Is offal so awful?

A presentation on cooking up a pig's head brought back memories to this non-chef.

By Paul King, Editorial Director

Over the years in the U.S., as the economy and living and working conditions have improved, we have become a more wasteful society. I’m not talking about the excess creation of items like paper, plastic and metal, or even about the wasteful habit of making or buying more food than we can eat.

I’m talking about our desire to have “the best” of everything, and turning up our noses at foods that we Americans consider “beneath us.” I started thinking about this after sitting through a presentation by Chef Chris Cosentino during Pork Summit 2013 at CIA Greystone late last month.

Cosentino is the co-owner of Boccalone, a San Francisco salumeria in the historic Ferry Building, and chef at Incanto, a restaurant that specializes in offal dishes. Now, many people might think offal is awful, but Cosentino thinks we’re awful for thinking that. At the Pork Summit, he demonstrated how it is possible to convert virtually every part of a pig’s head into a food item—something he not only does, but makes money doing.

I sat through the presentation feeling just a little queasy. While the chef covered braised pig snout in gold foil—for who doesn’t like gold, he said—and talked about “brainaise”—a garlic aioli made with pig’s brains—my skin likely took on the same pale complexion it would turn when my father offered me pickled pigs’ feet. I could deal with witnessing the butchering of a whole hog. After all, the end result usually is pretty tasty: chops and ribs and bacon.

This, however, made me realize I am not all that adventurous when it comes to dining. I watched in disbelief as Cosentino laid out the various parts on a plate for two—snout, cheeks, tongue and ears—just as he would serve it at Boccalone. Smaller pieces of meat from the head are converted into a fried “head cake,” which I suppose goes great with a brainaise dip. Maybe I was just porked out Saturday afternoon, but I couldn’t bring myself to taste either item.

I feel bad about that. The chef’s presentation was really enlightening, and it made me realize that there was a time when most people didn’t disparage offal. My father, who was raised during the Great Depression, never did. The pack of giblets in the Thanksgiving turkey did not go to waste in our home. Liver was a Tuesday night staple at the dinner table. He would call pickled pigs’ feet a delicacy, but as I got older and studied more about the economic times of his and his parents’ eras, I understood that the mantra of those times was “waste not, want not.” Food—especially protein—was precious, and smart people didn’t throw very much away.

Now, we throw so much food away that it is sinful. Composting has sprung up as a cottage industry only in part because the average American now understands the value of pre-consumer food waste—trimmings and such. It’s also because we’ve forgotten how valuable some of those “trimmings” can be as a primary food source.

I don’t think we’ll ever get back to the mindset of even our grandparents and great-grandparents. We’ve become far too industrialized, and the average Americans’ lifestyle counts on commercial restaurants to make their food choices for them. By and large, those restaurants aren’t giving diners the option of head cakes and brainaise. I’m also pretty sure that I won’t be looking to order those kinds of foods when I go out to restaurants. But a part of me can’t help but wonder if we are the worse for that.