Interview with Chef James Barry Eating Organ Meats
HILDA LABRADA GORE:
- Why should we eat liver and other organ meats?
- Why bother?
- They can taste funky. Are they as nutrient-rich as we have been told?
- If we decide to go for it, what’s the best approach to adding them to the diet?
Our guest, James Barry, has had an interesting career of over sixteen years in the culinary field. After starting out as a private chef, he launched a high-quality food delivery company in the Los Angeles area, but he’s mostly known as the man behind Pluck, an organ-based all-purpose seasoning.
James provides some of the history of organ meat consumption, explaining where we have been and why we got away from it all in the first place.
He also explains why organ meats are Mother Nature’s multivitamin and shares how to ease into eating them, offering suggestions for adults and kids alike. Finally, he provides specific information about the best ratio of liver to muscle meats and lists a number of nutrient-dense organs that we may be unfamiliar with.
JAMES BARRY: I am super excited to be on this show specifically because the Weston A. Price Foundation has been huge in my life. After I started cooking, I went to culinary school, where I learned about Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. We learned about a lot of books, but when I got this one, I thought, “This speaks to me.” Later, I went to my first Weston A. Price Foundation conference. So, this organization and book have been a huge part of my food— and life—paradigm. I would say Nourishing Traditions is the biggest influencer of my philosophy of food. Admittedly, it’s not the easiest read because it’s dense, but you can’t deny how powerful the information is.
HG: Yes, it’s not just a cookbook.
JB: It is its own school and program. Hands down, it has been the most influential food paradigm of my career, from the soaking of grains, seeds and nuts to the culturing, to the ancestral foods. Diets and trends come and go, but the Nourishing Traditions paradigm has not left. It has been the mainstay. It sticks.
HG: It has stood the test of time. That’s why I love it as well. The Foundation is big on eating nose to tail with a special emphasis on organ meats because they are nutrient-dense. What’s funny to me is one of the terms for organ meats is “offal.” That is not a happy-sounding word to me.
JB: It refers to the parts that “fall off” when they are butchering the animal. Both of us can agree that offal is anything but “awful.” It’s the most nutrient-dense part of the animal—it’s Mother Nature’s multivitamin and they are high in protein as well. They are incredible. I think that if people aren’t eating offal, it’s because they don’t have access to it, don’t know how to cook it or have the perception of it not tasting good.
When we think about organ meats, a lot of people think of the little organs, but let me encapsulate a little bit of what offal technically refers to. First, there are the organ meats we all know about: liver, kidney, heart, spleen, testicles, ovaries and brain. We also talk about the sweetbreads, which are the thymus and pancreas. Then there’s bone marrow. People don’t include the bone when they talk about offal, but they do include bone marrow, tongue, lips, ears, skin, tail and blood, which we see a lot in sausages and blood pudding. Next, there’s tripe, which is the stomach lining, featured in menudo, a Mexican dish made with beef stomach. And there are the feet, which is another cultural food.
It’s sad to me that almost every other culture has got some organ meat term or food in its lexicon, but we don’t really have much in the U.S. There are not many foods or recipes that constitute an American organ diet. From my research, chitlins, which are the pig intestines, are the closest. They came about because that’s what slave owners gave to the slaves. Owners were giving slaves the intestines and keeping all the pig meat for themselves, so it became a custom food for those people.
HG: What about scrapple? It’s a regional dish made with all the leftover parts of the pig. It’s akin to sausage. Sally talks about folks in Maryland eating scrapple. You can get scrapple at the grocery store. Generally speaking, though, you are right. Our diet is woefully low in these very nutrient-dense cuts. You I wonder if it’s almost a classist thing because the rich slave owners may have thought, “These cuts are beneath us,” not realizing that what they were saying was “beneath” them was the best part of the animal.
