Chitterlings…and mageiritsa

12 Apr

What are chitterlings, or chitterlins, or chit’lins?  They’re pig intestines, which people eat all over the world wherever they eat pigs.  (Where they don’t, they eat lamb intestines.)  Unfortunately, in the United States, the only people with the sensory refinement to appreciate them are African-Americans.  (And yes, girlfriend, the casing on that $25 a pound artisanal Calabrian soppressata you get at Whole Foods…pig gut.)

“Mageiritsa” is a Greek soup made of lamb offal that is made at – and only at – Easter.  It’s an incredibly time-consuming and labor- intensive production, which is probably why.  First comes the all-day or over-night simmering of the lamb’s heads and feet, to get the appropriately kelle paça type broth necessary.  (Kaleh pacheh seems to be a Friday after-prayer tradition in Afghanistan, so starting Thursday morning in front of all the butcher shops in Kabul, usually collected on one street, and by shacks along roads leading out of the city that seem to open just for that purpose, one sees giant piles of recently severed, bloody heads next to piles of bloody feet, both still in their fur, swarming with flies.  It’s a beautiful sight and one that, like so many other things in Afghanistan, I didn’t get a photo of while there because I thought I would embarrass people by taking pictures of things that I was afraid they would think I thought backwards.)  Then comes the cleaning out of faeces from about a football field’s length of lamb intestines (below), which is not that bad because they come from young animals that only eat grass anyway so it’s kind of the texture of baby poop.  (The European Union Daddy-State tried to ban the sale of intestines a few years ago and the Greeks to their credit, which I don’t grant them often, got into an uproar and Brussels backed down.  I actually have a theory that the intestine issue was the behind-the-scenes deal-breaker between the EU and Turkey, and rightly so; make me bend over backwards about how I run my country, make me reorganize my economy to enrich you and impoverish myself, treat me like an unwanted guest because I’m Muslim, but I’ll be damned if you take away my kokoreç.*)  Then you braise the intestines, and the sweetbreads (thymus glands) and hearts and kidneys in the broth (some people use liver or spleen and testicles too, but I don’t ‘cause the liver and spleen can get bitter and the testicles retain an unpleasant spongy texture when boiled which they don’t when grilled, or when sautéed with oil and a ton of garlic like they do with the bull’s balls in Spain after a bullfight — talk about sympathetic magic – and are quite yummy — see bottom.)  Then they’re all minced up, browned in a healthy amount of butter, added to the broth with lots of scallions and dill, some rice, and, just before serving, terbiye-d** with eggs and lemon.

Intestines

It’s generally acknowledged that I make the best mageiritsa in the world.  You can get pretty good mageiritsa lots of places, but mine is the best…in the world.  When I serve it at Easter, some people can’t get enough of it and some people politely decline.  Others, unfortunately – and tellingly, it’s usually younger Greek-American family – have always felt they have license to grimace and make faces of disgust and revulsion.

Mageiritsa — the finished product (click)

It’s bad enough that so much art and time and work on my part should be met with that kid of rudeness.  Then I have to listen to the anthropology tes poutsas about how people only used to eat that stuff because they were poor and they had to eat everything available, like eating intestines were the equivalent of the dirt-eating that tragically occurs in third world countries under famine conditions.  No they didn’t; they ate those things because they taste good.  Organ meats perform more complex biochemical functions in our and other animals’ bodies than muscle does; joints: feet and hocks, are complexly interconnected with tendons and cartilage of various kinds.  They therefore have more varied textures, mineral content and other elements, which gives them a richer and more varied taste than regular flesh has.  As mentioned in this brilliant book Nourshing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats by Sally Fallon, when a carnivorous animal (which we are, by the way; ignore false, scientifically faulty Vegan and Buddhist propaganda) kills another animal in the wild, the first thing it goes for are the guts because it instinctively knows they’re the most nutritious part.  Instead of teaching their kids the value and variety of our traditions or pointing out the beautiful economy with which our ancestors made use of every part of the animal, or their respect for and intimate knowledge of the world, the plants, and the animals which fed them, as opposed to our obscene wastefulness and complete alienation from any food which actually looks like food or reminds us of where it comes from, these people stupidly and condescendingly put it down to their poverty.

I never, ever heard anyone in older generations reminisce about the breast of any chicken or the dry, grey boti meat of a traditionally over-cooked Greek leg of lamb.  My mother used to wax nostalgic about an aunt’s Sunday pacha or the street kokoretsi they sold down by the lake in Jiannena next to the Karagöz puppet box (you’d get slices of it on wax paper, that or a cone of pumpkin seeds or a stick-full of pişmaniye and sit and watch Karagöz and Hacivat’s brilliant antics; I can’t be grateful enough that all these survived until I myself was a child.)  If a whole animal were roasted, the kids would fight over the head and its brains, tongue and the delicious, gelatinous cheek flesh.  And pig feet and andouillete are enjoyed in the best Parisian bistros, not just in supposedly impoverished Balkan or South American villages.

It’s a growing ecological disaster – a cultural one – and that’s what depresses me most.  We’re tangling ourselves (like most things modern, it starts in America but is spreading throughout the world) in such a neurotic, kosher-like web of food anxieties and hysteria that we’ll have soon lost access to half the things humanity used to enjoy at the table if we haven’t already.  I truly believe that it’s a phenomenon connected to the disappearance of other forms of diversity:

“All these seemingly disconnected events are the symptoms, you could say, of a global epidemic of sameness. It has no precise parameters, but wherever its shadow falls, it leaves the landscape monochromatic, monocultural, and homogeneous. Even before we’ve been able to take stock of the enormous diversity that today exists — from undescribed microbes to undocumented tongues — this epidemic carries away an entire human language every two weeks, destroys a domesticated food-crop variety every six hours, and kills off an entire species every few minutes. The fallout isn’t merely an assault to our aesthetic or even ethical values: As cultures and languages vanish, along with them go vast and ancient storehouses of accumulated knowledge. And as species disappear, along with them go not just valuable genetic resources, but critical links in complex ecological webs.”  — “In Defense of Differerence.”

