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Hating Your Guts: why we struggle with offal

Read Monday, 11 Apr 2016

As eaters in a food culture that privileges novelty, we’re happy to try almost anything once … so why are we still so averse to offal? Perhaps, argues Sam van Zweden, our fear of animal guts is driven by the fear of our own insides.

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There’s a sexy duplicity to eating tongue, and it feels risky to admit this. The fleshiness of tongue; the tender press of two organs used to taste. It’s almost obscene.

Tongue isn’t sexy before it reaches my plate, though. Tongue, when first butchered out of the animal, looks as obvious as can be. Shocking in its length, its girth – a powerful muscle reduced to thick, fat nothing. Just looking at tongue makes my own tongue feel swollen and restricted. This is the kind of strong reaction many people feel when faced with the idea of eating offal.

‘Offal’ describes the non-muscle or bone parts often discarded – or, in Australia’s case, exported – after the desirable cuts of meat have all been butchered. Offal includes tongue, heads, feet, snout, as well as any and all viscera – kidney, liver, intestine, heart, pancreas and more. While these meats have been common fare on Australian plates in the past, they’ve gone out of favour more recently. We’ve gradually lost our taste for them, until, all of a sudden, offal seems beyond us. 

Some cultures view offal as equal with any other piece of meat, while the comparative rarity of organs means other cultures see offal as a delicacy – you can get multiple steaks from one cow, but only one brain, after all. We, however, are part of a culture that sees offal as execrable; as a society enamoured with good old muscle meats, we seem to find it quite challenging to get around the idea of eating organs and offcuts. While offal isn’t entirely taboo, people are reluctant to make it a normal part of their diet.

The reasons for our objections to offal are narrative. They centre around the stories we tell ourselves about the origin and significance of the foods we eat.

In general, our food culture is very selective about what is acceptably tasty. We fuss about following food trends, favouring the particular and novel over the available – and there is so much good food available, we’d just rather Nutella-stuffed carbs. In a climate where we’re fortunate to have access to plenty of reasonably priced, high-quality food, we easily forget that, both globally and locally, not everyone is in the same boat. Food trends, on the whole, can be socially and ethically questionable.

Where most food trends trade on the status show of indulging particular tastes, the consumption of offal falls under the ethically conscious banner of ‘nose to tail eating’. This approach to cooking and consumption makes use of every part of the animal, discarding nothing. While the word ‘offal’ itself doesn’t have diners flocking to tables, ‘nose to tail eating’ is a buzz phrase, helping offal find its way back onto our plates. Nose to tail converts only account for a small portion of the population, though – the reality of eating the entirety of an animal is still a confronting idea for most.

I’m no exception to this squeamishness, and as something of a daring and thoughtful eater, this fascinates me. Why is it so difficult to get on board when eating offal is so clearly a good idea?

Aside from tongue, I feel ambivalent about offal. I enjoy liver, and ox tail, and pigs’ ears. Though I like the idea of that same duplicity in other foods – putting stomach in my stomach, letting brains feed my brain – I wouldn’t readily choose some kinds of offal given the choice. While tender, juicy, gravy-swimming tongue is a dish I crave, tripe, on the other hand, with its sponge-like coral, its honeycomb concertina, is something I can’t bring myself to eat. I feel physically revolted by the idea of it moving through my own guts. So I guess I’m half-way on board. In that way, I’m fairly representative of how many people feel about eating offal – getting around the idea of it seems to be the stumbling block.

Our objections to offal seem to pivot around the idea of abstraction, in a number of ways.

While the mirroring between offal and our own insides is novel and perhaps a bit sexy, it’s also deeply horrific. At its height, it brings cannibalism to mind.

Meat production is a process so highly abstracted that it’s easy to forget we’re eating animals at all. Even when language itself doesn’t disguise what we’re eating (as in bacon, pork, and beef), we do a fantastic job of distancing ourselves from the process by which meat ends up in our kitchen and on our plates. The meat of a chicken is still called ‘chicken’, but it comes cleaned, free of feathers or blood, in a tray with a little absorption packet underneath it. It’s a return to that idea of ‘duplicity’ – the echo of tongue against tongue, stomach in my stomach. While ‘duplicity’ describes a mirroring or doubling, it can also be used to describe deceitfulness, or lying. In this sense, muscle meats are the real duplicitous cuts – our ‘steaks’ and ‘schnitzels’ allow us to forget almost entirely where our food comes from, erasing a whole mooing, clucking, wandering, breathing reality.

Offal, on the other hand, looks so much like itself that it breaks the illusion that we’re not really eating animals. In forgetting the bodies of animals, we forget our own bodies too – just as we’ve been taught to do all our lives.

While the mirroring between offal and our own insides is novel and perhaps a bit sexy, it’s also deeply horrific. At its height, it brings cannibalism to mind. The milder horror, however, comes from an undeniable reminder that we are living in bodies of our own.

We’re socialised to set strict, non-negotiable boundaries around our bodies and their processes. We go to great lengths to disguise and even combat natural bodily functions, restricting, controlling and hiding the taboo realities of anything our bodies do after the point of consumption – from digestion to death. Simply looking at the organs of the animals we eat, we are reminded of all those things we try to hide. While a steak is nicely butchered into neat geometric slabs, a liver struggles to pretend that it’s anything but a liver. Both wonder and horror drive the reaction that follows for many – I have this inside my body, too. We become suddenly aware of our own bodies, despite all the hard work we do to forget we live in them.

To further abstract our own insides, we tie emotional heft to their existence. The language we use to describe difficult emotions often make use of those body parts. They become less things hidden behind the walls of our outsides, and more expressions of who we are. Presented with a plate of offal then, we’re asked to eat ugly emotion, difficult states of mind. My broken heart. I hate your guts. I can’t stomach him.

The reasons for our objections to offal, then, are narrative. They centre around the stories we tell ourselves about the origin and significance of the foods we eat. It’s not that we don’t care for offal – it’s that we care too much, too deeply.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the Traditional Owners of the land on which the Centre stands. We acknowledge and pay our respects to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their Elders, past and present, as the custodians of the world’s oldest continuous living culture.