America is a funny place. All summer long, we will scarf down a mechanically separated pink colored slime in tube-form consisting of fat, cartilage, and “trimmings” affectionately known as the “hot dog”, but will shiver in horror when it comes to liver. It was ingrained into my head as a child, the nastiness of liver and the classic “old people dish” of liver and onions. There was a Hey Arnold episode I watched ad nauseam where Arnold and his friends took part in an eating competition. The dreaded final food one needed to eat in order to win was none other than liver and onions. Every time the phrase was spoken, there were shrieks or gasps, and probably the dun-dun-dun music. I can even hear Arnold’s voice now exclaiming, “Liver…AND ONIONS!” And so this food combination had to be disgusting. It’s on every diner menu in America, but no one ever orders it. There must be a reason why, right?
Prior to last weekend’s dinner at my friend Walter’s house (he is a good friend of Eating New Jersey and was profiled here last year), I actually had liver several times before. But these preparations were different. The first was in the Amish classic scrapple. The liver (and other offal) is ground ever so finely and mixed with cornmeal, before being put into a loaf, sliced, and pan-fried. The cornmeal and spices mask any funky taste from the organ meat. It takes on a sausage-like taste. The second way is in the sinister Filipino peasant dish, Dinuguan. Once again, we have liver and any kind of organ meat you can think of, chopped up and cooked in blood. It is a dish that tastes wonderful yet looks like it hailed a cab straight from hell. I think most adventurous food writers will tell you that once you have had something literally stewed in its own blood, there really is not much left to cause disgust.
But liver was not always like this. There was a time when ordering it off any menu would have met the same reaction as ordering a burger or ham sandwich. Like other organ meats, liver was once a cheap meal. For centuries, a good percentage of the population might not have been able to afford to put prime cuts of chicken, beef, or ham on the table with any frequency. For lower and middle class families, sometimes all that was available were the “trimmings”, as we say. Sub-par cuts of meat and organs could be turned into stews or packed into casings or puddings. Go to Italy today, or ask any Italian-American over 60 if they have ever eaten tripe, and I guarantee more will say yes than no. Today, aside from pate and a couple of other luxurious items which evade me and many others, liver is something which would garner a “Hell no!” if you asked someone if they would consider ordering it in a restaurant.
Having run a dining establishment for many years in New Hope, PA, Walter is a most gracious host. We were talking food a few weeks ago and I had mentioned liver and other underused cuts of meat. He asked if I had liver “straight up”, and when I said no, invited me over his house to try the classic dish of liver and onions. I will only focus on the two items in question in this post. The rest of our evening, a lovely dinner, will be profiled in part two of this write-up. For now, let’s get to the organ in question.
It was a multi-step process to cook such a simple meal. I use the word simple as an easy descriptor. The following steps will show that this was anything but. First, Walter cooked some bacon on a griddle. The bacon was then removed, and the onions were sautéed in the bacon fat. After the onions were done, they too were removed and the heat was cranked way up. The seasoned liver was placed onto the griddle, searing away for two minutes on each side in all of that wonderful bacon-fat, onion-juice goodness. Blink and you will miss it—the liver was done. When I cut into it, the meat was tender and nearly falling apart. I used a knife to be polite, but it was unnecessary. Slightly pink in the middle, the bacon (crisp) and onions (soft but adding a sharp bite) managed to remove any funkiness that might be associated with a piece of organ meat. That “minerally” taste was minuscule, but did temporarily bring me back to Dienner’s in Lancaster, where I first tried scrapple many years ago.
Looking down at it, the plate looked like it contained a steak. I am biased, but I say yet again how I cannot believe such a meal would be looked at in disgust by most Americans. Thankfully, more restaurants are taking the “nose to tail” approach, and liver (along with other offal) is making a comeback. If not, then it may be a case of us simply losing our way. With so many prepared foods out there, and others snubbing their nose at cheap cuts of meat, perhaps liver will ride off into the sunset. But not at Walter’s house. Thankfully not at Walter’s house.
You can read Part Two of my dining experience in a few days.