Of Tripe and Tribulations

(…with the stipulations that this was written by Hanna Raskin, original photography by Grace Beam and originally published in the Post and Courier 12/16/2015. )

To modern ears, oysters and tripe sounds like an indulgently luxurious dish. In the 19th century, though, when doctors obsessed over the duration of digestion, the combination was considered healthful.

Originally published Sept. 7, 1900
At one of the best-known clubs in town, the chef is famous for his preparation of oysters cooked in combination with tripe, which dish is pronounced of unusual excellence when made carefully after these directions, each portion being cooked separately in a chafing dish.

Thoroughly wash half a pound of double tripe in cold well-salted water, drain and scald it. When cold, cut it into narrow two-inch strips, then simmer an hour in a pint of clear soup stock. A stalk of celery cooked with it is considered an improvement. Roll two ounces of butter into balls, roll them in flour and add one at a time to the tripe; stir continually, and as soon as one is melted, add another. When all are used, simmer half an hour longer, put the tripe into an earthenware dish and, when cold, place in the ice box until morning. When wanted, warm up the tripe in the chafing dish at table, add 18 medium oysters, simmer three minutes, season with salt and white pepper, and serve on thin toast.

Oyster Cooked With Tripe

Newspapers routinely printed charts showing how long it took various food items to work their way through the human system, assuming the human in question wasn’t in a foul mood, which was believed to retard the process.

According to a New York Sun column printed in The Charleston Evening Post in 1900, stewed fresh oysters took three times as long to digest as boiled tripe. Still, “there are few, even among pronounced dyspeptics, who fear the effects of oysters. They are often ordered by physicians in cases of illness where the stomach rebels against more solid food.”
Having a wholesome reputation didn’t keep oysters and tripe from turning up on fancy menus. As The Evening Post reported, “At one of the best known clubs in town, the chef is famous for his preparation of oysters cooked with tripe, which dish is pronounced of unusual excellence when made carefully.”

Because the story didn’t bear a dateline, and because the writer cavorted between topics, including the British preference for oversized oysters and the desirability of serving a quartered lemon on a side plate when presenting raw oysters, it’s hard to tell which town was meant. But since the recipe closely followed a declaration that Philadelphians produced the nation’s best fried oysters, it seems likely the cited club was in the City of Brotherly Love.

The background
“Today, most Philadelphians view tripe as an ‘ethnic’ food, and a rather disgusting one at that,” food historian William Woys Weaver told the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery in 1991.

More than 20 years later, the perception persists: The renewed fashion for offal mostly failed to dislodge the American dining public’s wariness of bovine stomach, which is difficult to prepare correctly. The cleaning process is time-consuming, and produces odors that many eaters who grew up in homes where tripe was boiled for menudo, pho or peanut stew say they’ve never been able to shake.

“It comes as quite a shock that at one time, tripe cookery was elevated to high art,” Weaver continued, introducing his audience to William Carels, a chef who prepared South American-inflected meals at the Bolivar House from the 1820s until the 1850s. “Carels invented a sumptuous tripe-and-oyster, cream-and-sherry dish that can only be described as flagrantly sensuous. It is a true Philadelphian classic.”

By the late 1800s, tripe was falling out of favor. Puck magazine in 1884 scolded eaters who failed to appreciate the versatility of the organ: “It makes a splendid stair carpet, as it is pliable and you cannot slip on it. As a doormat it has no equal. … You may not like tripe stewed, but try it as a Turkish towel once.” A 1901 cookbook for hotel chefs advised, “Occasionally, you see a man order tripe at a hotel, but he always looks as though he hated himself and everybody else … a man eating tripe at a hotel table looks like an Arctic explorer chewing pieces of frozen dog.”

And yet, Philadelphia stuck by its oyster-and-tripe dish. In 1900, The Guild of St. James’ Parish in Kentucky’s Pewee Valley (better known today as a Louisville suburb) compiled an early celebrity cookbook, soliciting recipes from radical feminist Frances Willard, graphic artist Charles Dana Gibson and investigative reporter Jacob Riis. Actress and native Philadelphian “Aunt Louisa” Eldridge’s contribution to “Favorite Food of Famous Folk” was tripe and oysters.

The recipe
Eldridge outlined a dish with milk and “plenty of good butter.” The recipe shared by The Charleston Evening Post was more austere. Readers were instructed to put simmered tripe, oysters, salt and pepper in a chafing dish, and then spread the warmed-up results on toast.

The update
Forrest Parker of Old Village Post House embarked on his assignment to revisit the 1900 recipe by following its directions precisely, rolling butter into two-ounce balls, flouring them and tossing them into the tripe pot one at a time. “I wasn’t super excited,” Parker says of the finished product. “It was very sort of plain Jane fare; kind of grayish off-white.”

On the second go-round, Parker added a few more steps. “They didn’t mention trimming off extraneous fat, so I did that.” And rather than be guided by the instructions exactly as written, he tried to hew to the recipe’s intent.

“To a degree, it reminded me of a blanquette du veau, the classic French pairing of oysters and sweetbreads,” Parker says. “So given that, I gently poached the oysters, and gently braised the tripe.”

Knowing tripe behaves like tofu in its tendency to pick up flavors, Parker added leek and celery to the braise. (Celery is mentioned in the original recipe, but it’s unclear whether it’s supposed to impart flavor or help tenderize the meat.) “And just because it’s Charleston and lardcore’s not dead, I added fine-diced pork belly,” he says. As a finishing touch, he dressed the toast points with crisped celery leaves.

Parker doesn’t typically work with tripe. “So this is what it feels like to be Chris Cosentino,” he jokes, referring to the San Francisco chef who built his career on offal. Now he says he’s willing to give the ingredient another shot. “It was lovely,” he says of the dish. “I was delightfully surprised because it was definitely out of my comfort zone.”


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