JB: That’s definitely been there historically. In World War II, however, they were worried about there being a meat shortage, so they set about trying to educate people on organ meats. That’s even when they came up with other names for it. It was known as offal but they started calling it “variety meats” and “organ meats” because they were trying to change people’s perspective so that they would not see these cuts as some awful-tasting thing or cheaper meat or product. The education worked, and after World War II, people started eating organ meats again. What originally happened that made them not eat them? I don’t know.
HG: I once interviewed somebody who said it became difficult with urbanization. Everyone started living in cities and didn’t have access to the whole animal, and transport of those cuts became difficult. They didn’t have refrigerated train cars yet, or maybe there was only room for so much, so they left behind some cuts.
I want to ask you about nutrient density, which we have mentioned several times already. What is in these organ meats that makes them so good for us? Can you get specific about the vitamins and minerals they contain?
JB: A better question would be, “What’s not in them?” because there’s so much. You have a very high concentration of vitamin A. You have all the B vitamins—not just a couple but all of them, and particularly B12. You have vitamins C, D, E and K. You then have essential minerals like iron, calcium, a good amount of copper, magnesium, selenium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc. That’s why I call them Mother Nature’s multivitamin. We associate organ meats with women getting pregnant. If you are planning to get pregnant or are pregnant, they always say, “Eat your organ meats.” That’s the one subset of people who are encouraged to eat organ meats. But I’m here to say, “We are a nutrient-deficient society. We should all be eating organ meats.”
HG: Honestly, I have never heard that phrase, “When you are pregnant, eat organ meats.” I don’t think the twenty-somethings or any women in their childbearing years are hearing that anymore, which is unfortunate. If you are in that age bracket and you are reading this, we have some ideas for you!
James, I’m hoping to pick your brain to find out ways in which we can introduce more of these items into our diet. That was the brainchild and the whole idea behind Pluck, wasn’t it?
JB: I created Pluck, an organ-based seasoning, because I thought, “If people aren’t eating organ meats, maybe it is because they don’t have access to them, don’t know how to cook with them, or have this incorrect perception of offal not tasting good.” My thought was, “If I can make it taste good and easy to use, there’s no learning curve around how to cook with it.” That’s where Pluck came from.
It’s freeze-dried powdered organs—liver, kidney, heart, spleen and pancreas—and then I combine them with organic herbs and spices, which offsets that “organ-y” taste if you are someone who doesn’t jive with that. What you get is something that’s savory umami. It’s good. It goes with everything. You have tried it. How would you describe it?
HG: We love it. We put it all over our popcorn and meat. “Umami” is one way to describe it, and it also adds a little tangy spice. Being Latina, our family enjoys that flavor set and the combination you have made. I know you have a variety of flavors that you are developing and making accessible to people. It’s tremendous. I do have a question though. Pluck is no substitute for the real deal, right? What we want is for people to get more organ meats as a bigger percentage of their diet.
JB: Eating the actual organs is, hands down, always going to be your best bet because it’s 100 percent. My mix is not a 100 percent organ blend, even though I am going to make that available. However, what I like about Pluck is that I use it more often. I may make organs and eat them once a week or once every two weeks—and you get a lot of nutrients from eating them once a week—but with Pluck, I use it all the time. As you mentioned, we use it on popcorn. My kids put it on toast. We put it in almost every meal. It’s like I’m getting these small but frequent doses, which makes an accumulative effect. The way I see it, there’s room for both.
HG: What organ meat was the first one to grace your table when you started figuring out how much we need them in our diet?
JB: I did not grow up with organ meats, but when we had a whole chicken, there were the chicken gizzards. That was my first introduction to organ meat. Most people will start by eating liver; liver is going to be the first one because it’s the most nutrient-dense of all the organs. It’s the powerhouse. Superman has always been seen as the most dominant superhero, and liver is like the Superman of the organs. It’s incredibly nutrient-dense. You mentioned that the Weston A. Price Foundation encourages nose-to-tail eating. My whole thing is, let’s try to get people to eat organs besides liver, too, because they all have benefits. The heart has coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10). Spleen is high in vitamin C. They all have great absorbable iron. Spleen and kidney also have folate, which is important. They all have folate, but each organ has maybe a little bit more or less than the other.
