This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Balls *and* Brains: The Science and History of Offal, first released on November 9, 2021. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
CYNTHIA GRABER: So I’m a little nervous about this, the next thing we’re about to do.
NICOLA TWILLEY: I’m going to take a picture just so that people know how brave we are because it is literally sitting in a pool of blood and it looks like a Halloween horror prop.
GRABER: Okay, bloody water. Let’s make it—you know, it’s not quite a pool of blood.
TWILLEY: Wow. Holy crap, that is disgusting. Yes, I mean, just so you can get a picture, it’s a plastic bag. You can’t see what’s in it, but it is sort of gradually oozing out this pinkish water that is filling up the tin it’s sitting in. And it looks like we’ve murdered someone and are about to eat them for dinner.
GRABER: Do not worry, we already did a cannibalism episode, we did not eat any humans then and we certainly aren’t doing so for this episode. We of course are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber—
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And this episode is actually all about offal—not awful—a-w-f-u-l, but offal, o-f-f-a-l. In short, the bits of the animal that most of us in English-speaking countries don’t eat. But why not?
GRABER: Well, because they’re gross! Or at least dealing with that plastic bag kind of was. So, are we done with the episode?
TWILLEY: No, because I am certainly not eating this stuff on my own. But what is it about these internal organs that makes them seem and taste so different to ordinary meat?
GRABER: Weirdly, my friend Jon Reisman has just written a beautiful book about the human body through the lens of the natural world, and he actually talks about this very thing. And Jon’s book inspired this episode!
TWILLEY: But offal has a long culinary history, too—people have always eaten it, more so in the past. So what changed?
GRABER: We’ll be diving into all of that this episode plus—what on earth goes on at the World Testicle Cooking Championship in Serbia?
TWILLEY: This episode is supported by the Sloan Foundation for the Public Understanding of Science, Technology, and Economics, and by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund for our coverage of biomedical research. Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.
JONATHAN REISMAN: So actually, on the very first day of my medical school, you know, it started with a few grand welcome lectures in the lecture hall. And then we immediately went into the anatomy lab, which is where we would dissect a cadaver gradually, slowly, over the coming four or so months of the first semester. And so they really threw us right in, you know, they didn’t sugarcoat it, it was basically like: Welcome to medical school, here’s a dead body.
TWILLEY: This is Jon Reisman. He’s a doctor, obviously, and he’s been on Gastropod before, long ago in our mushroom episode. But he’s back because he’s written a new book called The Unseen Body: A Doctor’s Journey through the Hidden Wonders of Human Anatomy. A journey that began on that very first day of medical school.
REISMAN: And from there, we just basically dissected the entire cadaver, learned all of its parts, its internal organs, the name of every muscle, nerve, artery and vein, and our heads started just getting stuffed with more information than you could ever imagine about the human body.
GRABER: So I imagine for some people, this brings up feelings of mortality, maybe thinking about their own death. But for you, that wasn’t the case. What did you think about when you started dissecting humans?
REISMAN: Right, so you know, the anatomy lab is not a place where most people would think about food in any way. You know, an anatomy lab, a large fluorescent-lit room where there’s a bunch of dead human bodies strewn about on gurneys is basically where you’d go to lose your appetite not to expand it. For me, though, that is a place where I did expand my culinary horizons, and a main reason for that was that one of the professors really delighted in explaining to us which muscles in the human bodies corresponded to cuts of beef. So as we were cutting into the body learning the names, functions of every muscle, how they attach to various bones, what they do for us when we move, he really enjoyed pointing out how certain muscles for instance, the psoas major, corresponds to the filet mignon and the tenderloin, the erector spinae muscle corresponds to the ribeye. You know, he would talk about which of the hamstrings on the back of our thighs correspond to the eye of round and the top round and that really piqued my interest and led to the interest in food that has been growing ever since.
GRABER: Jon’s professor was talking about the muscles, and muscles in an animal are what we usually think of as meat. But that’s not the only part of the human body they were learning about.
REISMAN: So about halfway through that first semester, we cut into the abdomen and started looking at the organs in there. And so the liver is sort of the overlord of the abdominal cavity. It’s the largest internal organ.
TWILLEY: The liver is in fact so important and interesting that we have already made a whole episode about it, which includes key tips for managing hangovers as well as how to use a liver to predict the future. Essential listening if I do say so myself.
GRABER: But one thing we didn’t even mention that episode is how popular livers are as food.
REISMAN: The first organ meat I ever ate was definitely liver, and I think most people, if you ask them, what organs are eaten—not do you eat, but in general what organs are eaten—I do think that liver is the most common. It was eaten throughout my childhood by my family. I thought it was disgusting.
GRABER: Jon and I are both Jews, and both our families are Eastern European, so liver was the first non-muscle organ meat we both ate. My family often had some chopped liver around. It is yes chopped, and mixed with sauteed onions and fat and maybe even some hard boiled eggs. I personally loved it.
TWILLEY: But although Jon hated eating liver as a kid, he kind of fell in love with it as an organ in medical school.
