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Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal

by Jennifer McLagan

With Odd Bits, Jennifer McLagan continues the peculiar carnivorous journey she began in her first two cookbooks, Bones and Fat (a Q&Q book of the year for 2009). Those earlier books – especially the second – were about cooking with animal parts that, for most people, are considered caro non grata.

Unwelcome meats are also the subject of Odd Bits, in which McLagan champions nose-to-tail cookery, teaching us how to prepare the stuff left behind once the prime cuts are gobbled up. You know, the hot dog fillers: lungs, tongues, trotters, tripe, and worse. (Lamb testicles, anyone?)

Odd Bits is a product of the farm-to-table cooking movement sweeping North America, which promotes sustainable local agriculture in opposition to industrialization. “Today we are so removed from the sources of our food that we rarely think of meat coming from living, breathing animals,” writes McLagan. Here she provides a wealth of information about how to cook – without bastardization – ingredients like offal (kidneys, liver, sweetbreads), off-cuts (shanks, cheeks, necks), gelatin, and even blood.

To most North Americans, this is still extremely adventurous – even foreboding. When was the last time you craved some ravioli stuffed with calf’s brains and morels, or some beef-heart tartare, or, yes, some crispy lamb testicles with caper sauce? Such recipes, and dozens like them, fill the pages of Odd Bits. If your stomach turns to read about them, this book may not be for you.

And that’s too bad, because Odd Bits is a vitally important work. As McLagan details in her introduction, industrialized farms insinuate unwanted chemicals into the human diet, produce low-quality meats, generate significant pollution, and have an adverse impact on biodiversity. Their low-cost products promote consumer gluttony, and their animals often live in misery.

The citizens of our mass-production society may have been conditioned to believe nose-to-tail cookery is an aberration, but prior to industrialization it was the norm. With Odd Bits, McLagan does a valuable service in revitalizing a nearly lost art. She should be applauded, loudly.