HG: Can you break down what CoQ10 and folate do for us, so we can understand their benefits?
JB: Folate plays a role in making and repairing DNA and producing red blood cells, which is why it’s in a lot of prenatal vitamins. The heart has CoQ10, which is vital for energy production and the prevention of oxidative stress, which we experience every day. It’s also key for cardiovascular health, which makes sense.
There is an ancestral concept of supports. For example, the heart supports cardiovascular health. There is a philosophy that whatever organ you are eating, that it is supporting the same organ in your body. If you eat spleen, it supports your spleen. If you eat heart, it supports your heart. That’s true when you look at the vitamins that are predominantly in those organs.
The liver, as mentioned, is high in iron but it’s also one of the best sources of retinol, which is vitamin A, which supports skin issues. Vitamin A is such a necessity, and we are all deficient. The spleen has vitamin C. Vitamin C in the spleen helps iron to carry the oxygen from the lungs to various parts of the body. Also—and this is cool, particularly with what’s going on with Covid—organ meats have some of the highest concentrations of naturally occurring vitamin D of any source.
HG: That should get folks excited about trying them. Where can you get organ meats? I don’t see them laid out among the packages of ground beef and hot dogs at my grocery store.
JB: It’s challenging. It’s funny that you mention hot dogs. They do not contain the organ meats we were talking about, but they do contain a lot of the parts that I mentioned in describing offal—parts like lips and ears. These are probably not the parts of the animals most of us are gravitating toward, but hot dogs contain up to 85 percent of parts that we wouldn’t normally embrace. Pick and choose whether you want to eat hot dogs.
HG: Most people think hot dogs are junk food, but the very thing they might be turning their noses up at is something that we might consider taking in more of, especially if it is pasture-raised. I guess that leads us to where we obtain our meats. We get ours from an Amish farm in Pennsylvania or at our farmers market. Talk to us about what you suggest.
JB: Finding a good source is key because the health of the animal is going to equal your health from eating it. I look for that. You mentioned pasture-raised, 100 percent grass-fed cows. You can get organs from other animals as well. Farmers markets are one of the places you can look. There are some online sources. You can look up whether they will ship.
The biggest issue is that not every butcher has a plan for all of the organs. Here in the U.S., it’s easy to find liver, kidney and heart. There’s tongue and things like that. But getting some of these other things—like the spleen, pancreas, testes and ovaries—is challenging.
You have to find a local butcher, maybe become part of a cowshare because they can’t sell the organs on the open market but they can sell them directly to you as long as you are part of the share. I would vote for joining a cowshare. That’s going to be your best bet in terms of getting parts of the animal that you normally wouldn’t find anywhere else.
HG: Sometimes it takes making an inquiry. We like to make tongue tacos in our house. You have to do this weird peel-y thing after it’s slow-cooked, but the meat is good. It holds on to the different flavors of the added spices. The point is, we had to ask at the farmers market whether they sold tongue. At first, I don’t think they did, but then they started bringing it because we were asking for it. He did have a way to get it from the slaughterhouse to us. That was a boon, but you didn’t see it lying out there among the bacon and other cuts.
JB: That’s a great point. In any situation, when in doubt, ask—because if they realize there’s a market for it, they will start making it available.
HG: When you started to introduce liver into your diet. How did you prepare it? Was it paté?
JB: I was a little intimidated by it because when you buy liver, it’s big. You get it frozen. I always felt a little bit of anxiety: “I’ve got this huge organ that I’m still new at cooking. If I defrost the whole thing, how am I possibly going to use all of it?” That’s where my head went. That’s where I started to come up with this idea of what are some techniques that people can use to ease into organ meats so that they are not overwhelmed?
One of them is, when you buy a beef liver, leave it frozen. Instead of defrosting the whole thing, grate it into the food while it’s frozen. It comes off as little shavings, and those shavings either melt right into a stir-fry, or you can combine them with your ground meat. It’s such an easy way to get liver into any food without anyone knowing. You don’t defrost it, so it preserves it longer. You keep it in your freezer and keep using a little bit every time you cook.
