The dominant wolf gets the liver, at least according to the American podcaster Joe Rogan. In one episode, a bodybuilder called ‘CarnivoreMD’ (real name Paul Saladino) tells him: ‘If you eat liver, you get to be an alpha male… or alpha female.’ Offal has taken a markedly macho turn in recent years. No longer resigned to memories of the postwar school canteen, organs have become the preferred food of a certain type of gym bro.
The word offal implies wastage – from the Middle Dutch for offcuts – but it can also be a delicacy. Recently saved from a government ban on cruel foods, foie gras is only the most obvious example. For the most part, though, the West has become squeamish about what was once called ‘variety meat’. It’s rare to find anything other than a steak and kidney pie in even our biggest supermarkets.
But a new wave of offal-lovers is reviving an interest in organs. CarnivoreMD eats his raw. On his social media pages, you’ll find videos of him topless and dangling bloody slivers into his mouth. The foods we think of as healthy are mostly condemned. Saladino likes to walk around his local supermarket pointing at almond milk and kale, declaring them ‘garbage’. Plant leaves are actively harmful, containing ‘defence chemicals’ that are ‘trying to kill you’. Healthy humans, he says, eat meat and fruit.
Saladino and Rogan aren’t the only ones pushing organs. ‘Liver King’ joined Instagram only last year but already has more than a million followers. Equally bare-chested, this vast mass of muscle and beard marches around his American ranch swinging weights and extolling the benefits of raw organs. In the evening, he sits down with Liver Queen and their Liver Boys for a dinner of uncooked bull’s testicles.
Raw organs, according to this new breed of nutritional influencers, contain obscure vitamins inaccessible to us mere mortals. There is lots of serious-sounding science: chemical compounds unlocking previously dormant bodily processes. Phrases such as ‘sulforaphane’ and the ‘Nrf2 system’ are bandied about. And here I am, like an idiot, throwing a couple of frozen fish fingers into the oven.
Curiously, the Americans have adopted a phrase from the earlier British offal renaissance: ‘nose-to-tail eating’. The concept was thought up by chef Fergus Henderson in the 1990s, a convergence of the waste-not-want-not ethic and a sort of quiet, sensible Britishness. Henderson’s cookbook is stuffed full of playfully weird dishes: giblet stew and pig’s trotter jam. The likes of Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal began to explore older unfashionable forms of British cooking. Waitrose jumped on the trend, bringing in Heston to design his own signature ready meals, although the supermarket decided not to stock his pig’s nipple scratchings.
Unsurprisingly, Liver King is now cashing in on his growing profile. He sells ‘ancestral supplements’, which contain dried heart, pancreas and spleen. Alpha bros love to eat like their ancestors did. The so-called ‘paleolithic diet’ has taken off in recent years: followers commit to eating in much the same way as their hunter-gatherer forebears. That means meat, berries and not much else.
But for all its mystical nutritional science, this new offal movement’s fundamental principle is one rooted in ideas of traditional masculinity. There’s no hiding from the bloody, visceral nature of an animal heart. And what more does an excitable boy want than to shock?
Many of the new American believers revere hunting, stalking and killing prey. Again, they argue it’s what our ancestors have done for millennia and fits with their paleo vision of masculinity. Modern men are trapped in offices leading lives of quiet drudgery. Real men get out there to kill bison and eat their still-warm organs.
There’s a political element to this movement, too: while those on the left go vegan, those on the right prefer unprocessed flesh. The Canadian academic Jordan Peterson has been the best-known proponent of an all-beef diet, claiming it healed him of various physical ailments as well as anxiety and depression. He told Rogan in a podcast: ‘I eat beef and salt and water. That’s it. And I never cheat. Ever.’
Food marketers and their intensive industries are harming not just the planet but consumers. It’s an argument we’re used to hearing from the left: fretting about E numbers was once the preserve of the worried middle-class parent. Now the hyper-masculine paleos have taken up the cause. Vegetable oils, particularly canola oil (an American variant of rapeseed), are the target of a campaign led by the online right. Converts post before and after pictures of themselves looking sticky and grey in the first and radiantly happy in the second. The alt-right are now found promoting the benefits of butter and tallow. Lard is making a comeback.
In some ways, the British and American movements both reject popular gastronomy in favour of a return to tradition. And yet the tone is quite different. Henderson’s love of offal always felt joyful, playing with our expectations while treating the animal with the utmost respect. Among the new-wave offal-lovers, however, there’s a whiff of conspiracism: they talk about hidden knowledge, reawakening something inside of us.
I have to admit though, I recently found myself leaving my local farmers’ market with a bag of lamb’s liver. But unlike CarnivoreMD and Liver King, I couldn’t face eating my organs raw. Instead, I fried them with onions. Perhaps I’ll never be an alpha male.