"Seeking it out from your farmer is an entirely different experience than buying it from a butcher shop or meat counter."
If you've eaten and cooked the whole animal for most of your life, then after a while you acquire a certain degree of aplomb about all things offal. Pig's eyeballs and lamb's brains? Check. Testicles and penis? Been there, done that. You start to understand how certain parts need to be handled, what pairs well with what, and so forth. But just as I was beginning to feel self-assured, my poultry farmer brought me down a notch or two.
I have a poultry farmer. The nicest, most accommodating farmer you could hope to have on your side. Ben Shaw and his wife Jeannette are the owners of the Garden of Spices in upstate New York. For more than five years they've been raising poultry—not only chickens and ducks, but also turkeys and guinea fowl, on their 70 acre farm in Greenwich, New York, north of the Hudson River.
Ben tells me everything I'd need to know about raising poultry—that chickens, for instance, are very industrious peckers, but ducks are more meandering in their approach to pasturing the farm. Though most of his ducks go to Chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, you can also find Ben every Wednesday at the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan where he operates the stand with the help of his extremely well-behaved and rosy-cheeked children.
Ben won me over with just one bite of his sweet and plump duck livers; the following week I was back to pick up the pounds of gizzards, both chicken and duck, that I'd asked him to reserve for me. When we talked gizzards, Ben mentioned that those of pastured poultry are yellow in hue due to the pigmentation of the grass from which they feed, not unlike the way that the cap of fat on pastured beef, for that matter, is slightly golden on the surface.
Despite his warning I wasn't prepared for the yellowness of the organ—a shade almost golden in its brilliance—or for the structure of the layer itself, a tough and rubbery casing with deep grooves, like a walnut shell or the cracked mud surface of a desiccated river bed. Inside the gizzards looked briefly familiar: that is, until I stuck my fingers inside the crevices of the muscles and pulled out tufts of something like grass.
There were chunks of dirt and weed-like tufts crammed in between the folds of the muscles. For the first time in my gizzard-loving life, I could see the way in which all the particles of dirt and grass matter are crushed and sorted inside the bird. I'd never even realized that gizzards functioned inside rubbery casings, which now I removed by peeling the layer away from the organs. Using a good deal of pressure, I yanked out all the tufts of grass.
I kept pulling and tugging at the detriment in the nooks and crannies. The more I pulled, the sweatier and more impatient I became as I stood over the sink for a full hour just to break down a pound of duck and a pound of chicken gizzards. When I completed this task there was a large hairball-like wad, about the size of a tennis ball, piled in one corner of the sink. As a last impediment to cooking them, little bits of sediment clung to the gizzards so that they had to be soaked and rinsed thoroughly in several washes of water. By the time I finally got them to the confiting pot, I'd spent an additional two hours doing the work that typically happens at a meat processing plant. In comparison, Ben must have slaughtered his chickens and ducks, then grabbed the gizzards and tossed them into a plastic bag for me.
So I'll end today's post not with a gizzard recipe (which you can find here, here, and here), but rather with a general thought about offal. Seeking it out from your farmer is an entirely different experience than buying it from a butcher shop or meat counter. When we eat offal we eat organs that resemble our own. We eat heads with eyeballs still intact. We pick away at bones. Offal's obvious connection to the animal makes it daunting for the fainthearted, and this connection is only magnified when you're dealing with the farmer.
The farmer's relationship to the animal, and therefore to the wildness that we've tamed, can be unsettling in its honesty and in its in-your-face animality. This I didn't realize quite as fully as I do now. And if what I didn't know about gizzards could fill up a novella (or at the very least a long article that would have my editors wondering where I'm going with this point), then just imagine what I don't know about livers and spleens, hearts and lungs.