“Oh, this is so salty.  Oh, this is so fatty.  Oh, this is so oily.  Oh, this must have so much cholesterol; I can feel my arteries clogging.  Eeew, this has liver in it.  It’s what?! Made with blooood?!”  (You can’t imagine how many people I’ve known who had heard of blood sausage but thought it was a metaphor.)  “Ugh, this is so sweet – I can’t take a second bite.”  We think we’re so sophisticated but are pretty much as incapable of thinking comparatively or relatively as an Amazonian tribe shooting arrows at airplanes.  It never occurs to us that fattiness, or cloying sweetness, or fishiness or gumminess were and are qualities that people enjoy.  One of the most interesting pieces of etymology that I’ve ever learned is that the word “funky” – one of the few African words to have passed into American English usage – actually means “stinky” in whatever West African language it comes from.  But it’s telling that it’s come to mean what it means for us: weirdly, pleasantly off-beat.  Cool — in a way you can’t put your finger on — ‘cause it’s off.  Get it?  Like certain French cheeses when they’re good and ripe and smell like your boyfriend’s unwashed underwear, or the obviously slimy texture and smell – the obviously slimy look even, with all its erotic overtones — of oysters or other raw seafood.  Funky.  Yum.

Even in foodie paradise New York — where curious Brooklyn Heights ladies are taking butchery classes and where you’ve started seeing more and more of the kind of tastes and smells I’m talking about on restaurant menus: tripe and boudin and fatback (and if that’s a good thing to you because you love good food, you’re indebted more than you know for that to one man: one of my best beloved heroes, Anthony Bourdain***, who wrote in his first best-seller, Kitchen Confidential: “My body is not a temple; it’s a playground.”) – try going out to dinner with a group of friends.  It’ll take several hours of conference calling before everybody’s food concerns and quirks are taken into consideration and then, if the night’s not over, you’ve ended up at a least common denominator restaurant where one of your group is still bound to torment a busy waiter with a barrage of anxious questions, requests for substitutions, no peanut oil, “light on the butter” or the resounding, echoing sound of “sauce on the side.”  This is most often a white girl who doesn’t cook (“sauce” is usually a fundamental component of a dish produced by the entire, holistic process of preparing it; you can’t put it on the “side;” it’s not the jarred tomato sauce you grew up eating, babe; you can’t make a blanquette de veau with the sauce on the ‘side,’ or a mole poblano with the mole on the side!) or it’s someone who has never worked in that business and has no idea what a tightly organized military operation a good New York restaurant is and what chaos that behavior throws both the floor and kitchen staff into, not to mention the offense to the chef himself and his line, who might not just be doing their jobs, but might actually be proud of the carefully conceived and prepared dishes they’re trying to put out.

I understand people have different tastes and that they even have different biochemical make-ups that might make certain tastes seriously unpleasant to them.  I mean, even Tom Colicchio doesn’t like okra, which I love, but I don’t hold it against him.  (I just know that he hasn’t eaten them properly prepared).  But the preparation and sharing of food is such a fundamental part of most human socializing and it’s become almost impossible to conduct in any civilized form through this thicket of prohibitions and fears. Which brings me to my final point: the social aspect, which includes issues of hospitality, personal pride, and what Greeks call philotimo, all heavily weighted and codified issues in ‘our parts.’

But my intestines need cleaning, so I’ll have to tackle the rest of this issue in another post.

*Kokoreç (shown below) is basically the same ingredients as mageiritsa but spitted and roasted.  The organ meats are spitted and the whole thing is wrapped around with the intestines like a giant andouillette.  In Greece, they cut it in slices and serve it like that, which I prefer.  In Turkey they usually mince it all up with red pepper after roasting and put it in a sandwich, which is delicious but doesn’t allow the texture of each constituent organ meat to be appreciated as much.

** Terbiye, what Greeks call augolemono, is supposed to be an egg-lemon liaison sauce used in many dishes or to thicken soups and is the greatest culinary hoax ever perpetrated on the peoples of the Near East.  Very simply, the recipe, as usually given, does not work, and does not produce a thickened sauce but a watery, sour mess.  When you make a béarnaise or a hollandaise you use minimal acid (vinegar or lemon respectively) only the egg yolks and pure butter, ideally clarified.  It’s impossible to scramble some whole eggs with lemon, pour some watery liquid out of a pot of cabbage sarma into it and expect that it will produce something comparable.  If you’ve ever seen a truly smooth, thick terbiye, some kind of extra binder (corn or regular flour) was added to it, and if the cook tells you otherwise she’s lying.  Never underestimate the tactics a Turkish or Greek woman (especially one from Istanbul) will resort to in order to protect her recipes and ensure no one else’s version is as good; lying is the least of it.

***Anthony Bourdain

My man Bourdain — get all his books here.

International Meats in Astoria, staffed almost entirely by Mexicans, who speak perfect Greek and know every detail of innards terminology in not only Greek, but Serbian and some Roumanian.  A Queens insituton.

Bull balls at International, with liver to the left, kidneys on the right, spleen on bottom left, hearts on bottom right.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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