About 15 years ago Cleo Ouellette received a bucket of chicken feet as a birthday gift. She remembers it as one of the best presents she’s ever received.
Like many of her generation, Ouellette, 82, grew up eating parts of home raised animals that today are considered by many to be unappetizing or downright inedible.
“It was survival,” Ouellette said. “Each family had its own little farm with large gardens. We had a cow, chickens, a couple of pigs, and my mom would put up everything we needed for winter.”
Nothing, she said, went to waste.
“Beef hearts and tongue, we had recipes for that to cook them up in gravy,” Ouellette said. “Our neighbor was a butcher, and if he could not sell the hearts or tongues, he’d give them to us.”
And according to Ouellette, nothing makes a better broth than the feet of a chicken.
How do you cook chicken feet?
“One year I mentioned to my inlaws that it had been a long time since I’d had chicken feet,” Ouellette said. “When they came for my birthday that year they had just slaughtered a whole coop of chickens and came in with a container of feet and said, ‘This is your gift.’”
Best of all?
“They were all cleaned and the skin was peeled off,” Ouellette said.
Ouellette remembers being thrilled and getting to work the next day making a soup by placing the feet in water with some herbs and spices and letting them cook down for several hours.
Since chicken feet contain more cartilage than muscle, they take on a gelatinous texture when cooked and create their own thick broth, she said.
“You can add carrots, onions or whatever you want,” Ouellette said. “I like to chew on the cooked feet, too.”
Pigs’ feet would get similar cooking treatment, Ouellette said, making a broth that begged for “ployes,” the Acadian buckwheat flatbread that is a sort of cross between a crepe and a pancake.
“You wanted the ployes so you could soak up all that gravy and broth the feet made,” she said. “We’d cook those feet so long you could even eat the bones. I loved those.”
Ouellette recalls people making similar soups out of pig tails and said her father would tell her that, as a younger man when times were lean, people would skin, clean and cook the ears of a pig and then put the ear between two slices of bread for a sandwich.
“We ate everything,” she said.
A one time hot commodity
Steve Pelletier, 62, of St. Francis remembers making the rounds of his neighborhood as a young man after his family butchered a pig or cow and people quickly claiming any unwanted “parts” of the animals.
“We’d kill three or four pigs at home, and everybody ate a part of them,” Pelletier said. “Pigs feet, tails, ears — there was always somebody that ate them. I remember some people fighting over the tails.”
Whenever he killed a pig, Pelletier said he’d save the blood drained out from the animal and put the word out for those who wanted to make “boudin,” the Acadian version of blood sausage.
“I remember when I was a little girl I spent the night at a friend’s house and the next morning that is what they were doing — making blood sausage,” Ouellette said. “They would use an old spool that had thread on it and put the end of the pig intestines over one end of the spool and blow into the other to inflate the intestines.”
Those intestines were then filled with the blood of the pig to which spices may or may not have been added. Over time, the blood congealed enough that, once cooked, the sausage could be sliced.
“I never made the actual blood sausage,” Ouellette said “My job was to blow on the spool.”
White liver was another popular item, Pelletier recalled.
White liver was the local term for lungs from a cow, which Pelletier said people would prepare by first frying it and then slicing it up.
Since 1971, the sale or import of cow and sheep lungs into the U.S. has been banned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture because of a risk that an animal’s stomach acid or phlegm came into contact with the lungs during slaughter and can make humans sick.
What few parts of an animal that could not be eaten like the hide and skin were sold off to make leather or used to make homemade items like snowshoe webbing, Pelletier said.
Coyote bait and dog treats
These days, the call for animal innards or other leftover parts is not as great as it was a generation or so ago, according to Todd Jandreau of Cedar Grove Meat Processing in St. Francis.
“Things like pigs’ feet usually get tossed out or used as coyote bait,” Jandreau said. “Same with hearts and lungs — a lot of people just don’t want them these days.”
At Rocky Acres Homestead in southern Maine, modern day homesteader Lauren Baxter said the human members of her family do not eat the innards of the chickens they raise, the parts do not go to waste.
“We keep all the insides of our chickens to boil up and give to the dogs,” Baxter said. “It’s super good for them.”
And Baxter has her own recipe and use for those chicken feet so loved by Ouellette.
“We dehydrate them for dog treats,” Baxter said. “There are different ways to do it depending on if you have a dehydrator or want to do it in the oven at a low temperature for several hours, and just make sure to wash the feet well and clip the nails off.”
Still a favorite
Ouellette no longer raises her own animals, but happily buys pigs’ feet or blood sausage at the local supermarket to cook for herself and those friends and family who share her love of them.
“Whenever we buy the pigs’ feet or ‘boudin’ we always invite the cashier to come and partake with us,” she said with a laugh. “Usually they pass.”
Pelletier laughs and said he definitely takes a pass.
“I did the butchering and handed out the stuff,” he said. “My daughter makes a stew with [chicken] gizzards, but to me that’s the same as eating a rubber ball.”
Still, Pelletier said it’s sad that so much of a butchered animal goes to waste these days.
“So much gets thrown away these days and I don’t believe in that,” he said. “I miss those old days when people used everything.”
Ideas for using spare animal parts
For those with a hankering to try some animal parts here are few ideas.
— Pigs’ feet can be boiled as described by Cleo Ouellette or they can be baked in the oven, grilled over an open flame or cooked in a slow cooker.
— Beef hearts should be washed well and have any fat and arteries removed before cooking. One way to prepare is to simply slice the heart into half-inch slices, dredge in flour, season with salt and pepper and fry in butter. For added added touch, stir in carrots, onion, potatoes and beef broth.
— Beef tongue can be simply covered in water and boiled on the stove top for two to three hours, or until very tender. Then let it cool and peel off the rough skin before slicing and serving with condiments like horseradish or ketchup.
— Chicken giblets — the heart, liver and gizzards — can be dredged in flour and fried in olive oil or butter.
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