Are Organ Meats the Last Frontier for American Home Cooks?

Liver, brains, and spleen are sustainable, but is that enough to change American palates?
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Are Organ Meats the Last Frontier for American Home Cooks?

We’ve embraced homemade pickles and home-fermented sauerkraut; we’ve made our own sourdough starters and brewed our own beers. But no matter how adventurous we get, often in the name of sustainability, it’s still hard for us to consider approaching offal.

It would, of course, be more sustainably-minded of us to consume livers, kidneys, and brains alongside our pork chops, steaks, and chicken breasts. Not only does eating variety meats cut down on waste – currently about 60 percent of the animal, according to The Atlantic –, but these cuts are often high in essential vitamins and minerals. 

But despite our constant moves towards increased sustainability, these cuts remain far from the purview of most Americans. For our experts, there are five major reasons why.

1. They remind us where meat comes from.

While the push for sustainability across the country has certainly put the source of our food on our minds, contributing to demands for cage-free eggs and humanely sourced milk, at the end of the day, most Americans would prefer not to think about where our steaks and chicken fingers actually come from.

“Americans are squeamish,” says Ken Albala, Professor of History at the University of the Pacific and founder of the Food Studies MA program in San Francisco, “and I think the manufacturers of meat, meaning from growers all the way down to where it appears in your supermarket, realized that they could sell more if they divorced the idea of meat from an actual animal.”

This "conscious disassociation" has truly succeeded, according to experts.

“People really prefer buying chicken parts [over] the whole chicken, even though cutting it up is really, really easy," says Albala. "They would rather just not think of it as a living being.”

David Beriss, President of the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition and Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of New Orleans agrees, noting that while Americans do eat a lot of meat – an average of 222 pounds per person in 2018 – it's easy to ignore that a steak was originally part of an animal.

"But when you buy a raw tongue, it looks like a tongue!" he says. "It looks sort of like your tongue, only much larger. And that's kind of off-putting for a lot of people.”

For Camas Davis, Executive Director of the Good Meat Project and author of "Killing It," much of this aversion can be traced back to the industrialization of meat in America. This, she says, "took our knowledge of the whole animal as food away from us, to the extent that now most of us never want to be reminded of where our meat comes from.”

“Muscle meat is abstract enough that it allows us to pull the wool over our eyes and forget that meat comes from animals," she continues. "But heart? Spleen? Head? Brain? There's no disguising those.”

This is so ingrained in the American consciousness that it's hard to imagine an alternative. But in reality, this squeamishness exists in stark contrast with the reality in other countries like Italy where Albala recalls, he walked into one horse butchery to find the butcher was carving his wares in front of a poster of horses running freely through a field.

“I asked him - doesn't this bother your customers?” he says. “And he said - what are you talking about? They know this is good, healthy food. That's what the picture tells them. And they're happy to eat it!”

2. Organ meats are associated with poverty.

In times of austerity, Americans have long been encouraged to eat offal. Slaveowners often foisted pig trotters, tails, and intestines on slaves, keeping muscle cuts for themselves, and during World War II, liver and kidneys gained in popularity due to their more reasonable ration point price tag. It was in the 40s that the term “variety meats” was introduced to encourage Americans to include these cheaper cuts in their diets, and their association with lowered cost – and quality – has followed them ever since.

“Steak – not offal – became the symbol of American success,” explains Beriss. “If you’ve made it in America, you can eat nice steak, so why would you eat offal?”

There are exceptions, of course: ponce in Louisiana; Rocky Mountain oysters in Colorado; cow's tongue tacos in Mexican border states. But these are usually regional specialties and are almost always associated with rural populations. For the most part, Beriss notes, middle class middle America retains an image of offal as something you no longer “have” to eat when you can afford better.

3. They’re strongly flavored.

Most organ meats have a stronger, more mineral or gamey flavor than muscle cuts – not a quality sought out by the average American diner.

“People still hate liver,” says Beriss. “I remember going to dinner in New York with some colleagues, and we were in a fancy steakhouse, and we ordered liver, and the people sitting next to me were visibly upset at the smell as it came to the table. They were really annoyed that I had ordered it.”

This aversion to strong flavors isn’t reserved exclusively for offal, he notes.

