Anyone eating steamed dim sum tripe or trippa alla romana for the first time would be forgiven for thinking they were eating seafood. Surely these rubbery strips must be eels, or octopus tentacles, or sea cucumbers? Their humbler origin is not without a certain fascination of its own, though: that the stomach itself should be edible seems like the first and greatest mystery of the temple of food. But first it must be bathed and boiled in salt water.
In the European Middle Ages, Mikhail Bahktin reports (Rabelais and His World, tr. by Hélène Iswolsky), “The stomach and bowels of cattle, tripe, were carefully cleaned, salted, and cooked. Tripe could not be preserved long; they were therefore consumed in great quantities on slaughtering days and cost nothing. Moreover, it was believed that after cleaning, tripe still contained ten percent excrement which was therefore eaten with the rest of the meal.”
Tripe is a world-wide food. In Hyeonpung, Korea, a version of the hearty soup called gomguk or gomtang combines tripe with oxtails, ribs and feet: odds and ends in every sense of the term. Special care is taken to separate these meats from each other and from the broth after their original boiling, combining them again for a second boil only when the soup is ready to be served. This is a dish of astonishing blandness, as if to demonstrate the cleanness of the tripe. It is up to the diner to add salt and pepper, to ladle in fermented cabbage, fermented radish, or perhaps some rice.
Guk is the generic Korean word for soup, but to the Anglo-American ear it sounds very much like the natural response to any thought of eating tripe. If you’ve ever eaten breakfast sausages, though, you’ve had tripe. The hotdog is practically our national food, and what is a hotdog but an ersatz stuffed intestine? The reality of tripe may disgust us, but we are a people in full retreat from the earth.
Tripe-based dishes are often described as “an acquired taste.” Aren’t all tastes acquired at some level? But in a literal sense, it’s the stomach and intestines that do the acquiring, and perform the vital task of transmuting delicacies into manure. How then to turn the tables on them?
Perhaps the most infamous stomach-based dish is haggis, but haggis contains no tripe; it is contained by tripe. The heart, liver and lungs of a sheep are ground up, blended with oatmeal and flavorings, and subjected to three hours of simmering in the bound-up stomach (or nowadays, a casing). Culinary art finds its prototype in the fires of digestion.
Tripe has special powers. Japanese horumonyaki, like gomguk, is said to build stamina, while Ecuadorian guatitas and the southern Slavic soup called Shkembe chorba are prized as a hangover cure. In Panama, a ritual feast of sopa de mondongo traditionally follows the completion of the roof on a new house. “The construction workers and the future owners along with their family and friends share the meal together in what is known as a ‘mondongada.'” Chitlins — pork intestines — are the quintessential African-American soul food.
Tripe is a deeply ambivalent dish, scorned as peasant fare, honored as the centerpiece of a feast. In Spanish, menudo means trifling and insignificant, but it’s also the name for a deeply mythologized Mexican and Mexican-American tripe soup. “An annual Menudo Festival is held in Santa Maria, California. In 2009, more than 2,000 people attended and 13 restaurants competed for prizes in three categories.” My first encounter with the English word, as a child, was in its secondary meaning: my grandfather, a classical violinist, so labeled an Irish fiddle tune. It was common and low. Tripe!
Despite most Americans’ aversion to tripe as a food, we seem increasingly prone to credit our own viscera with a kind of prescience. What previous generations knew in their hearts, we know in our gut. Our last president seemed almost to prefer these lower-body intuitions to the rational promptings of his brain. But we are, after all, a nation of consumers — surely the gut must know what’s right for us! So however much our civilization may resemble Rome’s in other respects, when divination is required we no longer need to make recourse to the entrails of a bull, a creature whose digestive product we attribute nowadays to anyone with the gift of imagination.
The problem with entispicy is that our gut is not ours alone. It’s home to a teeming multitude of others who, when we die, will have their last supper on the house.