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Is there cultural variations on what is consider offal?

My mother bemoaned to me the other day that when she was young ox tail was not considered 'real' meat and that when beef was culled on the farm where she grew up the tail was given to the labourers that helped with the slaughtering. Fast forward 40 years and now ox tail has gotten the hipster treatment and now it is pretty much the most expensive meat there is.

So did what was considered tripe or offal change with certain cultural norms or values or has the definition stayed reasonably constant over the last century?

  • I'm not going to answer because I have no expertise or specialized knowledge, however I will say the best answer will be a resounding "Yes". What is "offal" varies hugely with culture. – Jolenealaska May 11 '15 at 17:29
  • From Wikipedia : 'Depending on the context, offal may refer to those parts of an animal carcass discarded after butchering or skinning'. I always used it to refer only to internal organs, but it's possible that because different cultures discard different parts, culture would play a huge role in what gets included. – Joe May 11 '15 at 17:30
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    It is a pity we cannot have some cross site answer because I think there could be some interesting answer to this question out of a anthropological point of view. – Neil Meyer May 11 '15 at 17:40
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Short summary: views on these various body parts are never constant, whether over time or even within communities.

Part of the difficulty with this question is the very definition of the word offal and what it implies. First, a little mini-history, taken partly from the Oxford English Dictionary.

Offal is literally derived from off + fall, i.e., that which "falls off" or is discarded during some sort of process; the word entered English around the year 1400. This sense is rare in modern English, but it still occurs in some manufacturing processes, e.g., woodchips that are discarded from milling.

In the 1400s, it was applied in the same sense to butchers, who initially included only those things which were cut off/out of the carcass and truly considered inedible or useless from a culinary perspective (e.g., the contents of the intestines, which would contain the animal's waste and would rarely be consumed because of the potential for disease, parasites, etc.). Gradually, this definition expanded over the years to include elements that butchers might discard or separate from the primary "meat" (i.e., mostly muscle). As the OED defines it:

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.

Given that many of these "discarded" or separated items were not considered as desirable for eating, the word gradually acquired a negative connotation, which the OED first finds in 1581:

The parts of a slaughtered or dead animal considered unfit for human consumption; decomposing flesh, carrion.

The OED adds that this last sense is "Sometimes used contemptuously," as in the first 1581 quotation that references "dirtie tripes and offalls."

In answering this question, there seems to be a conflict between two possible interpretations about the word offal: on the one hand, there's the "offal" that's discarded because it's truly inedible or difficult to use in a culinary sense, but then there's the "offal" that's merely separated out because some people or some cultures find it repulsive.

That latter "offal" is still generally used by somebody, whether it's

  • eaten by people who don't find it repulsive (and might even consider it a delicacy)
  • eaten by poor people who can't afford more desirable food (as referenced in the question when oxtail was given to "laborers")
  • ground up, processed, and disguised in processed foods
  • given to animals to eat

For a recent perspective, I quote from the book Offal: A Global History (2013) by Nina Edwards:

What might the term "offal" include? The Chambers Dictionary's definition sounds a little less than enthusiastic: "waste or rejected parts esp. entrails, heart, liver, kidney, tongue etc.: anything worthless or unfit for use." Other edible innards not specified here include connective tissue, bone marrow, lungs, spleen, sweetbreads, testicles, udders, tripe, heads and the features thereof (brains, eyes, cheeks, snout or muzzle and ears), skin, tails, trotters, lard and blood. Offal is sometimes thought of as inner organs and viscera alone, but I include all edible exterior parts.

Including all edible (yet undesirable by some) parts seems reasonable in the definition, given that even as early as 1660 the OED has a quotation lumping in sheep trotters with "offal." But in some places the word carries a distinct connotation of "organ meat" specifically.

In any case, as said at the beginning, the perspectives on these various body parts are never constant, whether over time or even within communities. Most cultures have entire classes of animals that are considered inedible or repulsive, whether pork in Jewish or Islamic traditions or almost all insects in various Western cultures. The concept of "offal" is just an extension of communal dietary guidelines or preferences to the avoidance of specific parts of animals.

It's also important to note that there are various reasons for rejecting various foods. Sometimes foods have unusual textures or flavors, but just as often they are rejected because of the associations of specific body parts (e.g., feet or snouts or tails being "dirty," tongues because of their associations with animal feeding, genitals or reproductive organs for puritanical reasons, etc.). Or, in some cases the food perhaps resembles actual animal "parts" too much for our modern culture that is often divorced from butchering: in the era of the chicken "nugget" (or "boneless skinless chicken breast") and ground beef, an actual tongue or tail or ear tends to remind the eater that the food is not from some anonymous cut of "meat" but rather from an actual animal.

