk about alligators or unusual food.

    “I read children books and is reading about Lyle.Lyle.”
    “Hey, you know what? Alligators tastes like pepperoni!”
    “Patrick, you fool! Lyle is not an alligator, he’s a crocodile!”

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