REISMAN: One of its main functions is serving as a gatekeeper for everything that we ingest. So every meal, we eat all the nutrients that are absorbed into the lining of the intestine, all of that flows through the portal veins to the liver, which does function to check everything, sort it, package it, put it into the bloodstream, so that it then moves on to all the other organs and cells throughout the body, which can then use it. The liver oversees all the proteins in the blood, all the fat in the blood, and I really became enamored with the organ because it indeed has so many different functions.
GRABER: And the functions of the liver influences how it tastes.
REISMAN: The liver is involved in storing iron, and some other minerals in the body. And for me, that’s the most prominent taste.
TWILLEY: And that taste is metallic.
REISMAN: In fact, in childhood, I feel like it sort of tasted like rotten iron. If iron could rot, that’s what it would taste like.
TWILLEY: That does not actually sound very appealing. But Jon was newly in love. So he decided to give eating his new love another try.
REISMAN: At Thanksgiving when I went home from medical school, I did try it again. I can’t say I loved it, but I tolerated it, I ate it on several crackers, and from then I sort of grew to like it over time. And I think that my understanding of the liver did encourage me to try it again.
TWILLEY: For you, Cynthia, and for Jon, liver was your first offal experience. But I think for most British people, certainly for me, the gateway organ is the kidney, because it’s obviously a key ingredient in steak and kidney pie, and steak and kidney pie is on pretty much every pub and chip shop menu. Turns out Jon has room in his heart for kidneys too.
REISMAN: Right so kidneys, of course, are the Rodney Dangerfield of our internal organs.
RODNEY DANGERFIELD: My whole life I don’t get no respect. No respect from anyone!
GRABER: Rodney Dangerfield isn’t alive, and there may be some of you listening who were born after he died, but he was a famous comedian in the 60s and 70s and his breakout movie role was in the 1980 cult classic Caddyshack. But that line about respect, that’s why Jon thinks the kidney and Rodney have a lot in common.
REISMAN: I do think that even more than the liver, I was really impressed with the kidney’s function in the body, and I think it does not get the respect it deserves. You know, it’s in the very back of the abdomen, like it’s some kind of second class citizen, behind the more charismatic organs that most people would know about: heart, lungs, liver, intestines. I compare the kidneys to a chef in many ways, because the kidneys receive blood through the renal arteries and basically take out the things that are too abundant: you know, sodium, potassium, etc., other electrolytes. If they’re too high, the levels are too high in the bloodstream, that kidney will take those out and put them into the urine. And the the number of balances the kidneys manage is mind boggling, and uncountable, and we probably don’t even know all the functions that it does.
GRABER: Respect aside, I am not British, and steak and kidney pie has never made it onto my plate, so—what do kidneys taste like?
REISMAN: To be honest, I don’t know how to explain the flavor of kidneys. I find that they are… they have some hints of a liver flavor, kind of that strong metallic taste, but much more subdued than in the liver. I think of liver, kidney and heart on a spectrum where liver has the strongest and most overpowering metallic taste, kidneys somewhere in the middle, and then heart basically tastes like meat because it is a muscle, cardiac muscle is very similar to skeletal muscle in structure.
TWILLEY: But really, none of these organs are very common in most of our diets today, at least in English-speaking countries. Years and years literally pass without me eating an organ.
GRABER: But that wasn’t the case a few decades before we were born.
JENNIFER MCLAGAN: You know, if you look at a copy, the early copies of Joy of Cooking, which is kind of a middle of the road cookbook, there were recipes in there for liver and sweetbreads and all different things and even recipes for testicles, which is kind of a bit of an extreme odd bit. So it’s something that was in our culture. And in fact, in the U.S,. they went through like tons and tons of buffalo tongues, that was a very popular dish in New York City.
TWILLEY: And it’s another Gastropod repeat guest—this is Jennifer McLagan, she’s a cookbook author, and we had her on our episode about all things bitter. But she also has a cookbook called Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal.
GRABER: My mom might have avoided cooking any version of offal but liver, but Jennifer’s mom? She was all in with the odd bits.
MCLAGAN: I ate a lot of them because my mother cooked—not very well, I must admit, but she did cook—but she made tripe with onions, which is the lining of a cow’s stomach. She made brains and bacon, that’s a very common dish in Australia, like in the pubs they would serve fried sheep’s brains with pieces of bacon. The best part I thought as a kid was the bacon. In fact, we used to have it on Sunday nights, and I would eat the bread crumbs off the brains. And I would put the inside, the brain, into my pocket until I could get to the bathroom and flush them down the toilet. And I didn’t eat brains for a very long time because of that experience. And I didn’t eat tripe for a very long time, because the way my mother cooked it with the onions in the white sauce and the parsley, it just wasn’t very good. And I don’t think I appreciated offal until I came to France. And I remember having this dish that was rich and delicious with this brown sauce, really intense. And I said: What was it? And they told me it was tripe. And it was just so meltingly delicious, I thought, Wow! And that’s when I started exploring all the offal a lot more.
TWILLEY: And Jennifer discovered that way back in the day, like way way back, among the earliest hunter gatherers, all through medieval times, offal was actually seen as the very best, most exquisite part of the animal to eat. It got all the respect.
