Nose to Tail Eating: Making Use of the “Odd Bits”
By Laura Poe | Photos By Jim Klousia and Jonnah Mellenthin Perkins 0
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are an abomination. Everything I know to be true about nutrition, cuisine, farming and respect for animals dictates that we should be eating so much more of an animal than this one cut, yet this is the biggest selling meat item at any grocery store. When you were sick as a child, your grandmother likely never brought you a dry, flavorless chicken breast that she had popped in the microwave for a few minutes. Rather, she would have brought you homemade chicken soup that had simmered for hours, because she knew a rich, healing broth is what you truly needed to get well. Your grandmother’s wisdom to use the whole bird is exactly what we need to bring back into the kitchens of today.
Eating nose-to-tail, which uses the whole animal, including the skin, bones and organ meats, is part of our culinary and nutritional heritage. Omitting these parts from our diet is extremely new in the scope of human history. Modern eating, especially in the U.S., has separated us from our meat so much that the idea of eating offal, or organ meats, is foreign to most of us, and this has implications on many levels. In order to improve our health and the sustainability of farming going forward, we need to get to know these parts again.
The organ meats of an animal, such as liver and heart, contain more vitamins, minerals and antioxidants than the muscle meat, which is what most cuts of meat are today. In traditional cultures, these organs were prized for their nutrient-density, especially during pregnancy and nursing. Just a generation before mine, eating pâté, headcheese, kidney pie, fried gizzards, and sweetbreads (the thymus or pancreas) were common practices, even in American homes. But faulty nutritional advice, lack of passed-down cooking skills, and the creation of processed foods have given rise to limiting meat intake to the muscles like steak, pork chops and, of course, the chicken breast.
While many of these cuts are certainly tasty and easy to find, they do not complete the puzzle of what our bodies need nutritionally. Foods like bone broth have started to make a comeback, thanks to trends like Paleo and other traditional food diets. Using the skin and bones to make a broth gives us collagen, minerals and amino acids that are difficult to find in other foods, and they help us with building cartilage, improving immune function, balancing blood sugar and healing the digestive tract. They don’t have to be on your table every day, but for optimal nutrition, try to have some kind of organ meat at least once a week and collagen-rich bone broth a few times per week.
Nose-to-tail eating is also the most sustainable way to eat meat, as it reduces waste and increases the amount of food used from each animal. To pick out a few cuts based on convenience and toss the rest of the “odd bits” is not valuing the lives of the animals that feed us.
The organs and bones can be difficult to find in conventional grocery stores, but if you look to our local farms here in Southern Wisconsin, you will find many sources of ethically raised, nutritious organ meats. Eating this way helps your local farmers generate revenue from cuts that might not normally sell very well at market. Check LocalHarvest.org to find farms that do direct-sales of meat, or check out the meat vendors at your farmers market. You may have to make special requests to find what you are looking for, but most of them should have something new and delicious for you to try. Even when buying basic cuts of meat at the store, try to choose those that have skin and bones on them when possible, as their nutritional value will be much higher and their flavor so much richer.
For professional chefs, cooking with the odd bits has never gone out of style. Customers did not seek these dishes out as much in the last few decades, but with the growing awareness of whole-animal eating, farm-totable restaurants are bringing more of these ingredients back to their menus. In the Madison area, A Pig in a Fur Coat, Sardine and Sujeo infuse their menus with these traditional foods, and Underground Meats uses offal in some of their products.
If you want to start eating more nose-to-tail but don’t know where to begin, try dishes like pâté, summer sausage, pho with housemade broth, roasted bone marrow, and lengua (beef tongue) tacos at some of your favorite local places. These dishes feature parts that may be new to you, which may help give ideas of how to use them at home.
There are also plenty of cookbooks out there with recipes to get you started, such as Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal by Jennifer McLaga and Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. Or try asking your grandmother for her favorite way to cook liver and onions.
To get to know your meat better, simply come to the table with an open mind, a respect for the whole animal and a curious palate, and you will find some new dishes to love.