HG: What percentage do you recommend putting into, say, ground beef if you are going to make a meatloaf or burgers?
JB: I have found that anything up to 25 percent is good. When I say “good,” I mean you won’t know that it’s in there. It doesn’t affect the texture or the flavor. When I have tried a mix that was around 30 percent or more, I found that the actual texture of the ground meat was different. If you are new to eating organs, when that difference is present, it makes you go back into your turtle shell a little bit if it’s something you are sensitive to. If you are an organ pro, that’s not going to affect you.
I recommend when you are easing into organs for the first time to start as you would with an animal when you are changing its food. Maybe start at first with 5 percent, then move to 10 percent, then 15 percent—just ease into it. I pretty much guarantee as long as you go up to 25 percent, no one is going to know it’s in there.
HG: Which organ meats are most like the muscle meats or the easiest to transition to? What about heart? The heart has a very beef-like texture.
JB: You mentioned one of them was tongue as well. The heart and tongue are much more like muscle meat than they are like organs. It makes sense in the form of a tongue because you don’t think of that as an organ. It is a muscle underneath that layer that you talked about peeling off. The heart, too, is more of a muscle than an organ. When I’m recommending how to ease into organs, I always recommend chicken hearts as the very first organ to eat because they are mild in taste. The same with beef heart. It’s more mild than any of the other organs, but chicken hearts are even milder. It’s because they are like a muscle; the texture is so similar to muscle meat. If you chop it up, they probably won’t even know. It will feel very familiar to them.
HG: I know in Peru, they have anticuchos, which are beef heart kebabs, and I have seen chicken hearts as well.
JB: With Argentinian food, they show up with chicken hearts a lot on kebabs. Chicken hearts take on flavor well. They cook quickly. None of this is thirty-minute preparation. They cook in five minutes. For all those parents who are rushing for food, chicken hearts are easy. I also recommend beef liver. You can slice it thin. We have a recipe on our website (EatPluck.com). You can marinate and dehydrate it and turn it into beef jerky. I was introduced to that by a cookbook called It Takes Guts. When I tried it, I was blown away. It was so good. It’s such a great alternative to all those sugary, overly sweet beef jerkies out there.
HG: You mentioned feeding your family or the kids. A lot of kids turn up their noses to anything that’s not a chicken nugget. How can you get them to eat a chicken heart?
JB: Whenever you are trying to introduce anything to kids, you either add cheese or you coat it in something—fry it or coat it in cheese. Those are the obvious secrets to feeding a picky eater. It’s tough. Honestly, that’s why I created Pluck. Pluck is a gateway to organ meats. I haven’t met a kid yet who doesn’t like it. What’s cool about it is this speaks to something. I will give you an example. When I first had bone broth and even when I first ate organs, there was something that happened in my body where I visualized it as something curling around this nourishing comfort of warmth in my body. It almost felt like my body was receiving something that had been missing.
I see that happen when kids try Pluck. They can’t stop. They keep dipping their fingers. It’s almost like when you start eating butter. You can’t stop. It’s such a fascinating thing. It’s a testament that when we get diets, our body remembers and our body knows. It wants more. It wants to bask in the nourishing glow of that food.
HG: That sounds wonderful. It makes me happy to picture kids dipping their fingers in Pluck or eating chicken hearts when they are coated with something or fried. I saw two kids walk into school. They must have been around eight and six, a brother and sister. The boy was eating a bag of Cheetos and the girl was eating a candy bar. I was saddened. How many of us with the means are still shortchanging our families because we are not willing to dive into something that’s a little bit uncomfortable?
JB: I used to be in the teaching field before I went to culinary school. I used to work with kids about their health. I was blown away. Most kids are eating exactly the way that you described. They are eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos—that was the popular brand when I was in these schools—and they are drinking soda. That’s their breakfast.
