Bratwurst, Brains, and Balls ~ Gourmet Eating From My Childhood


 ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Only the names have been changed to protect …the guilty.

                Recently, I paid a first visit to a new ophthalmologist, who shall remain nameless. We discovered we were of overlapping Eastern and mid-European backgrounds. To our delight, we shared a great many cultural and familial experiences, not the least of which encompassed the foods – especially the meats – we consumed at mealtimes.

                Our mothers happened to be extremely educated women with a modernistic point of view in many areas, ranging from culture through sports through politics through nutrition. Some of these views were radical and eventually fell out of favor after the end of World War II. However, the doctor and I received a unique outlook on life through the women we loved. To this day, we still adhere to some of their philosophies which embodied humanism and human rights.

                Our mothers shared another trait, which brought tears of laughter to our eyes: they were not  particularly decent cooks, especially after they arrived in this country and couldn’t quite adjust to American measurements, American processing of vegetables, sugar, flour, coffee, and butter. Nor could they, as modern refugees, adjust to American processing of meats.

                I still remember from the age of eight a shocked conversation amongst my two grandmothers and mother. “You will not believe they throw away all the good parts!” exclaimed Oma Mausi.

The other two nodded agreement. “Why, when I asked for the testicles of the bull, the butcher dropped his knife and demanded to know why,” snorted Oma Feld. “He dropped his knife onto the sawdust!”

“How about the time I returned a tongue full of small buckshot and demanded a refund?” was mom’s contribution.

The three women shook their heads in disbelief.

Upon hearing this, Dr. H. laughed heartily. After we discovered neither of our mothers was a particularly good cook, we reminisced about consuming the weekly required liver dinner. Our mothers believed it was “good medicine”. Frankly, it was pure torture. “It wasn’t until I was an adult that I discovered liver can be quite delicious,” mused the good doctor.

But his thoughts did not stop there. He added, “And she lied to me. Mama told me if I didn’t eat the liver, she would force me to have weekly ‘and painful’ iron injections”.

With a perceptible shudder, I travelled back in time to the same situation in my own life and exclaimed, “I thought she meant actual ‘iron filings’!”

Briefly, we embarked on a gourmet culinary trip into the past, speaking fondly of the offal / organ meats from pork, beef, calf, lamb, sheep, goat, chicken, duck, goose. Offal/organ meats are mostly the internal “workings” of these animals, but also included hooves, bones, tendons, intestines, brains.  Pigeons, by the way, were not too small to produce sumptuous meals. The birds – up to thirty at a time, were de-feathered, cleaned out in one fell swoop, and then baked in a pie. No, blackbirds were not on our family menu.      

After I came home from the doctor’s office, I checked the internet about these so-called so-called awful (!) offal foods, also known as organ meats. They are, in this enlightened day and age, considered gourmet. Oh, the fond memories of those marvelous, cholesterol-laden, virus carriers!

Within our family circle, we regularly consumed the animals mentioned above. Cooked tongue, liver, skin, kidneys, tripe and other sweetbreads, hooves, and ears were de rigueur, as were soups concocted from the selfsame ingredients.  Though my own mother’s cooking abilities were, shall I say, “open to discussion”, my Jewish grandmothers, uncles, aunts, and assorted European cousins were superb chefs. My favorite uncle was indeed a master chef. Some family members considered themselves “an American”, and looked down on our culinary habits. In no uncertain terms, they emphatically said they would never eat “those sweetbread foods!”

More on sweetbreads further on in this essay.

The rest of the family happily set up ethnic food treats which they prepared with such delicious gusto. On occasional special occasions such as weddings, new births, birthdays, funerals, and even divorces, the family often ate at gourmet cultural restaurants specializing in delectable by-products, including brains. During the meal, the family dug in with gusto. American friends, who were often invited to join us, would look ill, especially when the waiters, with great flourish, minutely identified the dishes. A large platter holding the head of a sheep cracked open to exhibit a cooked brain was greeted by clapping and approbation by us. On the other hand, visitors often ran from the table, clutching their napkins over their mouths. They would return, if at all, gray and quiet.

