Thursday, May 08, 2008

Using your brains.

May 7 ...

Today, if you will excuse a reverse of the usual sequence of events, I wish to start with a recipe. It will speak for itself, I believe.

Sauces for a Pig.
When you have cut up the pig, take out the brains and chop them, put them into a stew-pan with half a pint of white broth or gravy, the seasoning in the inside, and the gravy that comes from the pig, put a little flour and butter in to thicken it, and as quick as you can give it a boil up, and put it in the dish under the pig.
[The English Art of Cookery, According to the Present Practice. Richard Brigg. 1788]

Often, very old recipes have something about them that suggests the very modern – recipes that have at their heart some idea that would not be out of place at the sharpest cutting edge of cuisine. Fennel with ginger, chicken with grapes, turkey with raspberries for example. Worthy of rediscovery and rebranding. I cannot, however, imagine this pig sauce recipe on a modern menu.

Certainly, brains do appear on modern menus. In fact, they can be quite trendy. They are, however, usually the star item, not the sauce-bulker. The only real reason for using them in a sauce as in the above recipe is not to waste something that cannot otherwise be preserved, once you have sacrificed a beast for the table. Brains, let us face the truth squarely, are bland. The crispy coating (give me Parmesan breadcrumbs) are good in the way that any fried crumb coating is good. The sauce (black butter please) is also good. But the brain as an ingredient is pretty tasteless. Brains are the tofu of the carnivore world. This, to me, is the primary reason for not chosing them over osmazome/umami rich real meat. Or osmazome/umami rich mushrooms. Or a Vegemite sandwich.

There are other reasons why some eaters eshew offal (“the edible parts collectively which are cut off in preparing the carcass of an animal for food. In early use applied mainly to the entrails; later extended to include the head, tail, and internal organs such as the heart, liver, etc.”) Vague prejudice for one. This is a reason I refuse to take seriously from folk who are quite happy to scoff down industrial quantities of industrial-chemical laden foods such as commercial ice-cream or chicken nuggets. Why are these OK, but a slice of pure and natural fresh liver (with onions) is not?

The possibility of an edibly-transmitted unpleasantness such as mad-cow disease is a reasonable barrier, I grant. There was an extremely unpleasant similar condition called kuru which used to occur amongst the Fore people of Papua New Guinea – until researchers discovered that it was due to the tradition of honouring one’s dead by eating their brains – a privilege of the women and children of the society. I accept that in countries where mad-cow disease is prevalent, it may be prudent to avoid bovine brains, and I have never promoted eating one’s granny, but these exceptions aside, I do not believe anyone can quote disease risk as a legitimate reason for avoiding this particular morsel.

As an aside, my own dear mother (bless her Alzheimer’s riddled brain) firmly believed in brains as a suitable food for small children – on the basis that it made them brainy. This is a remarkably persistent medieval idea. But I digress.

There is the ‘totemic’ aspect of course. If one believes that the brain is the seat of the mind, and the mind is the ‘person’ (which may or may not be the same as the soul - I am shaky on the subject of souls) – then it may be inappropriate, insulting, or evil to eat the brain of a fellow-creature.

Having exhausted in this short story the reasons for eating, or not eating brains, I will end by giving you Richard Briggs’ alternative recipes for sauce for pig.

Sauces for a Pig.
Take the crumb of a penny loaf and rub it through a cullender, put it into a stew-pan with a pint of milk, wash a quarter of a pound of currants well, dry them in a cloth and pick them, put them in, boil it gently, keeping it stirring till it is smooth, and put it in a sauce-boat.
Take the crumb of a penny loaf, cut it in thin slices, put it in a stew-pan with a pint of milk, boil it, keeping it stirring and beat up till it is smooth, cut three or four heads of pickled samphir and put in, give it a boil up, and put it in a sauce-boat.

Tomorrow’s Story …

A fig for some liver.

Quotation for the Day …

An epicure eats with his brain as well as his mouth. Charles Lamb.


Lidian said...

This reminds me of my own late mother serving up liver and onions, much to my dismay...

Anonymous said...

I love this post.
It reminded me as well of the liver and onions that would be slopped in front of us at school.

The Old Foodie said...

I like liver - with onions, and with bacon - but not in school dinner style, cooked like leather.

Rochelle R. said...

My husband likes to tell the story of his Mother's "veal cutlets". Turns out the crispy patties were really brains. After that came out no one in the family would eat them anymore.