Second Look: Liver

If you take the time to love liver, liver will love you back.

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Second Look: Liver

The reason no one likes liver is because it tastes like liver. It doesn’t matter if it came from a chicken or a cow or a pig or a turkey. You cannot mistake liver for anything else.

But I never hated liver because I didn’t grow up with liver. We were not a liver family. I remember opening up the refrigerator shortly after Thanksgiving and seeing a quivering brown-red blob in a saucer. The thing was about the size of a baby’s fist and at first glance I hoped it was chocolate pudding, but a closer look proved me very wrong. “That’s the liver from the turkey,” Mom told me. “I saved it for the dog.”

My next liver encounter was more intimate, but equally cloaked. Our family was dining at a Western Sizzlin all-you-can-eat buffet, and I thrilled to see what I took for a pan of stuffing, which I heaped on my plate. But it wasn’t stuffing, and immediately after that initial clueless bite I ejected it into a paper napkin. It was fried chicken liver, crispy and golden on the outside and chewy-mealy-dense on the inside. How could anyone be so cruel? Why would anyone want to eat this crap? I went back for a new plate, clean and unmarred by the liver.

Me, as it turns out. Now a flawed and embittered grownup, I want that crap, because it’s the ultimate grownup food. I yearn for liver at a guttural level and luxuriate in its otherworldliness. It demands a clear presence of mind and cannot be consumed casually. It’s intense and scowly but also charming and a tad goofy, the Henry Rollins of offal.

Prometheus stole fire from the gods for the benefit of mankind, and as punishment Zeus had him chained to a rock and subjected him to an eternal cycle of an eagle dining on his liver at sunset; since Prometheus was a Titan and therefore immortal, his liver regenerated and became the eagle’s kibble for following day, and so on. Not his eyes and not his heart, but his liver. This would all still be going on for poor Prometheus had Hercules not saved him. The eagle, assumingly, is still bummed.

Fire and liver go together very well. A good, crusty surface contrasts its almost creamy interior, and flavor-wise liver can stand up to a smoky char. I have yet to break out liver kabobs at a summery backyard cookout, though. When people get wind of liver’s presence, they ultimately give you crap—especially if they are children, vegetarians, or just wusses—and that’s tedious. Insult my liver and you insult me.

I try to be forgiving to the many vociferous liver detractors out there, since I was one not long ago, back when my palate was naive and delicate. Also, I think we Americans are culturally conditioned to reject liver. Recall comely young Mia Farrow, pregnant with the spawn of Satan, eating raw liver in Rosemary’s Baby. See, liver isn’t just off-putting; it’s sinister! Raw strip steak just wouldn’t have had the same punch.

The meat we eat is often intramuscular; it has a grain, a familiar way of behaving, a familiar chew. But liver defies our expectations of what cooked flesh should be. In its raw form, when plopped on a cutting board, it undulates like a demonic gelatin mold. It even behaves differently on the stove, sputtering and popping no matter how well you first blot it with paper towels. The term “a flash in the pan” seems custom-devised for liver, because low and slow cooking does it no favors. Oh, you’ll see recipes for boiled liver if you look hard enough, but don’t. A quick glance at the liver recipes in Time Life’s Variety Meats installment of its “The Good Cook” series reveals a surprising diversity in liver preparations: there’s liver masala, Spanish braised liver with almond sauce, liver baked in German white wine, Finnish liver cakes, French truffled liver, Vietnamese curried chicken livers, and an old English liver and oatmeal pudding.

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