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Cooking pluck and lights

(article, Robyn Steely)

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Italians eat lungs. 

I learned this belly-churning bit from Il cucchiaio d’argento, the Italian cooking bible — or actually, from The Silver Spoon, the 2005 English translation of the 1950 tome. It’s a monster of a cookbook, a two-hander, two-and-a-half inches thick and weighing in at just shy of seven pounds. Having dropped it on my foot, I can tell you that it feels every bit that heavy.

That first English edition of Spoon contains more than 2,000 recipes and 200 beautiful, simple photos. Most cookbooks benefit from a higher picture- or illustration-to-recipe ratio, and I assumed that the photo deficit in Spoon was the publisher’s weight- and paper-saving strategy. But in fact, Phaidon released [/books/collections/allbooks/thesilverspoonnewedition "a revised English edition"] last October, similarly sized but with twice as many photographs.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="The author and her father."]

Flipping through the new volume, which indeed feels more fully illustrated, I’m grateful for the absence of photos in one particular chapter: "Pluck and Lights (Coratella d’agnello)." If you’re unfamiliar with these terms, as I was, “pluck” and “lights” are culinary euphemisms for vital organs, such as the heart and liver (pluck) and lungs (lights). In the kitchen, these are primarily cows’ organs, though pigs’ or lambs’ organs are sometimes used. "Pluck" and "lights" are like bacon, sweetbreads, and veal: nice, palatable words for what otherwise might sound unpalatable and inedible. Like lungs.  

I have a thing about lungs. Seven years ago — the same year that Spoon made its English debut — my father was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). IPF is a degenerative lung disease that renders a person’s lungs scarred and useless. There is no cure. Each year, 40,000 people die from IPF, the same rate as from breast cancer.

As the disease progressed, I watched helplessly as my dad’s lungs failed him, watched his skin turn gray the more oxygen-deprived he became. In 2009, my dad’s name was added to the transplant list, and that September, he was the very lucky recipient of “new” lungs — both of them, something still pretty extraordinary in organ transplantation. 

Color returned to his face after the surgery, and in time, my dad re-learned how to breathe with lungs that actually did what they were supposed to do: inhale and exhale. The illness and his new organs — the donor’s lungs — and everything my dad went through instilled in me a keen interest in all things pulmonary. I think a lot about breathing. I think a lot about lungs.

With a little distance from the surgery, my dad and I watched a documentary about organ transplants. It was one of those educational PBS documentaries with the obligatory operating-room shots. The filmmakers showed surgeons removing a man’s sickly, small lungs from his body. A nurse’s hands cradled an organ donor’s lungs to fill the chasm in the patient’s chest. I gasped when I saw them. The healthy organs looked like a pair of enormous, pink, spongy, unripe coconuts. They were hulking things, and they were ugly, nothing like the neat clip-art drawings in biology textbooks or on the anatomy posters in the doctor’s office. The lungs looked meaty. Like meat. Of course. 

So spotting "Pluck and Lights" in The Silver Spoon made me wince, but it also made me curious to learn more about these organs as food. Lungs, I discovered, earned the moniker “lights” about the year 1200, as the Middle English for “the light organ,” the one filled with air. This is the origin of the phrase “to knock someone’s lights out.” Aside from the grisly image of one man punching another into breathlessness, I find lights a more pleasant word than lungs. It’s, well, lighter. But as offal is to guts, there’s no getting around that whatever you call them, lungs are lungs.

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I know that one culture's companion animals are another culture’s protein-rich delicacies; one economically comfortable person’s idea of a butcher’s discards is a food-insecure yet creative person’s next family meal. The Italians, who are renowned for their cucina povera, for their ability to stretch a loaf of stale bread into multiple days’ worth of delicious food, would not throw a perfectly good set of cow’s lungs into the trash or even into the dog’s bowl. 

I understand this at an economic level, but not at a gastronomic one. Although I’m Italian (northern, on my dad’s side), thrifty, and not an especially picky eater, I’m also a lifelong vegetarian. In my quest to expand my palate, I’ve taught myself to enjoy eggs and the occasional anchovy at restaurants. My sincere attempt at being open-minded about Spoon’s lights recipes, however, made me downright squeamish. Thriftiness aside, why would someone want to eat lungs? 

Still, I was curious. Were lights palatable? There was only one way to find out: I resolved to try them. 

To wrap my head around that idea — and more importantly, to ready my stomach — I gathered information about this peculiar ingredient. I discovered lung recipes from cultures as diverse as Chinese, Hungarian, Israeli, Moroccan, and even early American. Regardless of origin, the recipes called for large amounts of wine and/or butter or lard, frying, and combining them with other organ meats such as the heart or liver — back to Spoon’s good old pluck-and-lights combo. 

Spoon’s four recipes are prepared with globe artichokes; cooked with butter and wine; sautéed with carrots, onions, and garlic; and fried. What could taste bad with those ingredients? Does anything actually taste bad fried? 

Compared to other recipes I came across, like haggis (stomach filled with, among other things, chopped lungs) or the Italian zuppa di polmone — too close to “pulmonary”! — Spoon’s recipes sounded almost tasty. Almost.

I gathered lots of recipes, and just enough to courage to think I could try one. Still, I couldn’t imagine doing the cooking myself. I enlisted the help of my friend Jeff, an excellent cook and a carnivore with an adventurous palate. Jeff said he’d be happy to cook lungs for me. We weren’t sure where to buy them, and they didn’t seem like the type of thing we would find on display at the Fred Meyer meat counter. So I reached out to Ben Dyer, the owner of Portland’s Laurelhurst Market and Simpatica Dining Hall and the executive chef at Ate-Oh-Ate Hawaiian Restaurant, to see if he could help us track down some lights. 

No luck. Dyer told me that the USDA prohibits lungs from being sold or passed on to consumers. He said it can be very hard to get certain animal parts, because paying an inspector to inspect and approve them on an individual basis just isn't financially sustainable. The only way I could get them, he thought, would be to find someone slaughtering an animal for her own use who'd would be willing to share the lungs with me. 

“Since they are so difficult to find, I've never actually cooked with lungs,” he told me. “The last time I went to someone's house to help them slaughter and dress a pig, we did save the lungs, but frankly, one look at those suckers, and I didn't really feel like they were something I wanted to eat.” This from a butcher, someone who actually slaughters and dresses pigs.

Dyer is probably right. Still, I don’t feel as if I want to give up; I want to see for myself. Recognizing the USDA roadblock and following Dyer’s advice, I’ve been asking around. A few friends have inquired of their friends who are farmers and hunters if they’d be willing to share, but no solid leads have turned up yet.

I know I may not be ready to change my eating status from lacto-ovo-vegetarian to lacto-ovo-pulmo-veg. I’m starting to get it, though. A bad economy, a little creativity, an open mind, and a good amount of frying and garlic can probably make just about anything food-worthy, perhaps even lungs. 

For now, while I wait to get hold of some lights, I think I’ll expand my culinary repertoire with another chapter from The Silver Spoon, something in the economical-yet-still-exotic category, like catalogna_ (dandelion). I’ll just try not to think of them by their other name: weeds.

p(bio). Robyn Steely is a cook and writer based in Portland, Oregon.


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