The Enduring Debate; or, Is Offal Always Awful?: The Historic Case for Giblets

ECHO underway, posted Tuesday, November 23, 2010

It comes down to this, every year around this time: should the turkey giblets be in the gravy, in the stuffing, or banned entirely from the kitchen and the dinner table?

Your humble ECHO staff has no answer to this, the most imponderable question of culinary import. As a matter of record, staff members don’t agree with each other. You must look inward, and not only at your turkey’s inwards (as giblets were called in many nineteenth-century cookbooks), for the answer.

We will say this, however: giblets (heart, liver, and gizzard) sound so much more appetizing when you borrow from the French and call them béatilles—tidbits, or dainty bits.

A tourte de béatilles is a pie most foul—er, fowl. (We do try to be neutral.) Giblet pie is to be found in many a cookbook in the nineteenth century. And no less a Connecticut Yankee than Henry Ward Beecher, ministering in Indiana and editing the Western Farmer and Gardener, approvingly published the following letter in the journal’s pages:

Did you ever partake of a giblet pie? If not, you have yet to learn something “new under the sun,” and eat of a viand, that when once you have eaten of, you will certainly repeat “the dose;” especially if it should be ”served up” and set upon the table, “piping hot,” as a housewife I have been long acquainted with, does the business up. Perhaps the term “giblet” may be new to you; but no Yankee will plead ignorant on that score.

The giblet pie I have always considered a cheap and economical dish; and it so very rich that none but a gormand [sic] could eat to satiety.

We would be remiss in our historical accuracy if we didn’t include the fact that this letter appeared in the magazine on April 1, 1846. And we’ve not included the recipe (even though it called for a lot of cream) for those of you who have weak stomachs. But this was no April Fool’s joke, and the use of giblets certainly is a lesson against wastefulness in the kitchen at a time when the food supply was neither constant nor ensured. Recipes not only for giblet pie, but also for giblet gravy, giblet sauce, and giblet soup—indeed, all recipes—tell us so much about humans’ relationship to animals and humans’ relationships to each other.

Foodways may bind cultures together as they do families. (Except, perhaps, on the issue of giblets.) Yet foodways may also distinguish cultures, one from the other, as well as demarcate class, gender, ethnicity and race, and religious belief. The types of food we eat also tell us much about agricultural and technological change. The Encyclopedia of Connecticut History will include entries on Connecticut foodways, from apple cider to oysters, and from Pez to shad roe.