Published 13 September 202322 October 2023 · Food The whole animal Sheila Ngọc Phạm Nose-to-tail meat eating—also known as ethical meat eating—is a ‘new term’ given to an old-fashioned way of eating. It refers to preparing and consuming not only the choice cuts of meat, but also the preparation and consumption of the whole animal including brain, tail, offal, etc. NMAA Cooks: Recipes for Busy Families At Christmas lunch at the Revesby Workers’ Club, I tucked into thick slices of roast accompanied by the requisite mashed potato, peas and carrots. The lunch was a much-anticipated celebration for our hospital consumer group, which included many older white women. After more than a year of meeting online during the pandemic, it was wonderful to gather in person. As I ate, however, I started to feel like a mindless carnivore because I wasn’t even entirely sure what I was eating. For one thing, the meat was drowning under gravy. Was it pork? I really couldn’t tell, and it was too embarrassing to ask my tablemates. Instead, I thought of other questions. ‘So what did you eat growing up?’ ‘A lot of meat,’ laughed one woman. ‘Lamb, mutton,’ said another. I knew that before industralised poultry in Australia, a roast chook was rare. ‘So, not chicken, right?’ They nodded in the affirmative. ‘No, not chicken.’ One woman added: ‘We ate a lot more meat than we do now.’ At this point they were warmed up and I decided to blurt out a question which had occurred to me as they talked about the past. ‘Did you eat offal growing up?’ Everyone immediately grimaced, as though I had asked something truly distasteful. One woman flatly denied having ever eaten any at all. After a few long moments, another finally recalled, ‘Actually, we did eat steak and kidney pie. That was quite nice.’ They all murmured in agreement. The conversation disturbed me somehow, perhaps because the general lack of culinary continuity seems typical of Anglos. Perhaps this is the fate of many migrants who live on stolen land and do not keep up with their food traditions. Would this happen to me as well? Though given my inheritance includes a strong food culture, my eating future may well evolve in a different direction. Two weeks after that Christmas lunch, I was seated at a different table in inner city Adelaide, watching my cousin make phở. Two enormous pots of bone broth simmered on burners on the outdoor patio. Cooking phở had become a regular practice for him. He always made enough for dozens of bowls to feed the extended family as well as familial blow-ins like us. It was soothing to watch him methodically slice long pieces of beef tendon and stomach for his version of phở đặc biệt. ‘Dặc biệt’ is the most expensive phở in restaurants because it’s the one with ‘the lot’. It’s also the most nutritious version of the dish, and arguably the most satisfying, because of the additional textures of tendon and tripe. These bits of the animal are still mainstays in phở, though they do seem to scare off some younger eaters, like my cousin’s teenaged kids. However, I’ve been trying to buck the trend with my own two. When a bowl of phở was put in front of my daughter, she shouted out, ‘More gân!’ Everyone laughed and I swelled with pride that my kid was mad for soft beef tendon. * At the Lebanese butcher in Mount Lewis, I clocked all the offal in the fridge, commenting how surprising it was to see so much on display. Did people actually buy it? ‘They do, but the next generation don’t know how cook it,’ he replied. ‘There’s a traditional dish called ghammeh. It’s delicious, but old fashioned. No one has the time now to make that kind of food anymore.’ His six adult kids don’t eat gammeh either, let alone cook it and feed it to their own kids. Sales of offal have fallen with each subsequent generation in Australia—and presumably across all cultural backgrounds. If even a butcher’s kids aren’t eating and cooking it, it’s no wonder we’ve become one of the world’s biggest exporters of offal to Asia and elsewhere. According to Offal: A Global History by Nina Edwards, ‘as late as the 1970s offal was still being widely enjoyed in Australia, and so it is only recently that the stigma … has been felt.’ The Seventies were a decade before families like mine arrived en masse, so I can only assume these offal eaters included white Australians. This finds confirmation in NMAA Cooks, a classic cookbook Aussie mums have relied on since it was first printed in 1975. NMAA Cooks was produced by the Nursing Mothers Association of Australia—later renamed the Australian Breastfeeding Association—and the cookbook is a bona fide modern classic, which has been revised and reprinted around thirty times. Over the years, the original subtitle, ‘Recipes for Busy Mothers’, has given way to ‘Recipes for busy families’. Included are recipes of lamb rissoles and apricot chicken as well as international fare which became popular from the Seventies. The section originally entitled ‘Savoury meats’ has