“Another one that has fallen out of favor is mutton,” he says, noting that while mutton and slightly milder lamb were far more popular before World War II, both have since fallen far out of fashion.

“Much as Americans adore some kinds of strong flavors – the often-searing spiciness of Thai, Sichuan and Mexican foods come immediately to mind – most dislike strongly flavored meats, including game and innards,” writes R. W. Apple Jr. for the New York Times. "’Gamy’ is a term of opprobrium on this side of the Atlantic, and mutton is decidedly gamy.”

“Our tastes have become infantilized,” says Albala. “Generally, we like things that are bland and not really strongly flavored, and some organ meats, things like liver and spleen, have just disappeared entirely.”

4. They're not easily accessible.

Even for people who are intrigued by the idea of cooking offal at home, organ meats are not always the easiest cuts to access. 

Offal is heavily regulated by the USDA; kidneys and sex organs, especially, are prohibited from import, and lungs were deemed illegal for sale as food in the U.S. due to the likelihood of various fluids making their way into the lungs during slaughter. As a result, one often has to go straight to the farmer to source offal, something that only the most adventurous eaters are wont to do.

“So many sustainable and regenerative farmers I know keep getting stuck with bones and fat and skin and offal in their freezer because their customers don't want to buy it," says Davis.

The few exceptions are communities who consume offal as a matter of tradition. Albala notes that in his Italian supermarket, for example, he can access quail or liver.

“But you would never see a pig's trotter in a million years in a supermarket in the U.S., unless it was an Asian grocery,” he says.

5. There's no demographic to market them to.

Offal exists in a bit of a strange realm: while on the one hand, some adventurous diners are enticed by organ meats, Albala notes that in some ways, the trend that would have popularized offal among sustainably- or ethically-minded eaters seems to have ended before it really began.

“I think that allure has kind of worn off,” he says. “I think people have been largely moving towards vegetables.”

But thanks in no small part to members of the paleo and keto community, demand for some organ meats – particularly clean and transparently sourced ones – is nevertheless beginning to grow.

Joe Heitzeberg, co-founder and CEO of CrowdCow, a sourcing platform for ethically raised meat, is already seeing increased interest in cuts like liver, tongue, heart, shank, kidney, bone, and bone marrow. Some cuts that were once so unpopular butchers gave them away for free, like bones, oxtail, and diaphragm (colloquially known as skirt steak) are now becoming pricier due to increased interest.

“When I was a food editor over ten years ago, I wrote a story about bavette,” recalls Davis. “None of the butchers in my city had ever heard of it, and it was so difficult to even figure out how to get it, or what part of the animal it comes from. I convinced a butcher to put some in their case and they put a $6/lb price tag on it. Now it's going for $14/lb and you'd be hard-pressed to find a steak-house without bavette on their menu.”

Thanks in no small part to small producers, butchers, and chefs, Americans are gaining more insight into these oft-neglected cuts.

“When you hear one of your friends say, 'Beef heart is actually really delicious,' you kind of have that first reaction like, 'Ew, the heart, really?'" says Heitzenberg. "And then they say, 'Well, it's just a muscle, that's what meat is!' And it's really good.”

Thomas Moriarty, butcher and owner of Moriarty Meats in Buffalo, New York, agrees.

“I think it's all about how we in the industry present the meats,” he says. “I truly believe that the oxtail and the tongue have the beefiest flavor of any of the cuts on the animal. If you can accurately describe that to your customers, it's going to make it more appealing.”

He notes that he still prices these cuts to sell, and he's always ready with a recipe idea for customers "eyeing the offal tray:" deviled kidneys; marinated and gilled hearts; liver pâtés; the ever-popular veal liver with onions and bacon.

“I think it's telling people or trying to help them to cook it correctly," he says. "Not just give them the recipe but also understand why it might need to be treated differently than say a steak or a roast, which might be more familiar with people.”

“Unless consumers know how to cook something, they won't buy it,” Davis says. “Simply putting it out there won't make people buy it. I encourage it to be put out there, just to remind people it exists, to remind people that every part of the animal is edible, but we're working against at least two generations of knowledge deficit and bias against these cuts. It's going to take that long to re-educate and acclimate. Education is always a long game.”

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