Posted Online: Feb. 05, 2013, 12:26 pm

The ick factor: Are we shortchanging ourselves in our food choices?

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By Rachel Morey Flynn

Photo: iStockphoto
Less familiar cuts of meat, including offal, can enhance both the nutritional and flavor profile of our meals.
The first time I dropped a ham hock in my black bean soup, I really didn't understand I was eating the kind of meat some people consider inedible or just too gross to consume. The black bean soup recipe I love has evolved from so-so to nurturing, delicious and magical over the years. Those ham hocks were the final touch. They infuse the soup with an impression of hearty pork-filled goodness, yet the meat itself is nearly invisible.

Organic ham hocks are an inexpensive addition to what must be the tastiest low-cost soup on the planet. Yet the eater never feels cheated. Somehow in this equation, cost doesn't equal taste. The inequality is welcome in my kitchen, where we rely on strict budgeting and feats of trickery to turn out amazing, full-flavored, nutrient-dense meals night after night.

I have been so in awe of the power of the ham hock, I must have forgotten to contemplate that fact it is actually the foot of a pig. Even upon careful consideration, I still can't quite feel repulsed by less desirable bits and organ meat (other­wise known as offal) of most of the animals we consume regularly. To me, if we eat the rear end, should we not eat the heart, as well? Why is the fat of the underside of a hog considered delicious, but the thought of eating calves' brain cause for many human inhabitants of the first world to roll their eyes back into their heads and gag? I struggle with questions about why we believe it's OK to throw away nutritious food just because of where it is positioned on the animal.

It's not just offal that often gets deemed off-putting, either. At a recent visit to the pumpkin farm near the town where I grew up, I observed the farm's resident ostrich as she was laying an egg. It was hard not to notice, and as much as I would have liked to give her the privacy owed to any bird in the process of laying an egg, she didn't give me a choice. She turned her hind end towards me in the middle of her enclosure and very suddenly dropped an egg on the ground beneath her.

I considered it a sign and went to find the matriarch of the establishment so as to inform her of the event. She was unimpressed. Apparently, while an ostrich doesn't lay an egg every day like a chicken, they do occasionally drop this 8-pound wonder to the ground. She told me some people eat ostrich eggs and then went to retrieve it for me.

I ran to find my husband, who declared with the kind of decisive tone that can't be argued with, "I am not eating that." So I went to show my children. They both promptly declared they also were not eating it. I was confused. "But it's a gift!" I argued. "Of course we'll eat it! It's just like a giant chicken egg!" They formed a wall of resistance. No one wanted to share my ostrich egg. I don't really understand why.

My brother-in-law grew up in Peru. When I asked him about a soup he once mentioned made of cow intestines, he said it was very good. I asked him if he thought people would eat it around here. He shrugged and said, "If you are hungry, it is good." So that's it. Maybe we just aren't ever really hungry — but could it be that in being so satiated, we're actually missing out on something, like the full spectrum of tastes and textures the world has to offer?

When facing the really hard questions in life, I tend to seek counsel with children for their honesty and for their clarity. As it turns out, the first graders that share a lunch table with my daughter don't understand their own aversion to certain parts of an animal any more than I do. When I put the question to them, there was much disagreement about exactly how gross various parts are, but one unanimous opinion: Even while eating meat, meat is too gross to really talk about. Also, not one first grader was willing to share my ostrich egg. And so it is with adults, too. Beef tongue taco, anyone? The silence is deafening.

Rachel Morey Flynn is an adventurous eater and a regular Radish contributor living in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.