Saturday, December 14, 2002

Readers of the Volokh Conspiracy weblog may be puzzled by the references there to a substance called "chopped liver". I will try to explain the origins of this bizarre material.

The liver is an organ present in all higher animals; its primary function is to secrete a malodorous green substance called bile, essentially a detergent that helps dissolve fats to aid in their digestion. It also produces a cascade of other chemicals designed to neutralize various toxins; some of these toxins are also stored in the liver to protect the rest of the body from them. In some animals, the liver is actually toxic in its own right; polar bear livers, for instance, contain hazardous quantities of vitamin A. In other animals, the organ is (barely) edible, albeit with an extremely foul flavor.

However, humankind's long history of daring ingenuity and perennial food shortages has prompted many societies to attempt to exploit all manner of noxious resources--insects, worms, dirt--for nourishment. It was thus inevitable that some intrepid cultures would attempt to convert the liver from waste by-product of livestock slaughter into dietary component. And, as with so many other examples, liver originally consumed out of desperation evolved in some locales into a "delicacy", as palates trained to tolerate this revolting ingredient eventually learned to crave it. The French, for example--notorious converters of detritus into cuisine--have taken to subjecting geese to obscene tortures in the belief that these can actually render the birds' livers tasty (in fact, the forced-feeding regimen they impose only dilutes the organ's flavor somewhat, making it marginally less disgusting to eat).

Another European tradition asserts (mistakenly) that cooking the liver, mashing it, then mixing it with fat, onions and spices, can mask its nauseating flavor; hence Volokh's strangely enthusiastic references to this dish. And remember: if anyone ever asks you whether they're "chopped liver", it's only polite to assure them, in no uncertain terms, that they are not.

(Next week: "Steak and Kidney Pie -- The British Sense of Humor Strikes Again")

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