In some of these cases, the actual meat may not have a flavor or texture very different from the rest of the animal, but some people still reject it on the basis of its appearance or knowledge of its source within the animal. (An oxtail isn't very different in flavor or texture from short ribs or even some parts of the chuck after long cooking.)

A final connotation to "offal" referenced in the question is that of social class, which is also often associated with cooking techniques and cuisine types. A steak cut from a tenderloin can be cooked fast on a hot fire/grill and be tender and tasty in a matter of minutes, but the percentage of tender meat available from a cow is quite small and thus traditionally a meal for the elite. An oxtail generally requires hours of slow simmering in a stew or braise, traditionally a meal associated with lower classes. Also, many types of offal are more nutritious than "regular" meat (e.g., many internal organs) and/or have higher calories due to excess fat and connective tissue, which actually historically made them essential for lower classes to survive. (In less developed cultures in various parts of the world, these types of offal are quite frequently given to children or esteemed elders because of the recognition of their nutritional value.)

As the question points out, there has been a recent shift in some Western countries to embrace certain types of "offal" among middle and upper classes. Most cultures seem to maintain some random animal parts as delicacies ("sweetbreads" being one example in Western culture), but the recent trend seems to be a combination of adventurous eating (popular in an era of multiculturalism) and a desire not to be "wasteful." However, despite the term "offal" with its etymological connection to waste, most "offal" has rarely been truly discarded. It just tends to be eaten by the people who like it or who don't have other things to eat.

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No, the word "offal" is not subject to cultural variations. It's based on animal's biology, and describes the inner organs such as intestines, liver and heart. But I don't think this is what you wanted to ask - your title is about "offal" but your question body is about undesirable food.

What is culturally determined is which parts of an animal (and also which animals) get eaten, and which are "indedible" or disgusting. Also the relative desirability of the animal parts varies, as in your description.

It happens that in modern-day USA, where most of our users come from, offal is considered undesirable. Example: yesterday I happened upon a cracked.com article, which described a case where somebody accused a food chain of having found a "lizard tail" in one of their sandwiches, and the food chain investigated and concluded that the sandwich meat was 100% chicken, and the suspected lizard tail was a vein. The article ridiculed the company, implying that having a vein in your sandwich is even grosser than having lizard meat in it.

Now, a comedy site is not usually considered a reliable source, but it's great for one thing: revealing the beliefs and attitudes ingrained in a culture. It doesn't matter whether the "I found a lizard tail in the sandwich" accident actually happened, it matters that veins are considered icky by Americans. As are salamis packed in guts - "natural casing" - in an era when "natural" is a marketing argument comparable to what "saintly" was in the Middle ages, and sausage made from curdled blood. Offal is simply one of the multiple categories of meat today's Americans find undesirable, together with gristle, fat and blood.

Every culture has its norms of what should be eaten and what shouldn't, or what is considered tasty and what is not. And your enjoyment of food is strongly influenced by these norms, as well as your expectations of how it should taste, and your familiarity with it. The idea that "taste" is an objective measurement of some real quality of the food in our mouth is a misconception. Just as with any other sense, it's an evaluation our nervous systems makes based on all inputs available to it - the chemical composition of what meets our taste buds and olfactory sensors, our memory, and our current emotions. And culture is part of it, because it's in our memory, and also because it changes our interpretations of a given situation, which in turns triggers different emotions. So yes, what your definition of "bad food" is is very much culture-dependent, be it offal or something else.

  • I have to disagree with your opening, which seems to claim that "offal" has a strict definition. It does not. In its original sense (dating back to ~1400), it literally means stuff that "falls off" in some process, usually that which is discarded or considered waste. While it soon acquired a culinary sense applying to entrails, then organ meat, and then extended to heads, tail, etc., it also has a current meaning (roughly 400 years old) that the OED defines: "The parts of a slaughtered or dead animal considered unfit for human consumption." That definition is exactly that used in the question. – Athanasius May 12 '15 at 15:54
  • @Athanasius good point. I have never used it in this meaning, but then again, English is not my primary language. This seems good enough for you adding another answer. – rumtscho May 12 '15 at 16:00

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