also been renamed to the more genteel ‘Nose to tail’. It features simple recipes for liver, tongue, tripe and lamb’s fry, with an intriguing note about how to hide the savoury meats to bulk out a meal and provide additional protein: Lamb’s fry can be finely chopped and added to hamburger recipes where it won’t be noticed, and also to minced beef in spaghetti bolognese. My Anglo husband grew up in the inner city and didn’t eat much offal. Aside from a few distant memories of eating kidney and pig’s trotters, the recipes in this book are almost as foreign to him as they are to me. A friend, also Anglo, reminds me that the greasy-spoon Oceanic Café in Surry Hills served some of the fare found in this cookbook. I never ate at the Oceanic because I always assumed it wasn’t for someone like me given how dirt cheap the food was, with dishes like lamb’s fry and chips with onions and peas costing only $5. I didn’t understand it as being a surviving remnant of diasporic British fare. In 2014 it closed for good after the owner, Nellie, passed away. In contrast with my husband’s family, typical meals my mum cooked included sauteed gizzards with rice and vegetables; sliced liver and hearts with stir fried egg noodles; pig’s blood cubes and intestine in congee. She still makes all of this. We also had yum cha regularly, and the core dishes for us—and to this day—include chicken feet, tendon, lung and stomach. I didn’t realise until I was an adult eating with friends that these dishes are largely eschewed by non-Asians. At home I was constantly lectured to about the nutritional value of animal bits, and was forced to eat all of it. Eventually, I learned to love it. These dishes weren’t just about cost savings, though my family did experience the kind of financial insecurity one would expect of resettled refugees; the point of these dishes was nutrition and maintaining our culinary heritage. After all, you can’t make a real bánh mì thịt without offal. * Offal is an ancient and obvious solution to cutting back on needing to ‘produce’ more meat, complementary with the broader shift away from eating meat which looks increasingly necessary given our ecological crisis. Buying more organic free range meat does not necessarily make you a more ethical eater—it just reveals your global privilege. For a nation heavily invested in farming livestock, our idea that offal is a problem to be exported rather than eaten is wrongheaded. What’s wrong with adding it to meat pies, anyway? The sporadic attempts by chefs and food writers making the case for offal are unconvincing, as what these advocates don’t appreciate is the answer probably lies in taking a more intercultural approach, drawing direct inspiration from other food cultures. It’s wasted effort to create hip new ways of making offal delicious, given there are already so many ways of preparing it that continue to work well. One of the under-rated benefits of multiculturalism is that it can enable robust cultural exchange. So not only does someone like me get to eat steak and kidney pie, you get to adopt eating phở đặc biệt. You even have my permission to ‘discover’ that the bits of the animal which are not the ‘choice’ cuts are not only edible but delicious. Over the years, I’ve wondered if growing up with offal is one reason I’m a good traveller, because I’m never afraid of what food I will encounter elsewhere. Haggis and andouillette were delicious from the first mouthfuls, and blood-based dishes anywhere are a doddle. Eating throughout Asia is a pleasure, and noodles with sliced offal swimming in broth tastes like home. That’s not to say things don’t go awry sometimes. I recall one time in Barcelona ordering an offal stew which was so rich and oily it defeated me, the kind of dish old Catalonian men eat with gusto. But fifteen years later I still remember it well. Now, more than ever, we need to reckon with our relationship with food and our consumption of non-native fauna. Developing an honest, grounded and more sustainable food culture will be aided by offal if it again becomes common fare, rather than deemed an undesirable product to export to other countries. Eating the whole animal is not only a nod to all of our pasts, but represents a possibility for our collective future. Image: Flickr Sheila Ngọc Phạm Sheila Ngoc Pham is an independent writer, editor, producer and curator working across the arts, media and public health. More by Sheila Ngọc Phạm › Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. Related articles & Essays 3 First published in Overland Issue 228 8 March 202227 July 2022 · Food Newtown mourns the closure of Lentil As Anything Ariana Haghighi In late January, Newtown’s pulse became thready after the permanent closure of its lifeblood, Lentil as Anything. The pay-what-you-can restaurant was a microcosm of mutual aid, and highlighted how community-oriented not-for-profits could operate on a larger scale. 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