20120220-094845.jpgOne night, in watching an episode of No Reservations, I caught a glimpse of a restaurant in San Francisco that was serving sweetbread dishes for $28 a pop. Pig’s feet… $17.

Wait – sweetbreads? $28? Pig’s feet? $17?

Then, to find “modern cuisine” restaurants serving up “shredded pork” dishes, “modern” restaurants offering up “hamhock” dishes for $19… apparently the only people who appear to have a problem with eating offal are the people who originated and popularized its use in America: Blacks. I’m a little frustrated by the people who turn their noses up at eating offal – the accurate term for the entrails, internal organs and leftover parts of an animal – because it was “slave food.” I mean, let’s be clear. Our connection to pork absolutely comes from being enslaved and our responsibilities as butcher to master, but I don’t know that it deserves the ire it receives.

Back then, whenever you referred to “meat,” you basically meant pork. Mind you, we ate other meats, but they weren’t as common as pork. Possum and turtles, as nocturnal animals, were able to be caught during the night hours – the hours when slaves weren’t responsible for, well, slaving away – but with pork, the head, ears, innards and hooves were “gifted” to the slave responsible for butchering master’s hog every time “hog killing day” came around.

This wasn’t a novel or even new idea, though – when you’re used to only having access to meat when you catch it, kill it, and butcher yourself, you learn the importance of using up every part you’ve got access to. It is here that you learn that every part of the animal – much like the human body – is covered in muscle, some parts with a little more fat interspersed than others, and that the only way to survive is to figure out the wisest way to use what you’ve got.

Early African slaves were pretty creative, though. Even though the early West African diet was predominately vegetarian, they learned the art of boiling the fatty parts of meats, essentially making a nice, velvety broth for stewing vegetables. They mastered the art of cooking the fat out of fat back (bacon) and using that to fry (not deep fry, there is a difference) their vegetables, sometimes after they were coated in ground up corn kernels (also known as corn meal.) The fat doesn’t only affect texture and taste, though – many vitamins are only readily available to the body if consumed with accompanying fat.

There’s also the issue of nutrition. Meat raised today couldn’t hold a candle to meat raised prior to the industrialization of food. While pigs are, in fact, an “eat anything and everything” kind of animal, that doesn’t change the fact that they’re supposed to eat that way. They, much like many other members of the animal kingdom, are actually made to be able to survive off of ingesting anything and that “anything” helps them create healthy muscle that another living being – in this case, humans – can use.

Now, if you want to talk about the quality of that “anything” that pigs can ingest, we can… we just have to, also, acknowledge that there are pigs being grown without as much (or any) of the chemical interference and that those, too, can be grown healthily. It’s also necessary to note that those animals raised healthily without that “chemical interference,” nowadays, cost considerably more than they did once upon a time.

And, I suppose, that brings me back full circle. In a day and age where getting a healthily raised, “popular” cut of meat (like shoulder, ribs or legs) will cost you a pretty penny, why would we turn away the cheapest parts of the animal? As Blacks who were in this country prior to the industrialization of food, our original desires to live “high on the hog” came from our desires to live like the free men, the men on top, the men who owned everything, the men who – seemingly – ruled everything. Our desires to live “high on the hog,” both a play on words and a literal statement, came from an optimistic hope that we, too, would not only be able to be free, but be able to eat and feed our families the best.

Ah, but talk about “affordability” is tricky. We claim we can’t afford healthily raised meats, so instead of simply abstaining from meat (because, y’know, we can’t afford it) we accept the fact that we’re buying the cheap, poorly raised stuff. The offal – that often-stigmatized middle zone – is off limits to us as people of color. Why? Why is it slave food for us, but not for those restaurants serving it for $27 a dish? Italian immigrants make sweetbread dishes, and have for a long time. Latin cuisine incorporates cow brains and has for a long time. You can still buy them in the stores, in cans. French – and European cuisine, as well – both use offal. Us, however? Still hiding and running from our culture.

I’ve been holding onto, and using, this quote for years now, because it’s that damned good:

It reminds me of the “bike to work” movement. That is also portrayed as white, but in my city more than half of the people on bike are not white. I was once talking to a white activist who was photographing “bike commuters” and had only pictures of white people with the occasional “black professional” I asked her why she didn’t photograph the delivery people, construction workers etc. … ie. the black and Hispanic and Asian people… and she mumbled something about trying to “improve the image of biking” then admitted that she didn’t really see them as part of the “green movement” since they “probably have no choice” –

I was so mad I wanted to quit working on the project she and I were collaborating on.

So, in the same way when people in a poor neighborhood grow food in their yards … it’s just being poor– but when white people do it they are saving the earth or something.[source]

I trot that quote out all the time, because I think it’s important to acknowledge. I’ll ask it again: If we are proclaiming that we “can’t afford” to live “high on the hog” and, instead of abstaining from meat altogether choose to buy lesser quality pork with potentially deleterious effects, why turn down the cheapest parts of the animal? Look back at that quote, then read it again with a different twist:

So, in the same way, when people in a poor neighborhood eat offal in their homes, it’s just being poor — but when white people do it [in a “modern restaurant”] they are saving the earth or [sustainable or] something.

To those of us who are upwardly mobile, we’re all familiar. Assimilation is key. If you’re not in an industry that allows for (or even demands) your own personal spin on life, assimilation is vital to your ability to be upwardly mobile. Running from things that might stigmatize you as “other” (“slave food” is a ginormous example of this) are a huge part of that.

In my post about slave food not making us fat, a reader gave me pause in questioning whether or not it can truly be considered self-hatred, and I gave it genuine thought. I no longer think it’s entirely self-hatred, but merely a casualty of assimilation. You have to turn your back on a lot in order to “make it.” I think we, however, do ourselves a disservice by not only turning our backs on it but demonizing it, as well. Even though I can defend pork, I don’t eat it and haven’t eaten it in over a decade. I’m still not going to shade the person whose mother still cooks her greens with a giant hamhock or pig’s foot. (That person, of course, would be me.)

My only hope is that we raise the quality of our consumption, and leave ourselves open to the less popular cuts of an animal (that is, if you insist upon eating it) regardless of stigma… especially when that stigma is manufactured. (“White meat,” “dark meat,” anyone?) If we are genuinely and legitimately concerned about the cost of our food, then it is, in fact, in our best interests to forego any stigma and take the same route as those far more knowledgeable about sustainable consumption than ourselves. Breathe…and make broth out Exhale… and eat the damn hamhock.

The only person I know who cooks with offal is my fiancé’s mother, who was all too giddy to snatch the feet from the heritage bird we’d brought home from the farmer’s market, yesterday. She’s easily the most frugal woman I know. After writing this and looking at it this way, she might have to give me my feet back.