Offal-ly good: Spicy Gizzard & Bell Pepper Stir-fry
A picture is worth a thousand words - or so we've been told.
Indeed, a picture is chock full of information, with each brushstroke, pencil mark or pixel communicating different details that together form a complete story, all absorbed with just one glance. Compact, concise and convenient - what need do we have for interminable words? But consider, for a moment, a tangled point of view: that a single word is worth a thousand pictures.
From Drawing to Writing
It's not such a farfetched idea. After all, when it comes to human communication, visual images and written language are as interwined as the vines from a single root. The earliest forms of writing, known as cuneiform, developed approximately 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq) and were based on pictograms, or simple drawings of objects. Over time, these facile symbols evolved into more abstract forms and were replaced by progressively complex writing systems, like Chinese characters and the Roman alphabet, of other civilizations.
(Graphic from Penn Museum)
Quite simply, both pictures and words are symbolic representations of the material and intangible elements of our world. It has even been suggested that letters are mini-pictures themselves, reflecting the shapes and contours found in nature, such as the divergence of a tree's branches mimicked in the letter 'Y' (Changizi, as cited in Chabris, W6). Words and illustrations allow us to exchange ideas, proclaim opinions, share facts, express creativity, and so much more, without having to carry the physical forms of these selfsame concepts. Furthermore, they continue to be refined into increasingly intricate modes. We can trace over millenia the metamorphoses of visual images from the crude yet hauntingly beautiful Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux into the incredibly vivid, virtual reality of today's computer generated imagery (CGI), just as we can follow the development of writing from marks on clay tokens used in ancient record-keeping into the digitized compositions of the blogosphere.
Perhaps nowhere else is their communicative power as enthusiastically utilized today than in our discourses on food, with gastro-photography and writing constantly tempting, tantalizing and titillating us with more incredible edibles than we could possibly eat! It may well have found its zenith in the perfect convergence of pictures and words found in enormously popular cookbooks (early '09 sales are up 4% while all non-fiction sales are down 9% [Keeler]), and in food blogs, whose creators deftly pair digital photos and alimentary writing to feed our hunger for all things culinary. In these two forums, the photograph and the paragraph convey identical information and evoke similar responses for a single dish . . . or do they?
What It Means and What It Really Means
|Deep Fried Turkey: Looks good but...|
(Photo credit: Richard Elzey/Flickr)**
The power of a solitary word lies in its ability to provide two things at once: denotation (explicit meaning) and connotation (implicit meaning). For instance, the word 'chocolate' denotes, or stands for, a range of edibles derived from the seed of the cacao tree. But it also connotes, or implies, a whole host of attributes (emotional, political, economic, cultural, etc.) that we attach based on our knowledge and experiences of the world around us. Hence, 'chocolate' can suggest luxury, pleasure, guilt, diets, etc. If words serve as symbols, then those meanings are often very personal:
"It is a fundamental characteristic of symbols that their meaning cannot be perceived either by the senses or by logic but can only be learned from those who use them."(Schmandt-Besserat, 90)
For me, the word 'fried' isn't simply a cooking technique; it also conjures visions of fat-clogged arteries, of super-heated oil splattering on tender, exposed skin and of the pervasiveness of fast food in modern society. That's enough to put me off making the Two-Alarm Deep Fried Turkey pictured above. And herein lies the crux of my thesis about single words and multiple pictures: when it comes to food and eating, certain words help to determine appeal or distaste by evoking images unrelated to the usual determinants of good food, such as flavor, texture and aroma, but rather emanating from personal and social perspectives.
Can a single word really influence our perception of food and sway our choices? Well, let's try a little exercise. Suppose I were to show you the following photograph:
What comes to mind? Can you discern ingredients or cooking methods? Does it tell you anything about who might dine on such a dish or what kind of restaurant might serve it? Is this something you'd like to taste?
Now, what if I were to offer you a dish sight unseen and simply described with just one word . . . tongue*?
