Stranger in a Strange Kitchen, 03: One Man’s Meat

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.


About Chaz Brenchley

Chaz Brenchley has been making a living as a writer since the age of eighteen. He is the author of nine thrillers and several fantasy series, under the names of Daniel Fox and Ben Macallan as well as his own. Chaz has recently married and moved from Newcastle to California, with two squabbling cats and a famous teddy bear. You can find his work in the BVC Ebookstore.


Stranger in a Strange Kitchen, 03: One Man’s Meat — 8 Comments

  1. Do you cook all the time? Does Karen ever indulge?

    Your wife is a brave woman. I eat paleo mostly, so I will try a lot of things, but organ meat has never tasted right to me except minced into stuffing. Now that I don’t eat gluten, no stupendous Mom’s bread stuffing!

    Here we have a lot of grass fed meats, and soup bones can be found with a small amount of trouble. Beef, lamb, bison, goat, yum! Lots of people raising specialty beef and selling it frozen at the farmer’s market. Most of my experiences have been good, but the last guy won’t get my ground beef biz — hair in the grind. I have other vendors with outstanding meat and no hair.

    Try Whole Foods or any local co-op for sausage — people are getting back into it again. It may not meet your standards, but it might be a good stopgap in a pinch.

    • I cook aaaalll the time, yes. Karen cooked for me once, back in the early days before I lived here, but she didn’t noticeably enjoy it (tho’ dinner was very nice), so I invited her to lay down the spatula and step away from the cooker, and she’s never stepped back.

      And demonstrably she is a brave woman, she married me.

    • There’s still one organ meat that I occasionally make myself, because it’s so simple, that my mom introduced me to. She loves calf’s liver and we used to have calf tongue as well as kids, doesn’t taste half bad if you like it – although I’m not a liver fan. You can get that sort of stuff in regional restaurants still.

      Anyway, get 500 gr chicken hearts – these days there usually pre-cleaned and you don’t even have to defrost them, on the other hand they only seem to be available on certain days – and cook them with soup greens and some salt until no more foam swims on top (try and fish the foam off the top of the water). Also included should be one or two fresh carrots chopped into bits, as large as the chicken hearts. The water should be bubbling enough to build the foam in the first place.

      Aside: If the hearts weren’t cleaned enough for your taste before, just use a knife and clean them so more, until only the muscle and a tiny bit of cartilage is left.

      After having cooked them for a few minutes remove the pot and put a pan or skillet on the heated spot, put in some oil (not a lot if you have a pan with Teflon, etc.) and then, using one of those big ladles with holes in them, transfer the hearts and the carrots into the heated pan to fry them.

      Aside: if you had the soup greens tied together, you can now remove them in one go and get rid of them. I usually use dried soup greens in flake form (because I make this so rarely) and I put those into a tea egg and hang them into the pot – works just as well.

      If you have the pan at fairly high heat, you should hear popping sounds soon and the hearts turn crunchy very soon, so check on that. Stirring them would be best, especially as the carrot chunks burn faster than the hearts. When they’ve all got some colour they’re usually done and you chuck them on a plate (you’ll see that the meat has shrunk a lot) and salt them some more (if you want to) and add some freshly ground black pepper as well.

      Usually there are as many carrot chunks as shrunk hearts and we just eat them with farmers’ bread, which is not wheat but rye based. Very satisfying crunch, biting into the crust, especially when it’s fresh. Sometimes I drizzle a bit of the fat from the pan over the bread.

      This is a meal however that really is heavy and needs a lot of digesting.

  2. Have you been eating bison? Do you like bison? I am not a meat fan, but we get such very good bison. Also yak, we know a woman who farms yak, and it’s nice.

    • Aye bison. I made a bisonherder’s pie, and liked that a lot. Haven’t tried yak, for the simple reason that I haven’t seen yak. Now I know to look…

  3. When I was a kid, we used to have tongue a lot, but I don’t think I’ve seen it in my grocery store. We went to an old fashioned butcher shop and bought a month’s worth of meat at a time to freeze and use as needed, so we could get a wide selection.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen raw chitlins (or chitterlings) for sale, but they’re served in African American restaurants and used by people of Mexican heritage in making menudo, so they must be available somewhere.

  4. This is a very large country of very many regional customs that are constantly colliding with ever newer ones that arrive with the constant influx of immigrants from all over the world. So, what you’re finding in the part of California where you are living is very different from what you’d find further up the coast, or here in this NYC part of the Atlantic coast — and really different in the midwest and in the various different parts of the South — and then the Southwest. Ham from the Chesapeake region is different from the ham in New Orleans. A Mexican restaurant in Baltimore is really different from one in Boston, and so on.

    Love, C.