MCLAGAN: When you kill an animal, the offal is the most perishable part. And so they would eat like the liver and the kidneys, they would eat all those parts very quickly.
TWILLEY: Allow me the pleasure of sharing a little bit of refrigeration science here! After an animal is slaughtered, some metabolic reactions still go on. In muscle meat, a lot of the stored energy is transformed into an acid that lowers the pH of the meat, and makes it harder for microbes to grow.
GRABER: Yes you can drink.
TWILLEY: But in the organs, there isn’t so much of that stored energy and so the pH stays high, and so it’s a more welcoming environment for microbes to grow. And so organ meats spoil more quickly. There is more to how you refrigerate organs safely.
GRABER: Of course there is, but maybe we can save that for your book and for our refrigeration episode!
TWILLEY: If I ever finish my book. Anyway, the point is, organs are perishable. They’re different. And they’re special.
MCLAGAN: And also there was often in ancient times this kind of feeling that if you ate the brain, then you would get the wiliness and the intelligence of the animal you are eating. And if you ate the heart, you would get its fearlessness. So there was all this kind of mythology around eating the odd bits. And then because you know, when you think about the offal, there is only one set of brains, there is only one heart, there is only one liver. It’s a lot of meat, but there’s only one of each of these things. And so they were often reserved for the kings or the lords of the manor. They were like the special prestigious parts that, you know, the regular people like us didn’t get our hands on. We just had to eat the fillet steak, right? So these were very special parts of the animal.
GRABER: And then as England started to industrialize at the end of the 1700s, and it was becoming more urban, slaughterhouses also became more centralized and slightly more industrial. It wasn’t industrialized meat like we think of today, more like industrial meat one point oh.
MCLAGAN: They would have to get rid of these parts very quickly. And so they would just be eaten by people in the local area. They couldn’t travel and so I guess they were just like tossed away. So they lost that prestigious thing because they couldn’t be preserved. They couldn’t get to that fancy table quick enough. So they were just thrown out with the waste stuff. And the regular people, or it became a poor people’s food. And people saw the loin and the haunch, and those parts of the animal as the fancy parts.
TWILLEY: But this fall from grace wasn’t universal. French chefs still loved cooking with offal, and they were the fanciest kind of chefs in the 1800s and early 1900s, so things like oxtail soup and pig’s trotters and lamb’s kidneys were all still regularly on the menu in the homes of the British upper classes. And then offal wasn’t rationed during the First World War, so it became even more widely eaten then.
GRABER: And here in the U.S.? Well, Native Americans ate the entire animal, odd bits and all. Early white colonists may have been a bit more squeamish based on their British heritage, but they did regularly eat feet and kidneys and tongues. And this was true up to the 1930s, and the Joy of Cooking recipes that Jennifer mentioned.
TWILLEY: But when meat, and really the entire food system, truly industrialized after the Second World War, that’s when offal really took a nose dive.
MCLAGAN: Meat becomes very cheap. So they want the roast, they want the rib roast, they want the tenderloin, they want these parts. And then what do we do? We stop shopping at a butcher store, we went to the supermarket, and we had this crazy idea that where we buy the detergent and the toilet paper was a good place to buy the meat. And then the meat needed to be there for several days. And then of course, putting the offal in, it wouldn’t last. And you know, it’s not sometimes that attractive, and I think people become further and further removed from the fact that the meat comes from an animal. So when you see a tenderloin, it’s just meat, but if you see the foot of an animal or the brain of an animal, or perhaps something like tongue, tongue puts people off because it looks exactly like the tongue in their own mouth and they go, Ugh, I don’t think I can eat that.
GRABER: So these days most people in the U.S. have never even seen any of these odd bits, much less eaten them. But they’re still in animals. So what happens to them?
MCLAGAN: Ah, it gets ground up, it gets put into dog food, animal food. I imagine some of it gets thrown away as well in some countries.
TWILLEY: Of course, this is not true everywhere.
MCLAGAN: In some places in Central Europe for sure there’s lots of soups and things that are made out of offal. Asia. Offal is very big in China, you always see offal in China. South America they’re very popular. Heart kebabs in Peru. There’s lots of offal eaten around the world. But it just seems to be us Anglo Saxons seem to have kind of a queasiness when it comes to offal, and that spreads through America, Australia, the UK, Canada.
GRABER: That queasiness, it’s a real thing. Talk to many Americans about eating heart or brains or tripe? The response will be a big fat no.
MCLAGAN: I think the biggest thing is lack of knowledge or fear of something that’s different. And I think that yuck factor, because when you talk to people, they go, Ugh, I don’t want to eat brains! I mean, you know, you talk about something like testicles and they’re insane—you can’t eat them! They’ve never had them. They’ve never tried them, they think they’re going to taste weird. And then I think the other problem that offal has is a textural one, like the tripe, like intestines, things that are chewy or a bit squidgy, or a bit slippery.
TWILLEY: This yuck factor is all true, but also, real talk: a lot of upper class people who were enjoying offal in the 1920s had servants, and preparing offal is often kind of time consuming. It’s not all necessarily 30 minute meals material.
