You'll never be a member of the Innard Circle if the likes of brains in black butter, Uzbek boiled spleen or Fujianese pig heart make you squirm.
Since 1999, an intrepid band of New York City foodies has been meeting about once a month to indulge their penchant for "nose to tail eating" in a city that provides great opportunity to do so. The city's thousands of ethnic restaurants are constantly refreshed by new waves of immigrants, many of whose cultures serve animal parts that most Americans wouldn't touch with a 10-foot fork. (click below to read more)
For the organ-lovers though, what really gets their goat—or pig or sheep or rabbit—is when a restaurant is out of a delicacy they traveled across town to sample.
"I mean really, who eats bull's penis before 7:00 p.m.?" complained Bobby Ghosh at a May meeting, recounting a recent trip to a northern Chinese restaurant in Queens.
They had to settle for the animal's somewhat chewy testicles and a dish on the menu called "Big Buckstraps Paddywack." The waitress, who only spoke Mandarin, pointed energetically to her diaphragm when asked what they were eating, Mr. Ghosh said. That was as close as the group got to discerning what part of the animal it was.
It was tough but tasty, they say.
Mr. Ghosh, originally from Bengal in northeastern India, was Time Magazine's Baghdad bureau chief for five years and worked in Hong Kong—both places where he sampled a wide range of food. Always seeking variety, different types of meat began to taste more or less the same to him.
"But a camel's eyeball is way different from a goat's eyeball," he said.
Digging in to a five-course meal of organ meats specially prepared for the group by Umbrian chef Sandro Fioriti at his Upper East Side eatery Sandro's, journalist Daniel Okrent, one of the group's founders, tries to explain what attracts him to innards.
"Growing up, I was a very picky eater," he said. But his wife Becky, a food critic and a member, introduced him to what's known as the "fifth quarter" of the animal and he's never looked back.
"There's no question there's an element of showing off, but it's great food," he said, between bites of brain, kidney, intestines and sweetbreads with polenta.
Though he has had many memorable meals with the group in New York—and who wouldn't remember the likes of "crispy colorectal," North Korean jellied tripe or a central Asian organ mélange called "geez-beez"—he says the pinnacle of his offal-eating days came in the 1990s during a trip to Italy. An old restaurant near Rome's stockyards served him rigatoni alla pajata—the intestines of a freshly-slaughtered nursing calf still containing the curdled milk of its mother.
"Does that gross you out?" asked Melissa Easton, an industrial designer and the group's unofficial "organ"-izer.
A shrug brings a nod of approval, as if having passed a squeamishness test. Many haven't.
"We've had people join us for a single meal and never come back, without explanation," Ms. Easton said. "There's a certain kind of discomfort that registers on their face when they realize what they've gotten into."
No wonder the late Calvin Schwabe's 1979 book on Americans' disdain for foods that he called "cheap, nutritious and good to eat" is titled "Unmentionable Cuisine." He chalked it up to "prejudice or ignorance."
It is no accident that the Innard Circle, which has about a dozen steady members, isn't only a well-traveled group but, with journalists, authors and a book publisher, a well-read one too. After all, the most famous organ-eater of all time is the character Leopold Bloom in James Joyce's novel Ulysses. Bloom "ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes."
Ms. Easton, like most members, struggles to come up with the oddest thing she has eaten because it all seems normal to her and usually delicious. The best thing she has had is seared calf liver sashimi at a Japanese place in the West Village.
Jeannette Seaver, a publisher and author of four cookbooks, joined the group a decade ago because of her love for her native French food.
"Our cuisine offers many succulent dishes made of innards, so it seemed right for me to be part of the group," she says. "The food is daring, challenging at times, but always terrific."
The group, which is also known as Organ Grinders, finds plenty of humor in the foods. Fond of puns, the word "offal" is particularly ripe for abuse. The word's English etymology speaks volumes about Anglo-Saxon disdain for organs. With origins in the 14th century, it is thought to refer to the "off-fall" from the butcher's block, meaning the less desirable parts.
Some members' attraction to offal stems from their disdain for Western squeamishness and wastefulness.
"This isn't weird—it's perfectly normal for lots of people around the world," said criminologist Leonid Lantsman between mouthfuls of spicy duck tongue and braised goose intestine at a June meeting of the club at Chinatown eatery Rong Hang. "If more people ate entrails and offal then we wouldn't waste so much food."
The seven-course meal began with duck kidney, before moving on to more hard-core offerings: beef large intestine in Fujianese red wine paste and pig stomach. The somewhat lighter frog's legs and pig skin hot and sour soup followed and then gave way to a couple of exotic but non-organ offerings.
"Watch out everyone—there's no offal in this one!" joked Robert Sietsema, a food critic at the Village Voice, as a seafood dish was placed on the table.
The one organ the group has yet to sample, despite it being a delicacy for some ethnic groups, is uterus.
"I guess it's more of a home-cooked thing," said Ms. Easton.
But she would eat it in a heartbeat.
"Am I missing some part of my brain—the part that screams revulsion? Perhaps. In fact, very likely."