OAKLAND—It's not that often that food scares me. I mean, really concerns me. I eat just about anything put in front of me, with the single caveat that it's not still moving. And even then, I might be convinced to close my eyes and just swallow really quickly with enough encouragement.
So, when friends decided to order Blood Pudding at the annual Whole Hog dinner at Oliveto's, I put on a brave face and said," Of course!" I mean, how bad could it really be? One of the few things I've never had the, er…guts, to order, fellow gourmands have been telling me for years what an amazing delicacy things like blood sausage and blood pudding could be. High in iron, it has long been a staple of ethnic cuisine throughout the world. But, I wondered, wasn't it somehow dangerous, or dirty, or just plain wrong to eat blood?
In many religions, eating blood is, in fact, sacrilegious, as is eating pork—having something to do with separating ourselves from animals. I've never been all that worried about being confused with a tiger, however, so I went straight to the chef, Paul Canales to find out what exactly was making me feel so squeamish.
He looked at me like I had two heads for being so silly. "No. It's perfectly fine to eat. It's delicious. I mean, I probably wouldn't eat it raw, though," he said. Uh, good to know.
Canales explained that the blood comes to the restaurant in buckets, partially congealed, a by-product of the slaughter. You probably couldn't buy it for home use (though Canales says you can sometimes find it in Chinatown), but restaurants can get it fairly easily. The good news is that at Oliveto's they're careful about which pigs they use, opting for free-range, humanely raised pigs from Paul Willis' hog farm in Thornton, Iowa. The animals are raised freely under the strict supervision of the Animal Welfare Institute, which outlines humane practices from birth to slaughter. The animals aren't pumped full of hormones or other icky stuff. Okay, that part was good. At least the pigs were happy and healthy; and ostensibly their blood would be too.
At the restaurant, the semi-congealed blood is mixed with bits of meat and fat and other tasty bits and both cooked and steamed. It becomes a dark brown, really almost black color. The texture of Canale's blood pudding is almost like a fine, thick pulled pork. Small chunks of the meat mix with the thickened blood, and a prune plum relish is added for sweetness. It tastes nothing like blood—not metallic or, well, bloody at all. In fact, the taste is rich and a bit sweet, very meaty and dark. In fact, pretty darned good.
Once you get past the strangeness that we've come to associate in modern society with offal (the often unused portions of the animal), it’s a pretty good feeling to know that almost no part of the animal (at least at this dinner) are unused. Legs, feet, innards and everything are beautifully prepared in ways that make us wonder why the heck we've gotten so squeamish about eating anything but carefully pre-packaged breasts and loins that aren't where the real flavor lies. Plus, there's so much less waste in consuming and using the many useful parts of a pig—often called the most generous animal—for its ability to be consumed almost entirely.
In fact, at Oliveto's Whole Hog dinner, we purposefully steered clear of common cuts, opting instead for rich pates, delicate pasta with slow-cooked shoulder, a gigantic pork bacon chop (the fatty belly and "bacon" section of the pig) and even tried bacon ice cream for dessert. Spicy and smoky, it was delicious; as well as gelee's of blood orange and prosecco made with rendered bone marrow.
Even the ears, which were pressed into a terrine were…okay, they were kind of unpleasant, I have to admit. But chewing (and chewing and chewing) them slowly, carefully, I felt my nervousness leaving, replaced by a sense of accomplishment in honoring the entire pig: ears, feet, blood and all. Leaving behind nothing but the squeal—which maybe I'll try next time.
Oliveto's (5655 College Ave., Oakland, www.oliveto.com) offers a number of special dinners throughout the year. See their website for details.