Living is eating beef hearts. When they are cooked right, they kick open a door to your soul. I know because the other day I ate 10 impaled on a skewer. Or rather, 10 cutlet-like slices, probably just one or two hearts. The skewer was screaming hot, metal right off the grill, and my waitress told me to be careful. Full of another kind of care, I tore right in.
Hot and dense. Charred on the outside. A char from really hot cooking. Steaky. A good chew. Not too much of a chew. Tenderness and some metal flavors, some iron, something like liver. Good stuff, especially when cut with the salsa.
I sat eating beef heart, ceviche, and jalea (fried fish) at a table looking out a window. This was at El Chullo, the underrated Peruvian Restaurant on Seventh Street in central Phoenix. The beef heart is a $10 starter that could be a meal. An order comes with two skewers, five heart medallions per skewer, the long metal spikes projecting over their plate.
You almost have to pull pieces off the unwieldy skewers with your hands. This is good, for using your hands, rather than an instrument that is not part of your body, eliminates a degree of separation between you and your meal. The tactile nature of the exchange is more intimate, and begins earlier. The experience of eating beef heart is intensified.
What is eating beef heart?
Eating beef heart is making use of an organ that would otherwise be wasted. This is good for many reasons. First, and obviously, you are not wasting food. Second, in not wasting parts of the animal that gave its life and will never be alive again so that you could have a meal, you are taking a step toward appreciating what the animal has lost. This is an important part of meat-eating, and if you don’t think about these things, you should.
Eating beef heart is helping the planet. Petroleum, water, and time are severe hidden costs of raising beef. The more parts of the animal you eat, the more efficient the process of raising meat becomes. (Overall costs stay the same, but animals will have a higher yield.)
Eating beef heart is tapping into dark new dimensions of flavor. The metallic undertows and low tones of funk that slumber in offal to varying degrees recast meat into something beyond what you get from skirt, plate, brisket.
Eating beef heart is taking your vitamins. Heart is rich in a lot of the elements and compounds you see on the back of daily pill bottles, Flinstone chewables or otherwise. Zinc. Selenium. Iron (which you can taste). B-complex vitamins.
Eating beef heart is, perhaps, redrawing the borders of your comfort zone. Beef heart is outside the regular experience of your average American. One way to learn and to radically edit who you are is to, whenever you can, rage against your comfort zone. In habitually foraying beyond it, you can glean perspective that would otherwise be out of reach.
Eating beef heart is probing for great new food. If you haven’t had beef heart, or a certain preparation of it, how do you know you don’t love it? What if you do? What if your favorite food is something you haven’t yet tasted?
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Eating beef heart is a portal to the past. Before meat came in chilled, wrapped, fluorescent-lighted Styrofoam, people tended to eat the whole animal, organs and all. My grandmother used to put all kinds of turkey parts in her stuffing, and her mom, an immigrant, seared chicken livers and beef kidneys in cast-iron pans. This was normal. The mineral tang of organs is the anti-grocery-store-chicken-breast, a funnel into what our industrial food system has ripped away, a portal to the past.
Eating beef heart is living. It is trying new things, leaping outside your comfort zone (or routine), pulling grilled brown sails of meat from hot skewers, leaking juice, bursting with flavor that reminds you that your food was once alive. It also provides windows: to the past, to other cultures, to things you have seen or read about in distant places. The grilled hearts at El Chullo have a rugged cattle hustler feel to them. Digging right in, despite the waitress’s cautions, is one way wake yourself up during a bland day, to look outside the window to downtown, and to see more than what is there.
El Chullo. 2605 North Seventh Street; 602-279-8425.
Tuesday to Friday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.