The Offal Truth
Boiled spleen, anyone? Yes, say the members of the Organ Eaters' Club--with a side of pig heart, please.
There are two kinds of eaters: those who are eligible for membership in my monthly dining society and those who will not be able to read to the end of this paragraph without getting queasy. If the juxtaposition of the verb eat with the noun phrase goat lungs makes you look frantically for an exit, stop reading now. Everybody else, let me tell you about the Organ Eaters' Club.
Actually, the group doesn't really have a name. "Organ Eaters' Club" is merely descriptive. Some members prefer names with a little more flavor--the Organ Grinders, say, or the Innards Circle, or Seekers of the Offal Truth. Melissa Easton, the designer who convened our very first meeting (at La Lunchonette, in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood), says that what we do is simply "adventure eating."
Like so many first times, ours was a transporting experience. La Lunchonette is smallish, stylishly unstylish and far enough out of the way to be hip. When I arrived, I saw a little group sitting at the other end of the room, one of whom I recognized: my colleague Chris Peacock, who normally blanches at the very thought of organ meats but had gracefully offered to bring me together with Melissa, his wife--"She eats disgusting things, too," he had said.
Melissa had recruited the rest of the group. We went through introductions; we tried, only semisuccessfully, to loosen up through the agency of a tough little Cabernet. But when the platter of brains in black butter, foie gras and sautéed sweetbreads landed at the center of our table, we were suddenly bonded. Except for Chris, who turned white.
Who are we? Some magazine editors, a couple of designers, an academic, three or four writers. At the center of our cadre sits Robert Sietsema, whose restaurant-review column for the Village Voice threatens weekly to turn adventure eating into the Alimentary X Games. The only argument we've ever had was about whether we are organ-meat eaters or variety-meat eaters. Marisa Bowe, a Web editor who is the unrelenting Savonarola of our group, insists that if it doesn't reside entirely within the animal's body, it's not an organ (although she'll make an exception for ram testicles, I imagine because there is nothing in the culinary world quite so organlike as ram testicles). But most of us believe the House of Organs has many rooms--enough for feet, tail, tongue and any other unloved body parts.
I have to admit it: I didn't really learn to eat until I met my wife. Becky is a food writer, and travel has brought us to remarkable tables on several continents. When we were in Rome six or seven years ago, a colleague based there, knowing our willingness to scale culinary walls, took us to Checchino dal 1887, a classic restaurant across the street from the old stockyards, where several generations of chefs had come to specialize in "the fifth quarter" of the cow--the offal. Our dinner that night was one of the greatest of my life, a succession of dishes that concluded with rigatoni served with a sauce made from the chopped-up intestines of a nursing veal calf--and from the curdled mother's milk still in the intestines when the calf was slaughtered. After we had finished the rigatoni and the really nice Sangiovese that was its ideal complement, and marveled over the delicate smoothness of the sauce and the way it coupled with the earthy wine, and then learned precisely what it was we had eaten, I reasoned, "If that could taste so good, why be afraid of any food at all?"
Why not, in other words, be like Robert Sietsema? His tastes, I believe, are largely oedipal--his father, a food chemist, invented barbecue-flavored Fritos. As a direct consequence, I'm convinced, Robert has chosen an occupation that has him cruising metropolitan New York five or six days a week looking for the perfect Jamaican souse (dependent, of course, on the quality of the snout and tail pieces) or the benchmark Fujianese pig heart. So it is he, largely, who finds the places we visit.
Robert has led us to grilled beef kidneys in an Argentinean meat palace in Queens; to a piquant sauté of chopped-up livers and sweetbreads (called, unpromisingly, "jiz-biz") at an Azerbaijani restaurant in Brooklyn; to something otherwise indescribable listed as "low fat hoof" at a Shanghainese place called, improbably, People's No. 1 and People Restaurant. We've eaten meltingly tender curried brains and feet (of what animal? I never even asked) at a 24-hour Pakistani cab-drivers' diner, but not haggis, the Scottish oatmeal-and-chopped-innards specialty that's usually stuffed into a sheep's stomach. Still, it's definitely on our list, even if past experience tells me that most haggis tastes like boiled sweater.
But Robert's greatest discoveries, I believe, have been in the Province of Tripe. We've thrilled to tripe soup, tripe stew and tripe casserole via the ministrations of a sequence of Turkish, Polish and French chefs. Not long ago, at a North Korean restaurant called Okryukwan, we enjoyed some slivers of jellied tripe that were awfully good--even if not quite as good as the slightly oniony, thinly sliced, apparently boiled spleen we were served at the same meal, the best (the only) spleen I had ever eaten.
Until, that is, we went to Salute. Salute is a kosher Uzbeki restaurant in Rego Park, Queens, a neighborhood brimming with ex-Soviet immigrants who have made their first move up the American real estate ladder from Brighton Beach, the Brooklyn community that has long been known as Little Odessa. In Little Odessa, the restaurants seem to specialize in boiled potatoes, overcooked roasts and enough vodka to float Long Island. But at Salute, they serve a spleen sausage that arrives as a grayish ring of what appears to be caulking compound stuffed into a shimmering casing of beef intestine. Like nearly everything else the Organ Eaters consume, it tastes far, far better than it looks.
This may sound like faint praise. So let me elaborate: Ground into a nicely textured hash, flavored with dill and onion, kosher Uzbeki spleen sausage would be a huge hit at any faux French bistro in downtown Manhattan--if they called it saucisson d'hiver, and didn't tell you what it was.