Chef Fergus Henderson, owner of one of the most influential restaurants in the world and recipient of a coveted Michelin star, has made a name for himself by cooking offal. That’s not all he cooks, of course, but when Henderson wrote a book called The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, he sparked a movement.
In the book, he describes how to cook every part of a pig, with recipes such as Rolled Pig’s Spleen, Warm Pig’s Head and Crispy Pig Tails. Some of the recipes pose a serious challenge to the home cook, requiring many days to complete or calling for difficult-to-secure ingredients such as lamb’s brains, fresh pigeon and quarts of pig blood.
click image to zoom The book attracted an ardent following and became a source of inspiration to foodies and chefs, among whom Henderson is a hero. (“The World’s Most Influential Chef” was the title of a Men’s Journal article about Henderson.) Blogs such as www.eatingnose totail.com and www.nosetotailathome.com, where the author endeavors to cook his way through Henderson’s book, have appeared. An event called FergusStock is held annually in Manhattan, during which chefs participate in various Henderson-inspired cooking events. The philosophy has been translated to the fruit and vegetable world as well (stem-to-root eating), where adherents argue that we don’t have to throw away those carrot tops, broccoli stalks or melon rinds.
In his introduction to Nose to Tail Eating, chef Anthony Bourdain says Henderson’s cooking stands as an “outrageously timed head butt to the growing hordes of the politically correct, the PETA people, practitioners of arch, ironic Fusion Cuisine, and all those chefs who were fussing about with tall, overly sculpted entrées of little substance and less soul.”
But nose-to-tail is not only a celebration of food and an exploration of culinary possibilities but a reproach of our wastefulness. Henderson himself has said he’s motivated by an opposition to waste more than anything else, and it’s not exactly news that we could be far more efficient with food. One study showed that Americans waste 27 percent of the food that’s available for consumption (a category that likely didn’t include most offal). And it’s not just this country. In England, a third of the food purchased ends up getting tossed; in Sweden, it’s one quarter, according to the New York Times. The rising cost of food recently has brought this subject surging back to the fore and inspired people to think about getting more out of the food we produce.
The overlap of waste reduction with nose-to-tail and stem-to-root eating is obvious, and as many observers have pointed out, it isn’t really something new, but something old, that Henderson is practicing. Not too far back in our own history, our forefathers were making use of every part of their livestock and plants, out of general frugality if not sheer necessity. Americans were eating offal pretty regularly into the 1900s (plenty of ranchers still love a good calf fry, of course), and across the world, many people do to this day. We came to wastefulness quite recently. But bringing back brains and feet and hearts could be a tough sell for many Americans, who have learned to prefer that their meat come as a cellophane-enclosed rectangle, unrecognizable as part of a living creature.