Emiko's Big Feast: The Ethics of Eating Offal

April 19, 2012

We want you to throw big parties, tell us about it, and win big (big!) prizes from Le Creuset. (Find out more here.) All week, we're featuring Emiko Davies as she documents her whole-hog feast, La Maialata. 

Today: Emiko discusses the ethics and connotations of eating offal. Check out her earlier posts, The Butcher Knows Best and Pig's Blood for Dessert -- and stay tuned tomorrow for her feast in all its glory!

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- Emiko

The very word ‘offal’ (which sounds too much like ‘awful’) usually causes a look of disgust on the person whose ears have been offended. Perhaps the word needs to be changed, the very fact that it comes from the Middle English word for ‘garbage’ does nothing to promote it as a sustainable and nutritious meal. The old-fashioned ‘Variety Meats’ attempts to euphemise offal but is suspiciously ambiguous. It could be something you’d find made out of circus animals.

I personally want to adopt the Italian general term for offal, quinto quarto, or the ‘fifth quarter’. The offal organs are apparently equivalent to one quarter of the weight of the animal, but for butchering and eating purposes, it’s sort of an invisible quarter, a fifth quarter. While quinto quarto is a term that originated in Rome’s most famous slaughterhouse, even more commonly Italians simply use the specific word for each organ and remain very aware about what it is they are eating – no prettying-up of names of dishes (chitterlings sounds very cute, if you didn’t know what it was) or disguises of any kind.

What exactly is it about the suggestion of offal that causes such displeasure? Is it because it’s identified more closely to its origins than, say, processed ham or a generic hamburger? Surely it’s a good thing to know where your food comes from and exactly what is in it. It is a little bit concerning just how detached many consumers in Western society are when it comes to buying meat, not just in butchers but even more so in the supermarket, as this article in The Monthly touches on. Katherine de Niese of Montague Park Café in Melbourne puts it perfectly, “Visually, supermarkets make meat so easy to look at so people don’t associate it with animals. But it deserves that respect.”

What makes offal so different from our favourite meat products? Ribs and rump steak usually top the list, the best quality sausages you can find are most likely filled in animal intestines and one of the best parts of beef or pork has got to be its cheeks. Are we too selective when it comes to recognizing where our food is from? Think about these favourite meat products, are they really so different from tripe, the trotters or the kidneys? Is it that we are too spoilt for choice? Offal traditions for many still speak of times of such poverty that nothing else could be afforded and nothing was wasted, but over the past fifty years, as my father said when I quizzed him about the offal that my grandmother dabbled in, “Better things have come along.”


University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Paul Rozin has an interesting theory brought on by his research into ‘disgusting food,’ almost all of which is animal-derived. A disgust of bodily functions in general is part of what makes the eating of organs a taboo in Western society. Offal, in other words, reminds us a little too strongly of our own animal nature and quite frankly, our own mortality. 

But I still propose the question as a happy and conscientious omnivore, what’s not to love about knowing which part of the animal your meat comes from?

Not only does being a conscientious omnivore mean thinking about the provenance of your food, but what about the ‘environmental’ argument? For those that do choose to eat meat, surely we should make the most environmentally-friendly choices, just like we do when we decide to recycle, compost or walk. 

Food waste on a global level is becoming increasingly alarming – there is an excellent (and frightening) article on this subject by Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland and the blog Wasted Food. As meat eaters, we should really think about our responsibility to eat the whole animal and the repercussions on the planet of wasting an alarming percentage of it. There really isn’t much of a good excuse not to. Butcher of London’s The Ginger Pig, Tim Wilson, calls the pig the “ultimate sustainable meat.” You can eat everything but the squeal, as they say. Plus – and this should be motivating if the other points aren’t sinking in yet – offal is dirt cheap and if you learn what to do with it, it’s incredibly tasty and nutritious.

Not only will it be better for the planet, but what about the ethics, honouring the life of the animal that was destined to feed you? This really came home to me on two separate occasions of my life. 


The first was when I was about ten years old, holidaying in the mountains in Japan with my family. We were eating one day in a beautiful restaurant by the side of a lake, where the food looked like works of art, but when the waiter brought to the table a plate of just-caught sashimi, served on the perfectly cleaned bones (head and tail intact), so fresh that the nervous system was causing the tail to flap about and the mouth still look like it was gasping for air, my younger siblings and I screamed in unison. My mother gently explained to us that the chef wanted us to know how fresh the fish was and that this fish had given its life for our lunch and that we should honour it. It just clicked and I never had a problem eating anything ever again. We ate – and enjoyed – it down to the last bite. 

