I just met Sarah L., and I absolutely adore her. She’s one of the few people that I’ve met who’s absolutely obsessed with food to the same degree I am. Today she’s cooking Rocky Mountain Oysters for me at her house. I’m basically trusting a stranger to cook a bull’s balls for me. I’ve threatened opponents with eating balls as a geeky middle-schooler unable to play kick ball, but actually eating balls. That’s something entirely different. I’ve never been to her house. I don’t know how well she cleans. I have no evidence of how well she cooks. I hear it’s easy to screw up offal. I’m new to all of this. When I try to imagine me eating bull testes, I sweat a little, my hands tremble, and my stomach turns. I feel crazy. I also feel adrenaline.
My first experience with offal was on New Year’s Eve of 2007. Dan and I ventured to Revolver Restaurant in Findlay, Ohio for their 8-course early seating. In that one dinner, we had fois gras and sweetbreads for the first time ever in our lives. Luckily for me, I was so buzzed up when I saw the fixed menu, I didn’t think twice. And when the plates came, I was scared for two mili-seconds but then dived into two proteins that, on my blog A Skirt Around The Issues, I described as “crack” because instantaneously I wanted more. I imagine that’s how it is with crack; I don’t know for sure. All I know for sure was I needed more of these offal, especially the sweetbreads. And I got it again and again, every chance I had at Revolver or other fine dining restaurants willing to share offal with their customers.
I’m giving background on my experience with offal, not for you, the reader, but for me. To build my confidence. I’ve eaten sweetbreads. I can eat beef testies. What’s the difference?
On the drive to Sarah’s house I started second-guessing my obsession with offal. Was I just trying to be trendy? If Iron Chef can use it as a secret ingredient, then I can eat it. Or was I trying to prove my food courage? If Bourdain and Zimmern can eat it, then so can I.
No. I think I’m doing this for my Grandma Rita.
When I visit her we always talk about food. These are conversations I’m addicted to. When I told her that Dan and I had eaten lamb heart at Lola’s in Cleveland this summer, she about fainted with delight, which made me a proud grandkid. That little trivial tidbit about our appetite led Grandma Rita and I into an hour-long conversation about food—then and now. Hearing from her how food was so different seventy-five years ago made me long to be in my eighties. “Back in the day,” she said, “we ate every part of the cow. We couldn’t afford to waste one ounce of meat, no matter what part it came from.”
I’ve been thinking about offal from a foodie point of view, not as a citizen. When I think about the bankruptcy stories my dad tells me, the foreclosures I see in the paper, and the students who tell me they have to drop out due to lack of funds, offal makes sense. Use the whole animal, not just the parts you “want.”
Then I think about being a carnivore. If an animal is slaughtered for my benefit, I feel the need to honor it. The older I get I realize food comes from somewhere. McDonald’s chicken nuggets came from a chicken. I want to know that chicken I’m eating. I want to see what it eats because what it eats is what I eat. I don’t have time for the games processed foods play. We’re all going to die. I want to die after telling my grandkids about how food used to be, not while eating the processed food of now. I owe it to the animals I eat to make use of every part in order to ensure the sanctity and honor of the gift they offer.
When I tell Grandma Rita I want to eat more offal, she says, “I’m happy someone in your generation finally understands.”
My ego inflates. Just a little. But I have no clue how to cook these innards, so I’m thankful for my friends like Sarah.
Sarah’s deep-frying bull testes in a well-used aluminum pan. She asks, “Are you going to start your piece with some background on offal? You know, that the term refers to the pieces that fell off of the table during butchering?” I answer, “Sure,” with a slight wine buzz that lightens the blow of eating these testes. But I’m not thinking about origin of the word offal, I shouldn’t make a run for it.
Before the first bite, it’s fair to say I am freaking out. I tell Sarah about my nerves but apparently I hide my left eye’s nervous tick because her response is a laugh. Deep-fried on a paper-toweled plate, I honestly am not scared of the little bit of balls. They just look like pieces of deep-fried sausage. I’ve eaten phallic-related food before. This is no big deal.
I cut a tiny bite, dip it into some Dijon mustard, pray, and put it into my mouth, fully aware of all the rap songs about shoving balls in a woman’s mouth. What empowered me was that I could chew and swallow. Eating balls made me feel better about all those ex’s. You couldn’t hack it; now look at me!
When Sarah asks me how they taste, I look at her blankly. I hadn’t even thought about taste yet. I chew faster to get to taste, which to me was a strange mix between a hot dog and liver. I like it. A lot. I take another bite and then another.
I’m writing this column feature about four hours after my last dose of bull testes and I’m living. Nothing will happen to you if you try offal. You might not like it. That’s about it.
In approximately half an hour, I’m going to deep fry the last of the raw Rocky Mountain oysters Sarah bestowed upon us. Will Dan like them? I don’t know. I’m nervous about cooking them and serving them. I know from experience wine will help both of us. One thing I know for sure is this Friday afternoon is probably one of my favorite Friday afternoons ever, with a new friend, a new recipe, and a new kind of offal.
Apart from obsessing about food and wine in Connotation Press and on her blog The Everyday Palate, Amanda McGuire also writes book reviews which have appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal, Literary Magazine Review, and Mid-American Review. Her poems have appeared in Noon: Journal of the Short Poem, The Cream City Review, 27 rue de fleures, So To Speak, and other literary journals. She teaches at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio.
October Food Articles