The Offal Truth
Our ancestors ate every part of a game animal — because it was delicious.
By E. Dan Klepper
My father, the consummate outdoorsman, would cook and eat anything. Not only was he curious about the way the natural world worked, he also wanted to know how it tasted. Huntsman, angler, trapper, skinner, gutman, butcher and cook — my father spent his entire life practicing the vocations that define the art of wild game. He knew precisely how to track, hook, bring down or reel in nature’s critters then make them fit for the table.
Hunting and fishing came naturally to my father as if their techniques had been threaded into his genetic helix. But he learned the art of butchery from his own father. My paternal grandfather was, among many things, a professional butcher whose toolset included meat saws, boning knives, cleavers and a hand-cranked sausage grinder. My father simply transferred these utilities of domestic meat science to that of wild game. Once he hunted something down and killed it, my father would bring it home to his very own backyard butcher shop, where an ark of creatures and all of their parts were skinned, quartered, de-boned, sliced, filleted, ground and then packaged for family consumption. Entire turkeys, rattlesnakes, quail, sharks, deer, catfish, javelinas, rabbits, panfish, white-winged doves, feral hogs, largemouth bass, as well as a number of exotics all saw the Klepper cutting floor — or would have seen it had their heads still been attached, which wasn’t very often.
One afternoon my father returned home from a freshwater fishing trip toting a live soft-shelled turtle he had caught on a treble hook. The turtle was the size of a 17-inch cast iron skillet. We took turns trying to slaughter it while the turtle retracted his head each time we drew the axe. But my father’s determination prevailed. He wanted to know what turtle soup tasted like. While I found the soup memorable — a dish which my mother prepared — it was not, however, because of the turtle meat. The reptile’s flavor was no different than any number of other curious meats we had eaten in the past — oddly familiar, palatable and slightly musky. I recall the soup fondly simply because it was the first time I had ever tasted sherry.
My father’s gastronomic habits were unusual even for a man who made his living from the outdoors. But they were routine for his Teutonic ancestors. Like him, they had hunted, killed, butchered, cooked and then eaten everything, and when I say everything I mean the complete animal, from snout to coccyx, dentary to tailfin, and skin to gut.
There is a prevailing misconception that our relatives of centuries past ate the entire animal, including brains, feet, viscera and even eyeballs, due to an overriding sense of conservation. But that wasn’t necessarily true. They ate everything simply because it all tasted good.
“Every meat is meat,” states an old Swahili saying. It is a sentiment that our early American and European ancestors no doubt shared, particularly when referring to their bounty of wild game. While the meat of domestic livestock could be found on almost everyone’s table, the late 16th and early 17th centuries saw game, specifically venison, reserved for royalty. Wild game, fish and fowl were extraordinarily flavorful before humans began to influence environmental factors that changed the way things tasted. The lack of pollutants and pesticides meant that the entire food chain, from seeds, browse and bugs to the flesh of the animals that ate them, retained its natural flavor all the way up the ladder. Whether one was eating the prime cut or the bony foot it once walked upon, everything about the animal proved savory. Thus all parts of the game animal, including a deer’s internal organs, which our English-speaking foremothers referred to as umbles, made it onto the supper table. In fact, the menu for the king’s meal often featured umbles baked in a crust.
To Make an Umbles Pie
Take the heart, kidney, liver and other organs of a deer. Boil thoroughly. Once the meat has cooled, shred it and add beef suet; season with cloves, mace, nutmeg and finely ground ginger. Mix in currants, the juice of unripe grapes, and salt, then place into a piecrust. Bake for one hour, then take out of the oven and cut a lid from the top crust and lift it off. Pour in some claret wine along with some sugar and melted butter beaten together. Then replace the lid of crust and allow the pie to sit a short time before serving.
This recipe, from America’s first cookbook compiled by Martha Washington in the 1700s, was transcribed by an author who assumed that measurements and proportions were to be left to the cook’s discretion — a cook who would, in fact, have already mastered the kitchen. The recipe also allowed the substitution of “ye humbles of a deere” for the hearts and lungs of domestic livestock, which were called “pluck.” With wild venison primarily reserved for the king, pluck from the farm was used by the masses more frequently in this recipe. The substitution hastened the corruption of “umbles” to the status-reducing “humbles” as quoted from Martha’s recipe, taking with it the dish’s standing in the social hierarchy. By the 1800s it had become commonly known as Humble Pie, a lowly dish appropriate only for the poor and working classes and portions of which were fed metaphorically to those who made fools of themselves.
Offal, a term that refers to the visceral organs, including the umbles, is actually a corruption of what was once called “off-fall,” or everything that fell out of a carcass when the butcher dressed the animal. The offal of both domestic livestock and wild game including the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, stomach (tripe), membranes, pancreas and testicles are edible. They are, in fact, more nutritious and contain significantly less fat than the cholesterol-and-hormone-laden slabs of packaged beef or saline-injected tenders of chicken that Americans have grown accustomed to calling meat.
