A long time ago I promised myself that one day I’d visit Rome and spend all my money on food. This July, my dream came true. I had always imagined Rome to be a cosmopolitan city marked by the glorious history of the old Roman empire, but I had not expected that it would reconnect me with my Polish roots.
The concept of cucina povera (the cuisine of the poor) can be found in every society and is really about making food with any available ingredient, including every part of the animal such as intestines, ears, brains, tails, etc. The offal cuisine that is served in almost every Roman trattoria brought me back to my childhood in post-communist Poland when the economy of the country was recovering from the rationing of the Soviet economic system, and a similar cuisine emerged from the roots of poverty and necessity. The art of preparing offal originated from the slaughterhouse in the Testaccio neighbourhood, where the workers were paid in the “fifth” quarter, the parts of the animals deemed unsaleable.
In Poland, offal was popular even after the fall of the Berlin Wall during a time of political, economic and cultural transformation. Even in the ‘90s, when shops were stocked with meat, eggs and other products, mothers and grandmas continued to feed their children, livers, intestines and brains. I myself, wasn’t spared. When I was small, my grandma would stuff me with braised chicken stomachs or chicken hearts. Every Saturday my grandpa returned home with a bag of pale pink chicken feet and then boiled them for a couple of hours. He took pride in his galantine of shredded chicken feet or pig’s legs. Special occasions called for cow’s tongue in jellied stock seasoned with carrot, celery and green peas, and served with white vinegar, fresh black pepper and a slice of rustic bread.
Similar dishes were served in nurseries to ensure that the five and six year-olds realized that there was no escaping the gooey overboilded chicken stomachs served on their lunch plates. I remember throwing up on my teacher after I was forced to eat liver sauted with onion. I struggled every time a plate of hearts, livers or tongues appeared in front of me. Not to mention the tripe soup, which is considered a Polish national dish, served for special occasions such as Christmas, Easter, weddings and christenings.
Twenty years after my childhood torments, I have come to believe that consuming every part of an animal pays respect to the creature who gave its life. Roman cuisine reminded me of this tough truth, with its trippa (cow intestine cooked in tomato sauce), ox tails, sauted livers and pasta with guanciale (pig’s cheek), I ate it all. Instead of amaro, I washed it down with a sip of nostalgia for the childhood gone by.
If you happen to be in Rome, you can also sign up for a cooking class at Daniela’s cooking school.