What else did we regularly consume at home with such gusto?  My Good Uncle Chef, as I shall call him, regularly presented me with open-face pork-lard-slathered sandwiches on thickly sliced pumpernickel bread for a mid-morning snack. It took hours to consume this gourmet meal. Until the horrified school principal stepped in and forbade it, this was my preferred lunch which I brought wrapped in newspaper was brought to school.

Lunch and dinner was prepared by his wife, and we were always served treats such as fried skin, known as cracklings, and sweetbreads. All this, mind you, in addition to stews, sauerkraut dishes, and mushrooms prepared with cholesterol laden ingredients, including sausages. Did I mention unlaid fowl eggs, taken from butchered birds, which were cooked, sliced, and drizzled with finely chopped onion butter?

Speaking of sausages, we would all bring home the intestines of various animals from the butcher shops, wash and clean them, then stuff with  animal blood and ground / chopped meat and spices. These varied sausages, including bratwurst, were consumed with gusto.

Cooked bones served as appetizers, snacks, and/or dessert were all the rage. The beef and pork bones were sawed into fist-size pieces, then boiled until the marrow was fully cooked and set. Ox bones and ox tails were also regular fare at daily meals. We spent hours sucking the delicious bone marrow out. Tendons are considered hopeless by some European cultures – however, cooked tendons’ flavor lasts hours longer than chewing gum.

No, sweetbreads are not bread. They are glands and/or inner layers of organs. My relatives would jovially clean, slice, and then cook these pieces of calf, lamb and sheep, pork, as well as birds (chicken, pigeon, duck, or goose). I am highly amused to see Perdue now selling roasting chickens at a gourmet price / treat. As Uncle Chef explained, “They are nothing more than old, fat hens who can no longer lay eggs. “Their skin is fried in chicken fat, allowed to cool, then crunchily eaten.”

Oh, yes we can.

Time-honored fried dishes included throat, gullet, or neck. No body part was ignored. It was cleaned carefully, cooked in a variety of various animal fats, and served with pride.

An especial treat was heart, deep fried in the fat cut from under the skin of a particular animal. Similarly cooked stomach, glands, and testicles were presented with flare, and consumed with gusto. My uncle had a broad sense of humor and used to regale us at those meals with off-color stories about male body parts he called scrotalgrams ~ his pun was based on the word telegrams.

Alas! Good health demands we no longer sit around an animal’s head and scoop out cooked portions of its brain with silver spoons. Nor do we scramble eggs and brains into an unbelievable delicious omelet.

Today, at the age of seventy-seven, I am, in essence, a vegetarian. Chia seeds are my highest source of protein. My doctor approves whole-heartedly. This is the good Doctor P, whose office is near my apartment, and can see me heading for Dunkin Donuts down the road. Haven’t been in there for two years.

One can not but wonder if the few extra years added to our lifespan are worth the price of being healthy?

Ironically, with the exception of the Americanized Cuisine relatives, all of us lived to a ripe old age. Most of the holdouts died before age fifty. The doctors often explain to we, the survivors, “The American diet is toxic.”

I suggest you do your own research online to check out Organ Meats or Offal Foods. Fat, lard, fried skin, fried intestines pork cracklings,  sweetbreads or ris are culinary names for the thymus (throat, gullet, or neck sweetbread) or the pancreas (heart, stomach, or belly sweetbread) especially of the calf (ris de veau) and lamb (ris d’agneau) (although beef and pork sweetbreads are also eaten).Various other glands used as food are also called ‘sweetbreads’, including the parotid gland (“cheek” or “ear” sweetbread), the sublingual glands (“tongue” sweetbreads or “throat bread”), and testicles (cf. Rocky Mountain oyster). The “heart” sweetbreads are more spherical in shape, and surrounded symmetrically by the “throat” sweetbreads, which are more cylindrical in shape.   By the way, cooked and sucked bone marrow – chewing on tendons – better than chewing gum…

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