The taxonomic classification Artiodactyla encompasses all of the domesticated, even-toed ungulates such as cattle and pigs as well as their tasty wild game counterparts, including deer, antelope and feral hogs. This allows a creative chef to modify his or her favorite meat recipe to accommodate cuts of game and game parts. This applies to fowl and fish as well. An outdoorsman who likes his stewed chicken gizzards may find wild turkey or quail gizzards equally palate pleasing.
To the Europeans, “turkey” could be either a guinea fowl, imported regularly into England from Turkish-controlled territories (thus “turkey”), or the American turkey of the Pilgrims. Shortly after bumping into Plymouth Rock, our first American immigrants recognized the turkey and all its parts immediately as good eating. In fact, it had already become a dinner entrée in the Americas thanks to its domestication by the Aztecs.
A wild turkey and its parts should be treated with no less enthusiasm today, prompting the sportsman chef to refrain from casting away the head and visceral organs harvested during turkey season. Instead, these bits can be used to create a delicious stock that can add remarkable flavor to soups, sauces and gravies. The following antique recipe will serve in the preparation of any wild fowl parts.
Turkey (or Fowl) Stock
To prepare the heads, scald them, remove the feathers and cut off the beak. Clean out the mouth and cut out any blood clots in the flesh of the neck. Place them in a kettle along with the feet, wing tips, gizzards, livers and hearts. Cover with water. Add salt and peppercorns then bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer for an hour. Occasionally skim the surface with a spoon to remove any fatty scum. Once scum stops forming, add celery, parsley, carrots, onions and any additional vegetables or herbs desired such as leeks or bay. Continue simmering for several hours, seasoning to taste in the process, then strain. Strain again and then filter in order to capture the pure liquid stock. Once cooled, remove any fat that has collected on the surface. Stock can be frozen for storage and future use.
Anglers toss a tremendous amount of fish parts during a routine day of fishing, much of which can be used to create a freshwater fish stock similar to the previously mentioned turkey stock or blended into the traditional French saltwater seafood bouillabaisse. However, our own Federalist Americans took one step further both in the way an entire fish was prepared for the table and the fish species they elected to eat. While trout blackened in Cajun spices is often the sportsman’s choice today, it may be of interest to note that some of our greatest Americans preferred the lowly carp boiled in its own blood.
To Boil a Carp in its Own Blood
Take a large carp, preferably a male during spawning season, still alive. Wipe it clean then cut off its head and let it bleed into a dish containing a little white wine. Once it has bled out, cut off the tail and cut the fish in two. Remove the internal organs and split the two pieces down the backbone. Place the head in the blood and wine mixture and bring to a boil. Then add the pieces of fish, sprinkle with a generous portion of salt, add an additional pint and a half of white wine and bring to a boil again. Add a branch of rosemary, grated nutmeg, several chunks of ginger and a cut onion. Cover and allow the liquid to reduce to a sauce, adding white wine to prevent it from boiling away. In a separate dish heat 5 or 6 anchovies in a little white wine and butter until the anchovies are dissolved. Add this mixture slowly to the liquid along with 10 oysters and additional butter up to half a pound. Once the sauce is cooked to taste, remove the fish, place on a platter, pour the sauce over the fish, and garnish with lemon and barberries.
It is an odd but ancient recipe, readily adopted by our American forecooks, and no reason comes to mind to argue against substituting any other freshwater fish for carp. Peeled shrimp could replace oysters and a little ground sausage might serve for anchovies. Barberries, on the other hand, might require some bushwhacking unless the chef is prepared to use cranberries in their place.
Safety practices regarding the preparation and cooking of wild game and its parts are no different than those utilized for any other kind of meat. Diligent and rigorous cleaning, caution and care in preparation, and thorough, hot cooking for appropriate lengths of time are the ideal precautions in any culinary pursuit. “The proper temperature,” my biologist mother has said, “will kill anything.” She should know. My father provided her with a lifetime of raw, out-of-the-ordinary meats to prepare, yet not one of us ever became ill after eating a meal that came from her kitchen.
The decline in the acceptance and consumption of all but the most visually palatable cuts of meat has been a long and unfortunate disengagement from our rich, gastronomic history. Today most Americans haven’t any idea what their main course looks like at its genesis, and despite an aversion to eating the “variety meats” (i.e., guts) of a critter, the ingredients in much of the processed meats that Americans routinely consume contain an assortment of animal parts that would never make it onto the backyard grill much less the dining room table. Add to it the chemically manufactured taste of processed foods today, and all natural flavor, the essence of what makes cooking and eating good food a pleasure, has been lost. But Texas outdoors men and women have a wonderful opportunity to enjoy meat and fish as it once tasted, or at least as close as it can come considering our environment’s decline, because they can draw on a healthy supply of wild game. Why settle for a limit of venison back strap, quail breasts and red snapper fillets? By reviving a few hundred-plus-year-old recipes and using a little culinary ingenuity Texans can make the rest of the game animal taste just as great.