Cardella: An Offal Column

Does anyone eat scrapple anymore? The stuff skeeves Fran. But scrapple is delicious, so long as you don’t read the ingredients. Scrapple is made from offal — the entrails and internal organs of an animal. Fran says offal tastes “awful.” But people are funny. Put offal on the menu of a high-class restaurant and diners will spring big bucks for it.

I had a grandfather who would eat anything. Nothing skeeved Grandpop Tony. He particularly liked tripe, which is offal. Tripe is the stomach lining of an animal. You really have to know how to cook tripe. Grandmom Florence knew it takes a patient cook to make tripe delicious. Grandmom spent half her life cooking tripe. It was so tough, I think it was the same piece of meat. I always thought the National Hockey League missed a good promotional idea when it stuck its nose in the air at the idea of making pucks out of tripe. Just think of it. An edible puck. The Flyers would’ve been great promoting pucks made of tripe. “Letter to our fans:” Dear fans, we felt that after losing 13 games in a row we had to give you a reason — beyond Taryn Hatcher — to keep coming to our games. Our dining room at the Wells Fargo Center is now serving edible pucks. “Bon Appetito” or as they say in Canada, “If you can’t put the puck in the net, eat it!”

Grandpop Tony also ate a Sardinian cheese with live maggots in it — Casu Marzu. I personally never saw him eat wormy cheese (I think he used to eat the rotten cheese in private). My father told me about Grandpop eating this maggot cheese (he made lots of slurping sounds while he mimicked his father eating Casu Marzu). The Sardinians believe that if you eat this cheese after the worms have died, the stuff is dangerous.

Nothing was so gross that Grandpop Tony wouldn’t eat it. Like pig’s or sheep’s head. You would think after devouring an entire roast pig that Grandpop Tony would toss away the head. But once you’ve eaten a couple of chunks of wormy cheese, I guess you’ve passed the point of wasting anything.

In doing my exhaustive research on the foods of Italy, I came across soppressata. I’m sure that many of you, like me, don’t consider soppressata weird. Many Italians make their own soppressata. Not so Grandpop Tony. Tony was a barber who was also a talented musician. My father-in-law, whose name was also Tony, was the one who made a great soppressata. We considered soppressata as just another cured meat such as pepperoni or dried sausage. But a website about weird Italian food defines soppressata as “cured pork” using many parts of the pig. One of the strangest is coppa di testa, also known as soppressata, which in English is known as “headcheese.” Made with parts of the pig’s head, this salami often looks marbled and can be served as part of a mixed meat and cheese plate.

The women who worked in the slaughterhouses of Rome were poorly paid. They brought home the parts of the animal other people threw out. These women turned these gross parts into delicacies such as cow tail or coda alla vaccinara (sounds like it’s an injection designed to fight COVID). And so it goes with other tasty dishes made from intestines, exotic greens, fava beans and even  zucchini flowers. Grandpop Tony loved all of it. These dishes went from the tables of the poor to the finest five-star restaurants in Rome and Florence.

It was a bit odd that Grandpop Tony turned out to be the gourmet foodie of our family. He was a slender man, a barber by trade. A man of few words. The only time I heard him speak was when he gave instructions from the barber’s chair. “Stay still, papa,” he’d say with a slight accent. He had a thin pencil mustache and a reputation as quite a ladies’ man. Tony could not have weighed more than 135 pounds, but he had a robust appetite. Grandpop Tony had a wide range of taste in food. He was born somewhere in the vicinity of Palermo in Sicily. He became active in local politics after he came to America. A staunch Republican as was almost everyone in our family. In a way, Grandpop Tony was our version of the suave actor Stanley Tucci. His sons were wary of his presence around their wives.

My father showed his respect for his father by acquiring an interest in the foods his father ate. He was fascinated by the strange foods that were cooked especially for his father. Dad really had no interest in fine foods. He was apparently more interested in the women who cooked these foods. His interest eventually gravitated toward the odd foods of Italy — like the cheese with worms. He often encouraged mom to make some of the stranger items in his father’s diet. But mom had resisted cooking most of it. Although she did serve tripe and potatoes once in a while or stewed calamari at Christmas Eve. She steadfastly resisted the various dishes involving intestines. And unlike most traditional Italian families, she rarely put wine on our table except around the holidays. She was afraid of the tendency toward heavy drinking in Dad’s family. Mom was a bit straight-laced. Prudish even. She turned up her nose at people who drank at all. Her father considered red wine mixed with cream soda as the equivalent of fine wine. Before she passed, Mom came to favor wine packaged in boxes.

He never ate cheese with live worms in it, though.