The other experience was more recent – I witnessed my first pig butchering at a friend’s family farm in Tuscany. I was struck by the brilliant use of the entire animal, not a single piece of it went to waste. The Calabrians have a saying that goes, “He who kills a pig is happy for a year, he who marries is happy for a day.” If we were all our own farmers and butchers, perhaps we would be more careful about respecting the whole animal, not simply eating one part of it and then throwing the rest away. It’s easier to do this when you buy pre-packed pieces in a supermarket of course, but think about this the next time you only reach for the chicken breasts or those pork chops – what happened to the rest of it?

Le Creuset has generously offered to reward our Big Feasters for all their hard work, and as our second Big Feast, Emiko will win, in the color of her choice (flame, cherry, fennel, Caribbean, or Marseille): a 3 1/2-quart round French oven, a 9-inch iron handle skillet, and a 1 1/4-quart precision pour pan. Pitch us your Big Feast at [email protected] for a chance to win up to $500 in Le Creuset booty.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Sophie Boo
    Sophie Boo
  • Emiko
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  • Midge
  • Evie
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.


Sophie B. April 8, 2013
100% correct.
Emiko April 19, 2012
You're right, and that's why Testaccio's trattorie are so well-known for their offal dishes - they've had plenty of practice, as the workers would take their "pay" to get cooked up for them in delicious and hearty dishes! The food in this neighbourhood just blows me away - talk about flavour and knowing what to do with offal to bring out its best side!
pierino April 20, 2012
Another excellent cookbook, although difficult to find, is "The Food of Rome and Lazio: History, Folklore and Recipes" By Oretta Zanini de Vita. De Vita is to Roman cooking as Marcella Hazan is to the Veneto. American chefs such as Mario Batali make pigrimages to vist her kitchen. The translator is a friend of a friend.
sygyzy April 19, 2012
I understand the point of the piece but I think the word "ethics" was improperly used in this case.
Emiko April 19, 2012
For me, eating offal (or considering anything that reasonably lessens food wastage) is certainly a topic that I would consider "ethical" in a number of ways (not only about wasting edible food but also from the viewpoint of honouring the animal) - of course these issues may not be important to everyone and I'm not suggesting that everyone has to think this way, but I do think it's a topic worth questioning and thinking about.
Midge April 19, 2012
Thank you for another brilliant piece, Emiko. You are so lucky to have a butcher like this! What your mom said about the fish are words to live by for sure.
Evie April 19, 2012
Hi Emiko
I've just been watching Gennaro Contaldo on "Two Greedy Italians - Still hungry" on BBC2 (new series started tonight) making the chocolate and pig's blood pudding. The programme covered the whole process of killing and using all the parts of the pig. If you can, take a look. It was so good to see the children getting involved. It all seemed so familiar after reading your posts describing it so well.
As ever, I'm full of admiration of your writing.
Emiko April 19, 2012
Wow, I'll have to look that episode up, thanks for letting me know!
arielleclementine April 19, 2012
this was a really inspiring piece of writing. i especially loved your mom's words about the fish- so beautiful. thanks for sharing!
SpiceRoots April 19, 2012
Brilliant and well written article. I really found it interesting when I moved to the US 5 years ago that there were no butcher shops. Which meant that if I wanted to cook something with a lamb stomach or liver or kidney, I had to hunt hard. I still have to travel some distance, but I have since found a local butcher.

And Salute to your mom for instilling thankfulness for the bounty we receive from nature.
Burnt O. April 19, 2012
I can get fresh pig offal (hearts, lungs, liver, pancreas, etc.) from the local Asian market, and have always wondered how best to prepare it. I mean, someone has to be buying their 4 pack of pig hearts - right? I look forward to the rest of your post for ideas, but I may start simply by grinding some up for sausage or ragout.
Emiko April 19, 2012
If you can get your hands on some old Roman dishes, you'll find plenty of ideas there! Ada Boni's Talisman of Happiness (written in 1927) has a pork heart soup and several pork liver recipes, amongst others. My husband's aunt does one with lungs that i need to get her to show me!
ChompingTheBigApple April 19, 2012
Though I have become much more aware of where my meat comes from and have tried to open myself up to all parts of the animal, certain offal bits are still intimidating to me when I consider preparing them at home for the first time. This is an inspiration to get out there and be more willing to "cook whole hog" and let go of the fear.
theindolentcook April 19, 2012
I grew up in Asia, so offal is a part of regular dining experiences. I agree - if an animal has been sacrificed for our benefit, we should at least try not to let any go to waste. Plus, offal can be so delicious, so it makes sense on that level too.
pierino April 19, 2012
I love this piece. And I'm a long time devotee of the quinto quarto of Rome's Testaccio district where I have dined many times. In the old days the slaughterhouse workers were partially paid with that fifth quarter. I will eat anything but the fur and feathers. I love the morcilla sausage of Spain (boudin noir in France, blood pudding in England) which is made from blood collected quickly from the freshly slaughtered porker. I'm thankful that I now live in a place where a real butcher will provide me with anything I can think of asking for. And he appreciates that I respect his craft.