Since when did offal become so cool? Offal has been largely off the menu for the past 50 years or so. Eating trotters, ears or spleen has been considered by most British consumers as really quite revolting. But this trend in meat consumption has been turning, and offal has made a significant comeback to our tables.

Fergus Henderson has a lot to answer for in offal’s stealthy return. He championed nose-to-tail eating in his London joint, St John, which opened in 1994. His serving of animal parts unheard of in most restaurants sent gelatinous shock waves through culinary circles in the United Kingdom, United States and other countries. These days, you’ll be hard pushed to find a chef turning their nose up at the offally bits.

The concept of nose-to-tail eating is self-explanatory: it’s about using the whole animal, honouring its life by eating every last edible bit from nose to tail – rump, trotter, heart, spleen – the lot. Most modern offal proponents will tell you that eating offal makes sense on every front – economic, ethical, nutritious (organ meats are brimming with vitamins and minerals). And to top it all off, eating the whole animal is an antidote to food waste, so for that reason alone it should be consumed with gusto. If we want to lower the methane emissions from all the livestock raised to fill our burgeoning bellies, increasing the amount of meat we get off of one animal is a sure-fire first step.

But why is it that most of us don’t eat offal like our grandparents did? How has the great offal food waste scandal come about? What caused it to slip off our menus and into our food system in more covert ways?

In this two-part offal exposé, industry workers share stories from their days in the meat-trade and open up an often unknown slice of offal’s history. The information was gathered from the British Library’s ‘Life Stories Collection’, recorded in 2000 in an effort to detail first-hand experiences of a wide cross-section of society. It provides a unique and invaluable historical record of people’s lives in Britain.

From grotesque ditties to a public health crisis, offal’s role in the industry is laid bare. In this first part we look at the eating of offal in pre-1960s Britain. Part two will examine offal’s demise as a valued food source.

Industry accountability

Recounting their early days working in the meat trade, the men interviewed in the Life Stories Collection recall a business and social environment reliant upon social networks and unspoken rules. Many gained their first jobs or the credit to start a business through social contacts. Existing family ties to the industry were acknowledged with pride, with many men noting that they were “nth generation” meat men. The brutal and dirty nature of the work meant that the sector didn’t always have a great name for itself, but it was tight-knit and relations between tradesmen were often characterised as camaraderie rather than rivalry.

The idiosyncratic industry back-slang, documented with such relish in many interviews, was emblematic of this: workers in the industry literally spoke their own language. Likewise there was a universal code in which all business was done on a handshake and all ordering by verbal agreement. Slaughterhouse owner Rodger Baker commented that his first ever contract with Sainsbury’s in the 1960s was sealed with a handshake, and in all his time supplying the company, he dealt with just one man. Keeping business personal was a form of etiquette among workers and important to the trade. Making ‘pals’ around the country (with friendship cemented through heavy drinking and lighthearted pranks) was important to the market’s culture. These personal ties brought with them a high level of accountability: as Rodger Baker said, “you could abuse the system, but if you did you wouldn’t be in business very long”.

The fifth quarter

The ‘fifth quarter’ was a trade name for the profit made from offal. For the slaughterhouse workers, the fifth quarter was an additional profit above and beyond that of the standard cuts. “The fifth quarter usually paid for all the transport, killing, all the expenses of the animal before it got into the shop.” The butchers made their fifth quarter by adding value to the offal by turning it into sausages, faggots, jellies, brawn and even soap. There was a unanimous consensus among the men that, as one worker stated,  “nothing used to get thrown away. This is really my experience of the slaughter house… everything was made use of.” Slaughterhouse worker Robert Dixon recalled, “the beast would be divided. You’d take out all the offal – your lungs, your liver, your heart – and then you’d wash ‘em out.” These parts would go to the butcher who owned the beast. The small and large intestines of the sheep and pigs were sold for sausage skins. Trotters were boiled for jelly and the head made brawn and sausages, while excess parts were composted for fertiliser. The fat, along with waste bones and hooves, was collected by John Knight, a soap manufacturer. Hides would be graded, auctioned and sold, with the slaughterhouse receiving commission.

The distribution of inedible and excess offal seemed to be dependent upon the scale of the slaughter. In small operations, blood would go into black pudding or was fetched by locals to go on their tomatoes as fertiliser. Cattle intestines were said to be more waste than anything, and they largely went to the pigs. One slaughterhouse worker recalled: “Pigs were never fed very much because we used to throw all the inedible offal from the slaughter house out. That’s what they lived on, that and blood. It did stink… Wonderful fertiliser though… Grass didn’t half grow!” In the larger slaughterhouses, blood would frequently go down the drain, though a portion of the beef blood was bought by black pudding producers.

In the 1950s hides increased in price and it was claimed that they would pay for the slaughter alone. Consequently, because of the commission on hides, the men placed a great deal of emphasis on the skill of taking the hide off.

Butcher shops were run in a way that was highly conducive to the preservation, and subsequent sale, of offal. Generally a family butcher worked a seven-day week that was based around a slaughter day, when he received an entire carcass along with its edible offal. If Monday was slaughter day, customers would buy stewing cuts, offal and sausages on Tuesday and Wednesday. The roasting cuts would be saved for grander meals towards the end of the week. Selling offal early in the week and processing it into other products ensured it was not wasted. Patterns of trade were reportedly steady. People used to have a regular order for Saturday morning, and many butchers would home deliver. “When going door to door you became part of the family,” one elderly butcher remembers. As with inter-trade relations, personal ties with their predominantly female customers were essential to the success of the average butcher shop.

As with slaughter workers, waste wasn’t part of the equation; everything had value. Butcher Phillip Cramer recalls:

“The fact that we bought meat on the bone meant that there would always be enough bones for a bone-man to collect twice a week. It was always worth it for the bone man who would sell the bones to John Knight, the soap people in the East End. Now today you’ve got to pay to have any of this waste taken away… but the time you’re referring to… waste seemed to have a value.”

These discussions of the industry were often inter-spliced with insights on culinary practices and recollections of gustatory pleasures. Men told of how their mothers used to make pastry en masse for the slaughter of a home animal, and they discussed the “proper” method of stirring blood in black pudding, and how it’s hard to rival brains on toast. However, amidst the nostalgia came the recognition that these practices would be unfit for current society: “You couldn’t feed enough pork outside to feed people nowadays… It’s the way it has to be, to feed the masses,” lamented slaughter worker Geoff Nicholson.

This was a time when social relations and business sense combined in the making of the fifth quarter. Minimising waste was essential to business success in those days. In the next article we will consider how this one principle – reducing waste – has not changed and, in tandem with shifting industry structures, came to play a prominent role in the BSE crisis of the mid 1990s.

Featured image by Rainer Hungerhausen

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