GRABER: And then finally, there can be health reasons today that the thought of eating some animal bits might be kind of scary.
TWILLEY: In the U.K., we had mad cow disease when I was a kid, which was a terrible brain disease that humans could catch from an infected animal if they ate its brains or spinal material. It was kind of terrifying—at the time, no one knew how many of us had accidentally eaten infected meat ground up into hamburgers and cheap mince. For years I couldn’t donate blood in the U.S. because of it.
GRABER: Brains have since been banned from sale as food in the U.K. They’re legal in America, but here, the organ that’s been banned because we’re scared it’ll make us sick is lungs. That story, coming up after this break.
REISMAN: In learning about food from an anatomical and physiological perspective, I was surprised to find that lungs are actually illegal to be sold or served as food to humans in the United States, and Canada as well, though not every country has those laws. Of course, in a country like France, you would never have such a law, because all aspects of culinary enjoyment are too important. But in the U.S., lungs are illegal.
TWILLEY: But why are lungs illegal? Banning brains during mad cow makes sense, but why lungs? What’s the danger there?
REISMAN: So the story begins in around 1969 when the USDA decided that it needed to settle this burning question: Are lungs fit for human consumption? Are they safe to be eaten by humans? And can the USDA through meat inspection ensure that diseased and contaminated specimens are kept out of the food supply? And there were no records of who initiated this project. But basically, the USDA had a bunch of pathologists gather together several hundred cow lungs, initially, from various slaughterhouses. And they dissected the lungs deeply into all the airways, all the tissues, looked under the microscope, a much more thorough examination than a standard USDA meat inspection would do. And what they found in there was very concerning to them—they found pollen that the animals had inhaled, they found fungal spores in there, they even found some stomach contents that had ended up in the lungs. And these contaminants made them think that lungs were not fit for human consumption.
GRABER: So then the pathologists were like, Hey wait! Are these in all the lungs? And it turns out, yeah, most of the lungs they checked out have these spores and stuff way down in their airways. So it’d be impossible to get rid of just the contaminated parts.
REISMAN: And therefore, the only logical thing to do is to make lungs banned throughout the country to be either sold, or served as food. Now, of course, you know, a farmer who slaughters his own animal can certainly eat those lungs, that’s not illegal, but you cannot sell them or serve them in any capacity.
TWILLEY: But actually, the science behind the USDA decision back in the 60s seemed a little dubious to Jon.
REISMAN: Every breath we take from the first breath we each took after being born, to the breaths we’re taking right now has uncountable numbers of fungal spores and pollen and dust and other quote unquote contaminants in them. So, my first reaction was, of course they found those things in there, that you would find those things in almost any pair of lungs of any breathing animal on earth. I would like to add that we are actually eating that stuff all day long, because of the way that the lungs clean themselves. So whenever we inhale any material, smoke, dust, spores, pollen, there’s something called the mucus elevator in the lungs.
GRABER: It might be a little gross to imagine, but it turns out that the airways in our lungs are secreting small amounts of mucus all the time. And they’re also lined with tiny little hairs called cilia, and the cilia push the mucus out into our throats. And we swallow it, without even realizing it.
REISMAN: And so the same quote, unquote, contaminants that we’re inhaling, we are all swallowing all day, every day. So you know, eating a little bit more of those same materials from an animal’s lungs, I just don’t believe that that is in any way dangerous.
TWILLEY: Thanks for adding that Jon. I am so glad to know about the mucus elevator. Also to be fair, animals that are raised in feedlot conditions or in the kind of disgusting confinement that is used for industrially raised pigs—they are breathing in some nasty shit. Actual shit, and other nasty shit. So that would give me some concern about eating their lungs.
GRABER: But that doesn’t mean all lungs are all bad for us. And actually the people working hardest to overturn our lung ban are haggis producers in the U.K.
REISMAN: So the first time I ate lungs, I actually didn’t know it. I was in Scotland, and I had haggis, the traditional dish, where various internal organs including liver, heart and lungs are mixed with grains like oats and stuffed into the animal’s stomach. And I didn’t know it at the time, but haggis aficionados say that real haggis must be made with lungs to give it that necessary traditional crumbly texture. And this has been a sore point, a point of contention between the U.K., who wants to export haggis throughout the world, especially to the U.S., which would be a big market for it. But they can’t because the lungs are illegal.
TWILLEY: So then Jon looked into what it would take to overturn this law. And basically Scottish haggis makers would probably have to sponsor an entire scientific study showing that lungs are safe. And it turns out to be a lot easier to just make haggis for the U.S. market without any lungs in it.
REISMAN: These laws or rules persist because there’s no big effort to overturn them. Other than me, I don’t know that there’s many people out there clamoring to try lungs.
GRABER: Haggis purists may be horrified, but that’s kind of where things are stuck for now. And now from the illegal to what some consider the unthinkable—
TWILLEY: All right. We can wait no longer, it’s testicle time. We’re going to ask you first and then we’re gonna need Anna. What is Test Fest? And how did you first hear about it, Jon?
