I have a clear memory, as a young girl, of walking into our kitchen to find my father hacking up pigs' feet, preparing them for a pot of boiling water on the stove. I recoiled at the sight—I can still picture a coarse white hair sticking out of a lonely, pink porcine ankle. When I asked why we'd eat such nasty things, my father turned, cleaver in hand, his point slicing clear through his accent. "Because in the Third World, in the Philippines—where we come from—Spanish masters took all the nice cuts of meat. You eat what you can get." Through a wide grin he added, "And they taste gooood." My dad's words, along with being my first object lesson in colonialism, did nothing short of permanently influencing the way I approach food and the way I eat—the way I will eat for the rest of my (meat-, organ-, fat-loving, bone-marrow-sucking, lip-smacking) life.
In our household, like most immigrant households in America, "meat" extends well beyond boneless chicken breast, flank steak, and pork tenderloin. While I have failed to develop a real fondness for pigs' feet (also known, sweetly, as "trotters") or dinuguan, a Filipino blood pudding involving a hodgepodge of organs, I have a deep love for tripe, fish heads, pork neck bones, and shrimp heads and tails (tongue lacerations are well worth the flavor and crunch).
These parts, often discarded and considered inferior by typical American standards, should not be viewed as disgusting or even particularly exotic. They are, quite simply, parts of the animal that the rest of the world—the majority of the world—eats. Most people don't have the luxury of throwing meat away, and what is widely considered waste can taste and feel truly luxurious on the tongue. As you can imagine, I nearly imploded with excitement this past November when I came across this description of a meal, organized by One Pot, to be cooked and hosted by Sitka & Spruce in December: This dinner is not for the faint of heart. All Matt Dillon will tell you about the dinner is that it will contain heads in pots—seriously. Dinner is $45.
As the meal drew closer, though, I got nervous. It wasn't the thought of eating tongue or ears that scared me, but that I had no control, no idea what to expect from the experience. The gristly things I'm used to eating have usually been prepared by loved ones in a familiar setting, and eating this kind of food involves an intimacy and sense of humor I don't typically like to access with strangers. I readied myself in the days before: I went to the Uwajimaya meat counter and petted a large, brownish-black cow's tongue wrapped in cellophane; my dad and I cooked a bone-marrow stew with tendons.
One bite into the first course of chef Dillon's "heads in pots," coppa di testa (succulent, intensely flavorful headcheese that I can still feel dissolving on my tongue if I close my eyes and concentrate) and fried lambs' brains (crunchy on the outside, melty on the inside, like a fatty, flavor-packed marshmallow), and I was at ease. What followed—salad with crispy pig-ear croutons, farro with octopus heads, Kobe beef tongue (so tender) over white beans, and crepes made with rendered pork jowls instead of butter (sigh)—was an exquisite example of what makes offal so damn goooood. It isn't the novelty of animal parts that makes a dish, but the transformation of something strange or ugly into something rich and beautiful through careful, loving cooking. Anyone can grill a nice steak, but it takes heart and time to turn a cow's tongue into something you want to share with people you barely know and make bad puns over while helping yourself to seconds and thirds.
If curiosity or even a perverse sense of adventure baits you, offal awaits. Try testing the waters at familiar places—ama-ebi sushi (raw sweet prawns whose heads are served gloriously, battered and deep-fried) from Maneki, pho with beef tendon and tripe from stalwart Than Brothers, or the ham hock offered by Dom Polski at their public Friday-night suppers. The world awaits you.