I really hadn’t expected this, when I moved from the UK to California. I knew that some ingredients would be hard or impossible to come by, just as some would be utterly new – but a cow’s a cow, right? A pig’s a pig. Whichever side of the pond you are, animals have pretty much the same musculature and the same internal organs. I didn’t anticipate much of a culture gap in the meat aisle – and oh, how wrong I was. How very, very wrong…
In part, the gap expresses itself in availability. Society gets what society wants; it’s like an object lesson in supply and demand, trading countries and cultures, learning how much of what you took for granted simply isn’t so. I knew lamb would be something of an issue over here, and there is very little generally available – but I’d assumed that belly pork was universal, a standard meat all the world over. Not so. Maybe it all goes for bacon here, given that all American bacon is belly? At any rate, there’s none on the standard supermarket shelf. When I wanted to make my own bacon, I had to make a special run to the Chinese grocery. (Which was an object lesson in itself: in the UK it might not be exactly sensible to go to the biggest local Chinese supermarket on the afternoon of the Saturday of the Chinese New Year weekend; in California, it’s madness…)
I grew up on liver and kidneys and brains and tongues, but mine may be the last generation that can say that. In the UK, at least, liver and kidneys are still in the supermarkets, if not on children’s plates, though brains have vanished and tongues are rare; over here, offal is called “organ meats” and they’re generally much less common. Supply and demand, again – the culture here is much more wary, and even some of my foodie friends won’t touch them – but that is always subject to local variation, and we have a high Hispanic population hereabouts. So in the little local supermarket I can get chicken livers and beef liver and nothing else – except chitterlings. Chitterlings! Which I have never seen in a UK retail outlet, and only once on a restaurant menu. (Yes, of course I did. Brains and chitterlings. That was a memorable meal.) Around here they’re almost commonplace; and if I walk half a mile to the specifically Hispanic grocery store, I can get beef marrow guts, which I had never even heard of.
So there’s that, expectations and the market; but the actual butchery is different too. Americans break down their carcasses otherwise, and I’m having to learn a slew of new names and cuts. Pork butt! It’s from the shoulder! (I’m sorry, that still makes me giggle. I’m really a very simple soul.) Picnic is another cut of pork. Tri-tip is beef, from the sirloin. And so on, from the merely arcane to the utterly absurd. Boneless ribs? What’s that about…?
Also (and weirdly, given the nation’s reputation) there doesn’t seem to be as much meat here. The butchery sections in the supermarkets are significantly smaller than their British counterparts; there’s almost no meat at the farmers’ markets (locally, one discreet stall selling frozen packets, where the British equivalent would see half the traders selling their own sausages and cuts of rare-breed pork and lamb). This might just be local circumstances again – California, after all: such lovely fruit and vegetables to display instead – but it does feel as if my easy choices are more limited. Which I had not been expecting.
On the other hand, I only need to go a little out of my way. The specialist butchers are exemplary (I’ve had beef suet from one, lamb’s kidneys from another, caul fat from a third); that frantic visit to the Chinese supermarket yielded not only pork belly but pig’s brains, which I have never seen on sale in the UK; and the Hispanic grocery mentioned above has goat by default. If I wanted goat in Newcastle, I used to have to hope for the occasional lady at the weekly farmers’ market; here, it’s a ten-minute stroll any day of the week. In sunshine.
On the other other hand, the cats are quite explicit about the lamentable absence of proper sossidge in this country. I may be making bacon purely for my own amusement; I will be making bangers from necessity. Man* shall not live by bread alone – but by bread and sossidge, yup. Pretty much.
*And cats. They are firm on this one.