REISMAN: So I first heard about the Test Fest, also known as the World Testicle Cooking Championship from my now-wife, Anna Wexler. When I first met her, of course, I was impressed with all of her accomplishments. She had so much going on so many various interests, which was something that I shared. But perhaps one of the most impressive things about her was that she was the head judge at the World Testicle Cooking Championship. And so within the first few years of our relationship, she did bring me along. And so I got a front seat look at a very unusual food festival.
GRABER: Let us bring in contestant number two. Anna are you around?
ANNA WEXLER: Hello.
TWILLEY: Welcome to our show.
GRABER: Welcome back, in fact. You have been on before.
WEXLER: I have, yeah.
GRABER: But not for this reason.
WEXLER: Not for this reason surprisingly, although for another reason. Another reason that involved a small circular object, the cherry tomato.
GRABER: That’s quite a segue.
TWILLEY: More commonly consumed, I would say than, necessarily…
REISMAN: But quite testicular still.
TWILLEY: Somehow and let’s not question her path there too deeply, but somehow Anna came across this Serbian guy who had written a testicle cookbook called Cooking with Balls. Here’s a Reuters video about it.
VO: Chef Ljubomir Erovic is having a ball in the kitchen. His speciality de la maison is testicles.
VO: Erovic has just published a book of his recipes for culinary gems such as testicle pizza, testicle goulash, and, the pièce de résistance, bulls testicles with béchamel sauce.
VO: He’s also the founder of the World Testicle Cooking Festival, where chefs from around the globe turn the dangly bits of cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, and kangaroos into eye-watering delicacies.
TWILLEY: As the video mentioned, and as Anna quickly discovered, Lubomir is also the founder and organizer of the annual World Testicle Cooking Championship. Which was clearly an irresistible draw. I mean, who wouldn’t hop on a plane for that?
GRABER: So Anna figured out where and when this festival was taking place, and she arranged a place to stay through couch surfing. She got off the plane and hired a cab to take her out to rural Serbia. And she was expecting this big international festival of testicles.
WEXLER: But you know, it turned out I was the one who had come from the farthest, right, there wasn’t much world going on. It was mostly this rural Serbian festival without a lot of international people there. And so I think they were just as surprised as I was. They were surprised that I was there. I was surprised that there weren’t people from around the world there. And so because I was like their most international guest, Ljubomir, the head of the festival, decided to make me the president of the jury.
TWILLEY: Anna did not have a super clear set of criteria for judging testicles, because she’d never eaten one before. But she was game, and she ended up going back and chairing the jury for the next six years.
GRABER: She told us it’s just like a mostly Serbian outdoor festival, and it’s accompanied by a lot of booze.
WEXLER: And so lots of local teams show up and they basically spend the day doing this cookout. And then they submit their dish, right? So they’re cooking a testicle dish, they submit it for judging in the jury room at the end of the day.
TWILLEY: So but a testicle is one of the organs I have not had the pleasure of eating, but I picture it like a creme egg. Is that right?
GRABER: I’m so grossed out by that. LAUGHTER
WEXLER: Well, I’ll let Jon speak too, but… no. LAUGHTER I mean, so it’s… picture a matzah ball.
TWILLEY: It’s not a white creamy interior? LAUGHTER
WEXLER: Picture a matzah ball that was just like, too dense. It’s like a little too dense. You know, it doesn’t…
GRABER: Like a little chewy matzah ball.
TWILLEY: Is it chewy? Or is just kind of thick?
WEXLER: It’s thick. Yeah, I would say thick more than chewy. Jon, would you concur?
REISMAN: I think it depends on the skill of the chef actually. Some are chewy, but some are kind of more… Not really falling apart tender, but much less chewy depending how it’s cooked.
WEXLER: Yeah, that’s true.
REISMAN: It has a uniform consistency through it. There’s not sort of an outer rind of any sort, and an inner creamy center. There’s no creamy center in the testicles. LAUGHTER
TWILLEY: Cynthia have you thrown up yet?
GRABER: I’m about to throw up
WEXLER: Honestly, if you had it with goulash… I mean you wouldn’t even realize that you’d eaten it if you just had it in a, I don’t know, big bowl of goulash, that you were eating in Serbia.
GRABER: Does it just taste meaty? I mean, it’s not a muscle.
WEXLER: Yeah, it definitely tastes meaty.
REISMAN: Yeah, it just has kind of a general nonspecific meaty taste, sort of like lungs.
TWILLEY: Some of those traditional hunter gatherer beliefs that Jennifer was talking about, that eating particular body parts from an animal would help invigorate those same parts in your own body—there was definitely some of that kind of thinking going on at Test Fest.
REISMAN: Well, I think that the Serbian men were very convinced that eating the testicles would make them stronger, increase their libido. They were very, very insistent on that point. But the science doesn’t really support that, because while some hormones can be ingested through the mouth, basically eaten and then arrive in the bloodstream intact, testosterone is not one of them. So when we treat conditions, when we treat medical conditions that cause low testosterone, there’s no pill for testosterone. It’s either a shot into the muscle or it’s a foam that’s actually put on the skin and testosterone can be absorbed that way. So testosterone eaten through the intestines, really, in fact, some of it might even be converted to estrogen, but I didn’t want to tell the Serbian men that.
