Tripe

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.

18 Comments


    1. Oh geez. Reminds me of the classic city-slicker-hazing pretense of a snipe hunt, depicting a snipe as some kind of weird, elusive mammal rather than the upland sandpiper that it is. This “haggis” looks like a cross between a platypus and a bagpipe.

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  1. When I was an impoverished student in Scotland in the 1970s, we ate a lot of haggis, because it was tasty, very cheap and very easy to cook. I’m sorry to say, though, that we often ate it with instant mashed potato. We also got haggis deep fried in batter from fish-and-chip shops, again usually the cheapest thing on the menu (its calorific value doesn’t bear thinking about). I thought the casing was traditionally intestine rather than stomach, although even then it was often artificial. In the UK, tripe is associated mostly with the north of England, particularly Lancashire. A friend of mine who had been brought up there eating tripe a lot, and had grown to detest it, once found himself in a smart bistro in Paris and selected what he thought was ‘crepes’ from a hand-written menu. In fact it turned out to be ‘tripes’. He was not happy. As for secondary meanings, in the UK people are said to be ‘talking tripe’ – i.e. nonsense.

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    1. Ray, if I ever make it to Scotland, eating haggis will be at the very top of my agenda. It sounds as if I’ll have to drop down into England to sample the tripe, too. Thanks for the great comment!

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  2. When I lived with the Inuit for two years I spent a lot of time with one elder as she taught me the language. Contrary to popular belief, traditionally the Inuit did not eat mostly meat and fish. They ate plenty of ‘vegetables’: berries and next years’ leaf buds in the fall; tender shoots in the spring; leaves and buds from ground willow that had been carefully gathered just before the snow, preserved by sticking their ends into the snow, revived by placing the ends in warm water, and then eating the resultant ‘salad’; stomachs of herbivorous birds and animals. These were tied closed at the bottom using the beginning of the intestines to make a classic overhand knot, blood and/or milk from the animal was added through the esophagial opening which was then closed with another overhand knot, and this ‘ball’ was then left to hang over an open fire to cook for several hours. The resultant marinated greens were said to be delicious. Stomachs of carnivores and omnivores were also eaten, but usually emptied and washed before cooking. Sometimes these stomach contents were also eaten, particularly if the contents consisted of fairly fresh mussels, fish or seaweed. This same elder also informed me one day that she loved eating Philadephia cream cheese, because it reminded her of when she was a little girl and her father would save the stomachs of baby (probably unborn) seals for her as a special treat. According to her, baby seal stomach and Philadephia cream cheese taste exactly the same.

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    1. Hi Pamela – You know, for purely selfish reasons I’m glad you don’t have a blog so that you’re forced to share stories like this in the VN comments. Wonderful. Thanks! I will think of this next time I eat a bagel and cream cheese.

      I wonder if any travel agents offer culinary tours to the high Arctic? I’d go. To hell with Italy!

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  3. Kia ora Dave,
    I have never tried tripe, but was fortunate enough to try some haggis made by Scottish friends here in NZ. It was delicious. I was somewhat wary over here of eating some of delicacies of the sea favoured by Maori, kina and paua in particular, but both proved to be very nice. And green lipped mussels are my favourite! Have not yet tried the Maori delicacy fermented crayfish yet though!
    Cheers,
    Robb

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    1. You have not lived until you have tasted the singular delicacy called ingunaq (spelling?). Catch a walrus…oh, about April when the sea ice is still good. Drag it to land. Flay it and gut it, saving the instestines after squeezing out the excrement. Butcher the meat into football sized hunks. Spread out the skin, place the meat on it, wrap it up and tie it closed with the intestines. Bury it in rocks (does nothing for the flavour but keeps animals away). Leave. Come back in October or Novemeber, whenever the sea ice is good again. Remove the rocks and take it home and eat. Raw and frozen. Nothing quite like rainbow coloured meat to make your day. :)

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      1. I haven’t made a point of eating rotted meat, but I must say that Japanese rotted soybeans (natto) and Chinese rotted tofu (cho dofu) are both delicious. So sure, I’d try the walrus.

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        1. I’ve eaten a lot of ‘weird’stuff, Dave, and most things I would try again. Even if I weren’t a vegetarian, though, igunaq would NOT be one of them.

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    2. Haggis seems like a good fit with New Zealand for some reason — glad to hear it’s eaten there, along with the more established unspeakables.

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  4. Love it, Dave. And that evocative last line is certainly not tripe. Echoes the Elizabethan sonnets. For the record, that expression was used in our family, who were not classical musicians. It was employed as in “Don’t give me that tripe! You know you are supposed to clean your room! “ They had some Scotch Irish in ‘em but no haggis .

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    1. That’s good to know. It’s so much more colorful a word than “bullshit”!

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  5. You are a food writer manqué!

    Tripe is still eaten here ‘tripes à la mode’! But most often in the kind of sausage called andouille or andouillette. The possibility that not all the excrement is removed would explain a lot, as I can best describe the flavour as resembling smoked rubber bands in pigshit. I have really tried to get to like it but simply can’t, and haven’t met many non-French who do. But even small children here eat it happily, and it is put into all kinds of things usually then given the epithet ‘a la Bretonne’, including mussels and chips.

    I rarely came across tripe in England, and didn’t see or hear of it much growing up, though it was available in butchers’ and supermarkets, I think people mostly bought it for dogs. But my granny when recovering from a serious illness many years ago begged my mother to prepare her a dish of tripe and onions, which she ate up with enthusiasm.

    Chitlins, I don’t know if they are the same, were frequently on sale in South Wales butcher’s shops when I was a student there; Thomas Hardy mentions them too. A Scottish-Canadian friend here serves haggis every January on Burns Night; he fries it in egg and flour, which is much nicer than boiled. I like it very much, though possibly it’s the oatmeal and pepper in it that make it, and we find apple or cranberry sauce lifts it somewhat.

    Quite a lot of derisory words seem to relate to offal and offal products – here to call someone an ‘andouille’ is to imply they are stupid, slow, a bumpkin. And then there’s balloney… a whole thesis could be written on this I’m sure!

    Pamela’s Inuit anecdotes are completely mind-boggling. But I understand that diet was rarely deficient in essential nutrients.

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    1. Lucy, I do think of France as ground zero for tripe consumption, and not just because of Rabelais. Thanks for that wonderful description of andouille. And the anecdote about your grandmother would seem to support my idea that part of the popularity of the tripe is due to its special powers, real or imagined. Good point about baloney being another synomym for tripe and B.S.

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