Blood, money: Nose to tail was kind of a fail

 Photographs by Corey Mintz

Photographs by Corey Mintz

By Corey Mintz

There are seven of us at the table, but only two are touching the blood sausage. 

Phil Lee, a business data analyst by day (“Good luck if you know what that means,” he jokes), is our tour guide tonight. He demonstrates how to eat the soondae, the Korean blood sausage, by dipping the medallions in a mixture of coarse salt and chili flakes on the plate’s edge.

It doesn’t need the condiment. The sausage is packed with rich, mineral flavour from the pig blood, and bite from the filling of glass noodles.

“It’s drinking food,” Lee reminds me. Later I find a video online of three young Korean guys dipping their blood sausage in every possible condiment, from salt to gochujang, to whipped cream, strawberry jam and Nutella. So seasoning is in the eye of the beholder.

I’m grateful to Lee, who’s obliged my request for a guide to the side of Korean menus that white folks don’t normally order. So, no bibimbap and pork bone soup. Everyone laps up the hwe dup bab (sushi, rice and veg bowl), gan ja jang myun (black bean noodle) and jae-yuk bokeum (pork/kimchi stew). But the blood is drawing the line at the blood sausage. 

Blood everywhere

For a liquid so vital to life, blood sure grosses diners out. In European cuisine, it’s politely packaged into sausages, as morcilla (Spanish, with rice) black pudding (English, with oatmeal) and boudin noir (French, with breadcrumbs). 

My butcher sells lots of it, mostly to French-style kitchens at Biff’s, Jump and Boralia, making sausages. “It is a hot seller,” says Peter Sanagan. “I’m sold out a week in advance.”

But all over the world, cooks make use of this rich ingredient—dinuguan stew in the Philippines, blood pancakes in Sweden, blood soup in China and Poland—because why would you waste such a precious commodity?

The Mongols, who by the end of the 13th century had conquered most of the known world, amplified their advantage as horse riders, archers and military strategists by drinking a small amount of their animals’ blood, allowing them to ride longer without stopping for supplies. 

Blood is forbidden under Kosher diets (Halal as well). And while my family weren’t the best Jews, we weren’t the worst. But I remember wondering as a child, if the same people who told me not to eat bacon are also against blood, can it be so bad? Dracula drinks blood and he’s pretty cool. 

Later, as a cook, I learned that blood, which is 17 per cent protein and 80 per cent water, reacts a lot like eggs. A true coq au vin is not just chicken cooked in red wine with lardons and mushrooms, but should have a sauce thickened with blood (also, it should be a rooster). If you’ve ever made a proper pasta carbonara, you know how the eggs thicken into a sauce when warmed slowly, but coagulate into a mess if cooked too fast. Blood works very similarly, but with a faint taste of iron.

Still, the main problem with blood—and for a single caveat it’s significant—is that most people find it repulsive.

Frugality as a food trend

It took a recession for us to appreciate whole animal eating. But the economic downturn didn’t last long enough for us to consume pigs “to the last drop”.

At the height of the recession, we embraced nose-to-tail eating the way a drowning person “embraces” anything that floats. Before it was decided that banks were too big to fail, the crumbling economy burned through the restaurant world. The big restaurants, dependent on financial sector expense accounts, emptied out overnight as their clientele assessed their losses, calculating whether their children could still go to private school, before ordering another $200 bottle of wine.

The biggest food trends of the time were chefs, fleeing the corporate restaurant establishment, opening 40-seat restaurants, maintaining jobs by capitalizing on comfort dishes and lowering food costs, slowly luring back the customers who were staying home to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. 

But nobody wanted to write about that. Apocalyptic forecasts were for the business section. So the food world celebrated “nose-to-tail” eating, the trend of chefs and diners celebrating the less expensive “off cuts” (which would soon skyrocket in price) of liver, heart, cheek and tongue.

At first, trendy diners would compare notes, to see who’d eaten duck hearts, beef tongue or pig’s ears, status-obsessed diners checking off previously obscure animal parts as if taking part in a scavenger hunt. I recall a dish of braised cockscombs at The Black Hoof, the chef genuinely asking if it was an undiscovered gem or only fit for trash. Or hot dogs.

But it was the blood custard that popped diners’ monocles.

“I would say that the people who ordered it loved it,” remembers Brandon Olsen, then-chef of the Hoof.

I loved that dish, the lush blend of rosemary, cream and blood, the pickled pears on top. It was too bloody, and topped with summer peaches, the first time he served it which is why another chef proposed the idea to brulee the top.

Bloody useful, but short-lived

“The problem is getting the blood,” says Olsen. “Less and less abattoirs are processing it. Which is sad, because it's a great ingredient. There are lots more uses to blood then just making sausage with it. You can thicken sauces with it and clarify stocks as well.”

But blood didn’t stick as a trend. It made an appearance in pasta at Buca, another trailblazing restaurant. But it didn’t spread, not the way charcuterie, locavorism, craft brewing, cupcakes and bacon did.

What did take hold, however, was the DIY movement. Making menu items that previously would have been ordered from a wholesaler, starting with sausages and salami, an essential part of using a whole animal. And as chefs learned (or relearned) these skills, it furthered their interest in making everything themselves—mustard, kimchi, root beer. Foraging caught on for a minute, before it was collectively agreed that no one had the time to drive out of town to pick morels or wild ginger. Lee remembers foraging, not as a trend, but a practicality. 

“I remember growing up at Jane and Finch, the first real congregation of Koreans. They called it Liberty Village. So they had to figure out a way to find commonalities and help each other find things.” The collection of expatriates found that they could forage for ingredients they couldn’t buy here. “A thing my mom did, and our group of friends, is forage for mugroot. It was expensive to get that imported back in the ’70s and ’80s. You couldn’t buy it. There were no supermarkets for Korean things. No internet. They had word of mouth and they had their spots.” 

Lee can’t say exactly where the mugroot patch was, only that it was near Collingwood. “Later on, the owners would call the cops. It was private property.”

Toronto chefs were never foraging for something from their old country. They were looking for something new, something no one else had on their menus. But the thistles, herbs and fungi they found were never going to be something their clientele would value.

And white people were only going to eat humble pie and knuckle bone until their fortunes changed. As the economy recovered, I heard diners ask why they were still being forced to eat butcher’s scraps.

They celebrated the off cuts as long as it was fashionable. And not for so long that they ended up eating blood. As soon as they could afford it again, they wanted steak.