GRABER: Jennifer of course has cooked many dinners with a wide variety of animal parts, and she says that in English-speaking countries, men here are often a little… uncomfortable with testicles. At least on their plates.
MCLAGAN: It’s funny, you know, because I also served tétine de vache, which is cow udder, you know. And it’s a bit like corned beef in a way when it’s cooked and you just slice it up and fry it. And everyone ate that. You know, women had no problem with it, but all guys have a problem with eating testicles.
REISMAN: I can safely say that I had the exact opposite reaction. And I think that goes for all the unusual body parts that I’ve eaten since becoming a foodie from anatomy lab in medical school, which is that the fact that these are inside of me, functioning inside of me in these complex and interesting ways, keeping me alive and healthy, makes eating them all the more interesting for me. So testicles was no big deal.
TWILLEY: I think we can safely say that Jon is a bit of an outlier. Even I was a little hesitant about the idea of eating testicles. But for you, dear listeners, Cynthia and I will do almost anything. So we asked Jon and Anna how to cook testicles.
REISMAN: Goulash is a great way to make them, in fact, that’s how I’ve had most, since most of my testicle eating did occur at the Test Fest that year I went with Anna. I do think if they are small, I do encourage you to roast a few and try them that way
WEXLER: I would concur with those methods of cooking. I would say, I don’t know how much cooking you’re planning on doing, but to try like one set fresh off the grill. Just very simple. You know, salt, pepper, put it on the grill and then one that’s cooked for a bit longer, like a goulash or a moussaka.
GRABER: Jennifer’s the one with the offal cookbook, so we turned to her for some more cooking advice.
MCLAGAN: You have to make a cut in it, and peel the skin off, because inside, the outside skin is a very soft egg shaped… That’s the testicle, that’s the part you want to cook. And so you just carefully make a cut, and you can just peel it back, the skin on itself, and the testicle, the meat part of the testicle, will just pop out.
MCLAGAN: And usually soaking them in salted water is a good thing to do.
TWILLEY: Jennifer did also advise us to start our offal eating extravaganza with something a little easier and maybe more palatable—
MCLAGAN: You can just saute some chicken livers and put them on toast or saute them, throw them in the food processor with some butter and make yourself a chicken liver pâté, basically, that’s like a really easy way into offal.
GRABER: And we recruited some additional help for this extravaganza—Sam Garwin is a butcher, she used to run Fleishers in New York, and she recently launched an education company called Meaty, where you can learn how to find, cut, and cook responsibly raised meat.
TWILLEY: But first, we wanted to score some lungs. That story, coming up, after the break.
GRABER: Lungs are still today illegal to buy and sell for food. Which was a problem, because we wanted to make them as part of our offal dinner.
TWILLEY: My friend Jasmine told me lung is available on the DL in some Chinese markets here in L.A., because it’s a key part of a Sichuanese dish called Husband and Wife Lung Slices, but she said word was it’s harder to find since the pandemic.
GRABER: I asked Sam to put out some feelers. And then I had an idea to email a friend of mine who’s a well-known chef, he loves to use all the parts of the animal, I figured he’d have some lung connections. A few hours later, he texted me that pig lungs were literally in the mail. I froze them until Nicky showed up, and then we defrosted them on cooking day and got to work. We had three pounds of lungs and only wanted one pound for the dish we were going to make, so I started slicing into the still slightly frozen lungs.
TWILLEY: Any thoughts on the feeling of slicing into a lung?
GRABER: It feels like I’m slicing into a pillow. CUTTING SOUNDS
TWILLEY: It seems strangely like… gelatinous.
GRABER: It doesn’t feel super gelatinous. It feels… it feels less airy than I expected. It feels denser than I expected. SPURTING NOISE
GRABER: That’s quite a sound!
TWILLEY: Yeah, sudden spurt of blood that was really revolting. LAUGHS It’s funny looking like it has an outside that is soft and bouncy, and then the inside is a little more…
GRABER: Suffused with blood.
TWILLEY: And stuff.
GRABER: And stuff.
TWILLEY: It really looked like a very dense foam—there were occasional bigger holes for tubes, but really, it was just a dense foam speckled with the deepest red.
GRABER: I find it really fascinating looking at how dark red it is because you know that the lungs are where the oxygen comes in and it’s supposed to diffuse into your blood and you can literally see it here. So I actually—it’s not really grossing me out, and I’m finding it kind of fascinating.
TWILLEY: It isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. SQUELCH It’s one of the softest body parts I’ve ever touched.
GRABER: LAUGHS I’m touching it right now. It’s a very, very soft body part. LAUGHS
TWILLEY: Jennifer had a recipe in her book for a Sour Lung Soup but Sam had tried a version of that in the past and didn’t love it. The Sichuanese dish looked too complicated for our already complex multi-organ dinner prep, so we settled on a Norwegian pâté made of boiled heart and lung called lungemos. I texted my sister in law who is half-Norwegian and she told me her mother remembered it as quote the stuff of nightmares, so we went ahead.