What is your first reaction? Would your answers to the questions above be the same? Does the word evoke mental images related to food and cooking, or to things completely non-culinary? More importantly, would you eat this dish?
(*For the record, the pictured dish was of succulent Braised Ox Tongue with Sauce Chivry and new potatoes, which I enjoyed last December at Antonio's, a lovely Spanish Colonial-style restaurant located in Tagaytay City, Philippines and voted one of the Miele Guide's Top 10 restaurants in Asia for 2008/09.)
A recent post on Food Blog Alliance, "Better Food Writing: Adjectives", discusses how just one word can capture attention and convey the right tone of a piece. The idea is to choose descriptives that increase the positive appeal of the comestible being discussed. In the gastronomic world, however, there is one group of foodstuff (to which 'tongue' belongs) that defies most attempts at such sugar-coating.
From tongue to tripe, from liver to lungs, and all parts in between, they are collectively and politely called sweetbreads or variety meats. Impolitely, they are known as offal, the definition of which includes such unpalatable words as 'waste' and 'rubbish'. In short, offal sounds awful. Unfortunately, its connotations match its denotation - these animal parts carry certain symbolism that prevent them from being a common presence on the dinner table. As Jeremy Strong, in his article "The Modern Offal Eaters" explains,
"In her essay 'The Sins of the Flesh,' Margaret Visser concurs that it is the inescapable part-ness of certain meat products that renders them more challenging than comparatively nonattributable cuts: 'But whereas "meat" is reasonably imprecise and unconnected in our minds with specific body parts, the same cannot be said for eyes, testicles, ears or offal."(Strong, 30)
The equivalence of these body parts to our own, and thus the revulsion at the prospect of eating them, is one reason that such meats are rejected as foodstuff by some, but economics and perceptions of status are also influential variables. Michael Owen Jones, Professor Emeritus of History and Folklore at UCLA notes, "In social interaction involving food, individuals often make decisions about who they want to appear to be, who they do not want to appear to be, and what the best way to behave is in order to be perceived as they wish" (135).
The consumption of offal is often linked with poverty either due to the concepts that meat has such a high cost in both labor or monetary input that no part should go to waste, or that "the susceptibility of organ meat to rapid deterioration . . . served as a guarantee for the rural poor . . . that [these parts were] available to them, living as they did in close proximity to the places of slaughter" (Strong, 38). Adding to the image is the cheap price in the marketplace of organ meats relative to that of muscle meat; in this case, 'cheap' denotes 'inexpensive' but may connote 'low quality'. And yet, as Strong observes, eating offal nowadays has become for some gourmands a marker of heightened cultural awareness, a prestigious signifier of one's closeness to one's food source, and therefore, of higher status (38).
In fact, eating offal is traditional and well-regarded in many parts of the world so that the words denoting them do not carry the same stigma that exists in other areas. Luckily, this means that there is more than one word, often in another language, that is used to stand for these 'nasty bits' and whose connotations are more positive.
Gizzards, Gésiers and Guts - Oh, My!
"[It is] proposed that the categories and distinctions of each language enshrine a way of perceiving, analyzing, and acting in the world . . . [and that] their speakers too should differ in how they perceive and act in objectively similar situations."(Boroditsky, 917)
(photo from Wikipedia.com)
Take for example gizzard - a thickly-muscled, secondary stomach found in all birds, which allows them to grind their food. It seems that the differences in perception of this edible by different cultures is reflected in its preparation. Although inexpensive and relatively easy to find in most American grocery stores, chicken gizzards are commonly prepared in just one manner: the dreaded, aforementioned 'fried'. After being battered and submerged in hot oil, they are served with no more than a side of mustard or barbecue sauce.
(Photo by Vincent Ma on flickr.com)
In contrast, this paltry poultry organ enjoys a prized position in French cuisine. Gésiers are commonly preserved in a confit and are used prominently in salad dishes, such as Salade Périgourdine (albeit of duck, not chicken), accompanied by fresh greens and a vinaigrette of walnut oil.
