Book Review: Offal — A Global History, by Nina Edwards

Nicole Brownstein

As a vegetarian, owning a book about edible entrails may seem unusual, but nonetheless, Nina Edwards’ Offal – a Global History rests conspicuously on my bookshelf. This book is hardly a tome at 108 pages, yet it manages to give a very comprehensive history of one of the world’s more controversial cuisines.

The book begins with the definition of the word offal.  Rhyming with awful, it’s classified by Edwards as “organ or variety meat, entrails or viscera, innards and extremities…it can be brazenly meaty or subtle and refined. Consumed all over the world, it exists both as a staple food and sought-after delicacy”.  In regards to pronunciation, Edwards says, “it could be said to make a seductive shape in the mouth: the open vowel; the gentler sound of the ‘ff’; the pleasing closure of the ‘l’”. I feel I need a cigarette after sounding that out loud.

But this sexy definition is where the author stops complimenting offal and starts assuming that the readers are, despite their interest in the topic, actually disgusted by the very idea. Westerners, especially Americans, are the “least enthusiastic” consumers of offal. In modern American culture, lovers of offal are apparently a very special breed of people with “rural roots”. After reading that, I wondered if I should tell my Brooklyn-born grandmother that her appreciation of tongue and chopped liver could be attributed to her country lifestyle. I think she’d laugh at me and would go back to playing canasta on her iPad.

On the other hand, the religious ties to offal are strong and may be why it sits so conspicuously at the same grandmother’s Passover seder every year. Offal is prominently featured in the diet of many religions: it was a gift to clergymen, a staple for both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, and on the table at the Muslim Eid feast.

On the flip side of the table, Edwards claims the other big offal eaters are those who feel a strong need to assert their masculinity by eating so-called disgusting things. In the 1980s, Regional Testicle Festivals began popping up in the United States, but sadly this is as far as Edwards goes in describing these festivals.

This lack of elaboration is a trend in this book, which is Offal’s biggest drawback. One sentence about impregnating a cow just to slaughter it when its udders swell is not enough. And learning that Liberian culture suggests there is value in sacrificing a child and eating its brain for strength is not sufficient either.  Why touch upon these juicy anecdotes without getting to the meat of the issues?

The main point of the book seems to be the food’s social balance between the highbrow and low brow—simultaneously regarded as a delicacy for the very wealthy and respected, as well as the caloric grist for the ultra-poor. I think this book should have been marketed more as a comment on the edible class system (using offal as an example) and less as a comprehensive history. At the same time, I would definitely read a sequel solely on the various pseudonyms people have given offal, like prairie oysters or headcheese. Even sweetbread is an interesting twist on inner organs.

So, would I recommend this book? Yes, but with a pinch of salt. And also probably with a brown paper bag, if you’re queasy.

Nicole Brownstein is a Milano Urban Policy and Management student with a passion for food. When not in school, she works as an Education and Farm apprentice at the Battery Urban Farm and is constantly found with dirt on her knees and radishes in her pockets.