GRABER: Sam was in charge of sourcing all the other bits for our dinner, aside from the ingredients for lungemos, and she was also in charge of prepping the testicles.
SAM GARWIN: Right, right. Yeah. So I’ll start by saying that I have never worked with testicles in this manner before. LAUGHTER
GARWIN: So this is my first time receiving testicles and they… I mean, they kind of look like what you’d expect. They are egg shaped, they are shiny, they are veiny, and yeah, they’re balls. LAUGHS
TWILLEY: Yes, we are grown ups.
GARWIN: In any case, you remove the membrane and then you soak them overnight in a brine and they’re a little bit easier to handle in the morning and then you can poach them, she has you put them in a simmering water with some vinegar. And they really change when you put them in that water. I mean, they actually kind of tighten up and get much smaller, which I was not expecting. LAUGHS
GRABER: It’s like they’re going into cold water! LAUGHS.
GARWIN: Except they’re going into hot water.
GRABER: To showcase these newly shrunken balls, we had made a Georgian recipe that starts with a stew of potatoes and tomatoes and peppers and a bunch of spices. And we had to slice and brown the testicles before adding them.
GRABER: It looks like a chicken breast.
TWILLEY: Very smooth sausage meat. Or a chicken breast. Yeah, you wanna slice the ball? Sure, you do. CUTTING AND FRYING SOUNDS
TWILLEY: We also decided to fry up a bunch of liver and onions. And then of course some brains.
GARWIN: OK, so these are lamb brains…
GRABER: And they look like brains. You can see the little like curvy brain bits.
GARWIN: The other side, though, is white and it I believe is just fat, which I was not actually aware that there is this much fat on a brain. So that’s exciting.
TWILLEY: I will say texture wise. Again, we’re getting that memory foam pillow thing going on.
GARWIN: Yeah, I feel like they’re squishier than the testicles.
GRABER: We made a breading for the brains loosely based on a recipe in Jennifer’s book, and we fried them up.
GRABER: So people who listened to our cannibalism episode might remember that I really loved a TV show called iZombie, and I can’t believe I am saying this, but peeps, your fried brains are ready. LAUGHS
TWILLEY: We set the table outside with good bread and butter, we brought out all our body parts except the testicles, which we left to bubble away slowly on the hob, and we opened up a hearty red to wash everything down.
TWILLEY: I’ve never been so ready to eat brains.
GRABER: I’m still not sure I’m ready to eat brains but I’m certainly ready to eat.
TWILLEY: Would anyone like a glass…?
GARWIN: Definitely. POURING SOUNDS
GRABER: Give Sam plenty of wine.
TWILLEY: This is a country club pour for this evening. I feel like we need the…
GRABER: That’s enough for me. Okay. Thanks.
TWILLEY: I’m gonna have the brain while the brain is hot. Get your brains while it’s hot.
GRABER: Oh, they’re very soft and pillowy.
TWILLEY: LAUGHS Pillowy. So disgusting. Alright. SILVERWARE CLINKING OK, that’s actually not bad.
GARWIN: Yeah, they’re very mild.
GRABER: They’re fine.
GARWIN: LAUGHS Totally fine. Very innocuous.
GRABER: I mean, the flavoring on them is delicious with the dried lime dried powdered lime and sumac and urfa chile and all that stuff. And it’s just like softness. And between it—my brain is having a hard time wrapping around eating brain still. I’m going to be honest.
TWILLEY: It’s so soft and the crispy coating is actually good. And I don’t mind this. It doesn’t taste of anything other than the coating, really.
GRABER: We had cooked up liver from three different animals, we had rabbit, chicken, and beef liver.
GARWIN: It’s a liver flight. I think it’s important that we start marketing this as a liver flight.
GRABER: LAUGHS This is a flight we are never going to be able to convince people to try! LAUGHS
TWILLEY: We’d all had liver before, and it all tasted like liver. The beef liver was a little strong for us, but it was helped by this faux redcurrant sauce that we cobbled together at the last minute from some dried cranberries, some vinegar, and some fig jam.
GRABER: That sounds maybe not amazing but it was actually really delicious. And then it was finally time to try the lungs. All the ingredients had been boiled for a long time and then whizzed in a food processor and it was just basically a grey mush.
TWILLEY: It looks so disgusting. LAUGHS.
GRABER: It’s really gross looking.
TWILLEY: And it smells so disgusting. I mean, sniff that.
GRABER: SNIFFING SOUNDS Yeah, yeah, that actually smells pretty rank.
TWILLEY: It smells so much worse than at any stage up until now, I feel like we’ve alchemically transformed these lungs into absolute, I mean…
GARWIN: Maybe it’s going to be like stinky cheese where you smell it and you’re like, “There’s no way I can eat that.” But then it ends up being delicious.
TWILLEY: It smells bad and it looks bad. So it cannot…
TWILLEY: Yeah. Here’s to how it tastes! EATING SOUNDS Mm, it tastes fine! Oh, it’s quite good, actually. Hmm.
GRABER: OK. I’m going to give this a try too. So, first bite, I’m like “Pâté!” Which, I eat a lot of pâté.