HG: They are acting up in class and the teacher thinks the kid needs to be on meds when actually they are undernourished.
JB: The first thing I always look at is food. At that time, I was trying to educate the kids on what they put in their body. This is a funny and sad story. When I decided to go to culinary school, it was expensive and I didn’t have the money. I was planning on going a year before I went. I spent that year trying to raise money to do it. One of the ways I did it—I’m outing myself—I was in the schools as a substitute teacher, and there was nowhere for kids to get water. There were tons of soda machines, but there were no water machines.
I saw a market and I started buying water, freezing it because the kids loved it as ice. I would bring water and sell the water for one dollar a bottle, not expensive. I was using it to slowly build my money to pay for culinary school. How sad and astounding is that? They didn’t have water at these public schools. This was when I lived in L.A.
HG: My friend Hilary Boynton, who’s known as the Lunch Lady, was in California trying to transform the school lunches because we are all aware of how much nourishment can transform a kid’s behavior and health. Dr. Price started a lunch program, too. He started feeding kids, just one good nourishing meal a day in the school. It was a big bowl of soup with meat and organs, with some sourdough bread and butter, and maybe some raw milk. The kids’ behavior was transformed by that one bit of nourishment. Giving the kids water, or selling it as the case may be, was certainly preferable to some of the stuff that they have access to.
JB: One thing we want to remember is that the palate changes. It’s a living and breathing thing. Initially, your kids may think that they only like these, so you as a parent might think your kid only does this. But you can take steps toward changing and adapting their palate.
One way to do it is to start incorporating organ meats, whether it’s Pluck or the shaving of the liver or incorporating them in some other way. The umami flavor of organ meats, which is completely natural, is one of the ways to start changing the palate because umami is the fifth unique taste. What it does is make all the other taste receptors taste better, so it awakens your palate in a sense.
HG: I hear what you are saying about being able to change the way the palate tastes things because it’s always astounded me how some kids will say they don’t like shrimp because they didn’t grow up eating it. It’s a foreign taste to them. The kids in Alaska are eating shrimp all the time and they think it is great because they are accustomed to it. Why not do what we can to shape their palates with nutrient-dense, life- and health-saving foods?
JB: They have discovered that the palate starts forming when you are in utero. When the baby is inside the mom, that palate is forming very early. Even then, mom can be thinking that it is a great time to start. Eat a little bit of spicy food to get your kid acclimated to the spiciness. I think that’s important. Another thing is eating organ meats during pregnancy. It’s also a good time to start eating cultured vegetables. Incorporate these sour and umami and bitter flavors to start shaping that palate. I have two girls. My wife ate a lot of cultured vegetables while pregnant with the first, but with the other, not as much. And it’s so true. We have gotten both our kids on cultured vegetables. We helped ease the second one in, but the older has always been into cultured vegetables.
HG: Start them young. I love it. This has been a great conversation. You have motivated me to include more organ meats in my diet, and I already eat a bunch. I want to close by asking you the question I pose at the end. James, if readers could do one thing to improve their health, what would you recommend that they do?
JB: What I normally recommend is to drink more water or get better sleep. Those are very important toward making good decisions, particularly sleep. If you get good sleep, then you make better decisions.
The support I would also want to give your reader is something that I’m trying to embrace more and more, which is not to wait for the perfect moment. Don’t wait until it feels right. Take action now. What happens is a lot of us look for inspiration to then find the motivation to then take action. What I’m suggesting is take the action, and let the action provide the inspiration, which then provides the motivation. Change the order of those things and you will find, first, there’s no perfect moment, and second, it’s pretty easy to take action when you are not waiting for something to make it okay.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2022🖨️ Print post
it’s easy to find organ meats..they sell them at the farmer’s market & online at US wellness meats ..not sure why he said that the farmers “can’t sell them on the open market”..they even sell them at the local butcher
well i should have said the harder to find organs..are not all that ‘hard to find’…Buy Ranch Direct & US wellness both sell the spleen, pancreas, etc