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A Clean-plate club for the intrepid

The New Yorker, July 26, 1999

On a recent warm evening, five New York food lovers convened in the Kensington section of Brooklyn to sample something called “jiz-biz.”

The group, who call themselves the Innard Circle, met at Nostalgia, one of the few restaurants in the city which serve this Azerbaijani lamb delicacy, consisting of French fries tossed with liver, heart, and kidneys. After the group was seated, Melissa Easton, an industrial designer, explained that the Innard Circle-also known among group members as the Organ Meat Society or the Offal Truth-was born at a dinner party when she spied Marisa Bowe, the editor of the online magazine Word, eagerly devouring a piece of beef tendon. “You just don’t meet many women who eat stuff like that: Easton said. “I knew I’d found a kindred spirit.” Bowe and Easton agreed to meet once a month to indulge their passion for what is sometimes called “the fifth quarter of the cow” and they invited some of their more intrepid friends. Robert Sietsema, a Village Voice food critic; Becky Okrent, a food writer; and Becky’s husband, Dan, an editor-at-large at Time Inc.

Because most New York diners are on the timid side, restaurant menus often indicate organ-meat dishes with euphemisms (“variety meats” is the favorite circumlocution) or leave them off entirely, forcing adventurous eaters to get aggressive. For the Innard Circle’s previous meeting, at La Lunchonette, a French bistro just north of the meat-packing district, Easton called in advance to request a special menu slices of foie-gras paté, sweetbreads in a creamy vinaigrette with lemon and capers, calf’s liver in red-wine sauce, and the house specialty, brains in black butter.

At Nostalgia, Sietsema, the son of a chemist who formulated snack-food flavors for Frito-Lay, took charge, ordering tongue with peas, skewers of liver and chicken, and the much-anticipated jiz-biz. While they waited, the group’s members reflected on why they are drawn to innards. Dan Okrent believes his cravings come from his early experiences with tongue at his Polish-Jewish grandmother’s dinner table; Bowe credits her love to her Yugoslavian-born, Argentine-bred mother, who served her children bone marrow on toast. “I have two theories about why people eat innards,” Bowe said “First, there are adventure-eaters who play a game of gastronomical ‘chicken,’ where the weirder the dish is, the better. The second group isn’t competitive. They’re just vampires like me who crave the stuff”

As a garlicky salad was passed around the table, Bowe continued, “One thing I love about innards is that they remind me of little machines, like the computer I use every day. They are sort of like microprocessors that you can actually eat.” So far that week, Bowe had already eaten tripe soup twice and brains (at Cafe Loup) once-which wouldn’t be notable except for the fact that it was only Wednesday. Okrent, who had just returned from a health spa, said that he tried to be a little more temperate. “Organ meat is sort of like organ music. Great at first, but too much of it will probably kill you,” he said.

After polishing off heaping plates of jiz-biz (the name, unlike the ingredients, remained a mystery), the group decided to end the evening at Bukhara, a twenty-four-hour Pakistani restaurant on Coney Island Avenue which is known for its curried brains. While nibbling at the dish, which looks like scrambled eggs in a light tomato-and-chili masala, they tossed around possible venues for their next meeting. The St. Andrews for haggis? A Uruguayan barbecue joint that specializes in blood sausage? A churrascaria in Corona that serves skewered chicken hearts the size of marbles?

As the plates were cleared, the group puzzled over the paradox that brought the Innard Circle together in the first place. Why do so many people find this delicious food so unappetizing? “Most Americans want meat that has no resemblance to the animal it comes from,” Sietsema suggested. “A steak doesn’t look like a cow, but a kidney looks a lot like a kidney.”