TWILLEY: The aftertaste has got a funny organ note in a not particularly positive way, I would say.
GRABER: At first we both thought it was just kind of a strong pâté flavor, but it did the opposite of grow on you. It was pretty rank. Let’s move on.
GRABER: Hmm. We have one more dish that we have to see if it’s ready. We haven’t eaten testicles.
TWILLEY: Balls, balls, balls. LAUGHS We have some really good looking testicles and we have some strong support for testicles coming from Sam.
GARWIN: I think that on appearance alone. So we eat with our eyes first, right? I think on appearance alone, this looks the most delicious out of all the things we’ve eaten.
GRABER: Because this is a really beautiful tomato pepper potato dish.
TWILLEY: What about my Norwegian lung heart mush? You don’t like—
GRABER: This, like, brown mush gross thing that looks like a baby diaper?
TWILLEY: It mostly looks like a pan full of diarrhea and…
GRABER: Sorry, Norwegians. LAUGHS
TWILLEY: Moving on to our grand finale. We bravely suggested that Sam do the honors and try the testicle dish first.
TWILLEY: And it’s your first testicle?
GARWIN: Yes. LAUGHS.
GRABER: I feel like we’re in seventh grade.
GARWIN: Alright. Here we go. EATING SOUNDS
TWILLEY: It’s a shrug.
GARWIN: Mmhm, I shrugged, the sauce is delicious and the testicle is… I mean, yeah, somewhere between chicken breast and sausage I feel like. Like a properly cooked chicken breast.
TWILLEY: That’s not bad!
GARWIN: Flavor is very mild as well. There’s nothing that stands out about the testicle itself.
TWILLEY: Testicle’s great! Love the testicle! LAUGHS It’s really nice. It’s dense, but also mild. I like it. It’s just meat. It’s good textured meat.
GRABER: I would have said it was like a less dense sausage. Like sausage is sometimes if you’re cooking it, like it’s kind of dense. This is kind of light, that’s sort of the way Anna and Jon were describing it. It’s like a little light but meaty and then just really, really delicious sauce.
TWILLEY: This is by far and away the most delicious. The breading on the brain was good, but this is the most delicious organ we’ve had, for sure.
GRABER: It was actually tasty, the stew itself was great, the testicles were mild and inoffensive unless I thought about them too hard, but I am not going to be running out to make testicles tomorrow.
TWILLEY: Or brains. Or really any other organ. Although I am kind of curious whether it was the lung that made our Norwegian pâté taste so grim, or whether it was boiling two organs together for so long.
GRABER: We will never know. I would and will eat heart again, I like beef tongue, I enjoy liver on occasion. But I’m not going to turn into a huge odd bit fan, not like Jennifer is. Still, she does have a point that if you do eat meat, it’s good to become familiar with these parts. It’s part of really understanding where your meat comes from.
MCLAGAN: Well, I really think if you’re going to eat meat, especially in today’s society with, you know, what’s going on in the world, and climate warming and all that, you need to respect the animal. And plus, you’re missing out, you’re limiting your range of what you can eat by not eating the odd bits. So I really think that everyone should be embracing them.
GRABER: Some organs are also incredibly nutritious, especially if you’re low on some minerals. I ate a bunch of beef liver once when I was really low on iron, and it helped.
REISMAN: You’re right too, your nutritional reasoning is right, because liver is one of the healthiest things we can put in our mouths, whether vegetable, animal or mineral.
GRABER: In fact, brains in particular are so rich in nutrients, first they have a lot of fat but they also have high levels of potassium and magnesium and vitamin C and niacin and on and on. And so brain mush is actually used by scientists to grow microbes that don’t like the standard culture food, which is agar. Brains are just more nutritious.
TWILLEY: But really for Jon, it’s also about respect—respect for the wonder that is animal physiology. You, me, pigs, cows—we are all built of these incredibly complex organs that run the show from behind the scenes. And then, in the case of some species’ organs, they can become food for us, too.
REISMAN: And there was something magical about that transformation for me. So knowing what the body part did in life, knowing the complex details of how it functioned, to me, made eating it a more interesting experience.
GRABER: We want to give a shoutout to suppliers and sources who helped us get a hold of everything we ate this episode and helped us figure out what to do with it: M. F. Dulock Butcher, Lancaster Farm Fresh Coop, Schenker Family Farms, Frankie’s Free Range Meats, and Savenors. And of course a huge thanks to Sam Garwin, who helped with the sourcing and some of the challenging prep work, do check out her company at getmeaty.com.
TWILLEY: Thanks also of course to Jon Reisman and Anna Wexler, go check out Jon’s lovely new book, it’s called The Unseen Body and we have a link on our website, gastropod.com. And thanks also to Jennifer McLagan, author of Odd Bits and many more fascinating cookbooks—her newest is all about blood, which is amazing and we have snippets from it for our special supporters—anyone who supports the show with $5 an episode, or $9 a month or more.
GRABER: Thanks as usual to our fabulous producer Sonja Swanson. We’ll be back in two weeks with a brand new episode perfect for both the meat and the non-meat-eaters among you—till then!