Although both gizzard and gésier refer to the same thing, the latter carries with it the high cultural regard that many of us hold for all things French, especially haute cuisine. Perhaps the key to rehabilitating the culinary reputation of gizzards - and any offal, for that matter - in American kitchens is to season it liberally with some Gallic flavor. As novelist Anthony Burgess once wrote, "The French . . . are addicted to exact definition that shall also be elegant, while the Anglo-Saxon food nomenclature avoids elegance if it can, since pleasure in food is probably sinful."
When next you contemplate eating, consider the words that compose a mental image of your meal and how they may affect your choice. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a single word can change the course of your dinner.
Boroditsky, Lera. "Linguistic Relativity." Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science.
Ed. Lynn Nadel. London: MacMillan, 2005. 917-21.
Burgess, Anthony. "The Syntax of Food Adds Spice to Language."
New York Times 2 June 1982: n. pag.
Chabris, Christopher F. "Why the Eyes Have It." Wall Street Journal 19 June 2009: W6.
Jones, Michael Owen. "Food Choice, Symbolism, and Identity: Bread-and-Butter Issues for Folkloristics and Nutrition Studies." Journal of American Folklore 120 (2007): 129-77.
Keeler, Janet K. "Bestselling Cookbooks and Award-winning Cookbooks Aren't the Same."
St. Petersburg Times 12 May 2009, n. pag.
Schmandt-Besserat, Denise. How Writing Came About. Austin: U of Texas P, 1996.
Strong, Jeremy. "The Modern Offal Eaters." Gastronomica Spring 2006: 30-9.
**Updated 3/15/2012: In the original post published on 6/27/09, I used a photograph which I credited to the source but did not actually have permission from the photographer to use. The new photo that replaces it above is used under a Creative Commons license.
Spicy Gizzard and Bell Pepper Stir-fry
(Sauté de gésier et poivron épicé)
Which sounds more appetizing? If you've enjoyed gizzards/gésiers before, the name may not matter. For those who have yet to try it, you're in for a pleasant surprise. Being primarily muscle tissue, this ingredient can become rubbery and tough when cooked, but with proper (yet easy) preparation, it can be rendered as tender and flavorful as the 'dark meat' (thigh, drumstick) of the chicken. I put this dish together after Mr. Noodle expressed a craving for gizzards; I've promised him that next time, I will fry them.
1 lb chicken gizzards
Water to cover
1 Tbsp canola oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp lemongrass, minced
1 small onion, chopped coarsely (about 1/2 cup)
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
1/2 cup reserved gizzard water or chicken broth
1 - 2 Tbsps black bean garlic sauce
1 - 2 tsps sambal oelek or your favorite chili paste
1 Tbsp soy sauce
Arrowroot starch, for thickening (optional)
For garnish: Thai basil, cilantro, scallions
Rinse gizzards well and place in a pot; add water until just covering the meat. Bring to a boil then lower heat to a slow boil/simmer. Cook, partially covered, for about 1 hour - water will be reduced. When done, reserve 1/2 cup of the gizzard water (or discard and use chicken broth later). Set gizzards aside.
1. Heat canola oil in a wok or large sauté pan; add garlic, lemongrass and onions and cook until soft but not browned;
2. Add bell peppers and stir-fry/sauté until they are just beginning to soften;
3. Add gizzards and cook for 1-2 minutes; add black bean garlic sauce, sambal oelek, and soy sauce and stir to mix meat, peppers and seasonings well;
4. Add reserved gizzard water or chicken broth. Bring to a simmer and continue cooking for about 10 minutes;
5. If a thicker sauce is preferred, sprinkle a tablespoon of arrowroot flour over the stir-fry, mixing well; add a tablespoon at a time until desired consistency is reached;
6. Garnish with Thai basil, cilantro and scallions, and serve with fresh steamed rice.