Pig's Blood and Entrails: The Joys of Black Pudding

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:52

    Black Pudding In Jersey Black puddings on our plates here at the Argyle Restaurant in Kearny, NJ, a working-class town made for February. The Argyle opened in this sooty and heavily Scottish municipality in 1952, and the establishment appears its age. Water stains mar the foam-tiled ceilings and the vinegar bottles are caked with fingerprints, while painted Celtic kitsch of the "Last of the Clansmen" variety obscures the walls. Dames sit a couple of fake-wood tables down the soiled floor in the huge dining room, talking canasta. "What's in a black pudding anyway?" Alan Cabal, one of my fellow diners that night, had asked the waitress after we'd each consumed part of our respective puddings.

    "Oh, y'know," she'd responded in her brogue. She was a middle-aged Scottish immigrant, florid around the jowls, stiff and dyed and inflated in the hairdo?going Jersey on us. "Oh, y'know," she'd said, "oatmeal mixed through with entrails, and..."

    She trailed off, unsure herself what was in there.

    "Outstanding!" said Alan, bobbing his head, enthused.

    The following is the list of ingredients from one black pudding recipe I found the next day:

    1/2 lb. pig's liver 1 1/2 lbs. lard, chopped 15 cups pig's blood 1 lb. bread crumbs 2-1/2 cups water ("use the water left over from cooking the liver," the recipe dictates) 1 cup rolled oats 1 onion, chopped 1/2 teaspoon allspice 1 teaspoon sage 1 teaspoon thyme salt and pepper I was disappointed that this recipe didn't include suet (which is the fat that gathers around the kidneys of ungulates), without which, in my opinion, no Great British pudding is worth its name. But presumably the bread crumbs and the rolled oats fulfill the suet's binding tasks. Besides, suet's possibly on the way out as a binding agent for puddings. The few Christmas puddings I've purchased have been bound with bread crumbs instead. But that's what I get for buying Christmas puddings at Dean & DeLuca, not famous as a seething petri dish of Anglo-Saxon funk.

    What's interesting, though, is the hint of redemption offered by the recipe?in fact, by every black pudding recipe I found. Here you've got this fairly disgusting dish, based in offal, saturated in pig's blood?a kettle full of pig-slop, basically?and they want you to garnish the thing with...a wee bit of allspice, with a touch of thyme. Another recipe calls for "dried and crumbled mint." Oh sure, that's just what this dish needs, this gnarly, revolting tureen of baked innards?a soupçon of mint, a touch, a whisper. Swine-filth doucement and subtilement engarni. I like to read that as testifying to something we all know, stereotypically, about Celts?the optimism under bad circumstances, the perseverance in the face of privation. As in: Sure, we're eating minced pig-innards, but that doesn't mean we can't try.

    Not that black pudding's heritage is exclusively demotic. My Larousse Gastronomique teaches thus: "One of the oldest known cooked meats, black pudding is said to have been invented by Aphtonite, a cook of ancient Greece."

    Thank God black pudding was on the menu at the Argyle that evening. We'd actually driven out to Kearny, in the company of Alan's friend Barbara, to eat haggis at what Alan claimed was the only restaurant around these parts that serves the dish. (He'd found a German restaurant in Manhattan that served a Teutonic version of haggis, but the idea of Prussians making haggis struck us as too extraordinarily horrifying to consider.) Having discovered upon our arrival in Kearny, however, that haggis is off the menu at the moment, we'd had to settle for something else.

    Alan, who's possibly the world's only devotee of the haggis, had been disappointed. But it had all been the same to me. The point was to eat something hideous. Black pudding fulfilled my needs.

    And the pudding really was a remarkable beast. Imagine a gigantic, slightly bent corndog filled not with a sausage, but rather with an oily black granular medium. I'm tempted to compare the stuff with caviar, because how many black, granular foods are there? But that's misleadingly luxurious, for the point of black pudding is funk: that it's nasty, that it smells bad. It doesn't glisten, but rather shines dully, and a bit malevolently, like oiled black leather. Nor is it smooth like caviar, because instead of slippery, uniform little eggs, you've got tiny, shardlike, variform minuscule pieces (and we're talking real small?each chopped bit is no longer than a pencil-tip) of...well, of pig innards.

    Eating disgusting, elemental food is one of the only ways that contemporary urban Americans can learn good humanistic lessons that once were probably learned in the barnyard and the university: most obviously, that nothing's outside the realm of human experience, even offal; that human life exists on a continuum with that of worms and beasts and nasty entrails; that we're inscribed into the world's processes of generation and decay and regeneration, and that that's beautiful. To sum up, and to indulge in cliche, that nothing on this Earth is foreign to us.

    But it's possible that a crusty black pudding probably makes a problematic hook onto which to hang a wide-ranging humanism.

    This one did. Despite its night-soil bloody blackness, it wasn't intense in taste. In fact, its taste isn't what I remember about it. It was actually rather insipid?there are probably more aggressive black puddings being manufactured in the world than in Kearny, NJ. The new-boiled-donut smell of the dough crust was powerful. But I can't remember what the black stuff tasted like, and I was sufficiently underwhelmed by it not to take notes. I will tell you this, though: it's filling. A quarter of the pudding down, and I had the feeling that I could drink six pints of stout and not even feel them. The alcohol would never penetrate the black tar.

    Barbara ordered fish and chips, and Alan enthused over his Scotch egg appetizer, the looks of which made me queasy. It was like this: a hard-boiled egg, halved and placed down on the plate like little hills; then a carapace of some pale, greasy meat over each egg, the meat resembling that which is hacked off a rotating vertical lamb spit in a Middle Eastern dump; and then a layer of breading over the meat. Alan loved it, though.

    "Man, a glass of milk would taste good with this," he said. "Hey, uh?waitress!"

    "Milk?" I asked him, skeptical, when the woman brought a Coke glass full of it.

    "Yeah," he said, glaring at me a little. "Milk."

    Kearny's fascinating, though, as much of Northern New Jersey is fascinating, and as parts of Brooklyn and Queens and Staten Island are fascinating: a blue-collar timewarp, filled with towns and neighborhoods that I can't imagine look as real in the undeprived heights of summer. These places exist for winter: Catholic schools and gloomy brick rectories and social clubs and telephone and power lines crossing the streets in baroque bundles and pork stores and heavyset old men in plaid.

    Many of them being, of course, Scotchmen. Kearny, it was interesting to learn, is still known as a working-class Scotch immigrant community, even though that identity's fraying around the edges. Despite the presence of the chips shops on Kearny Ave., you see a lot of nonwhite faces in town. A solid place?a town where you don't fear getting your car stolen?but you imagine the Celtic blood's leaking out.

    After dinner, and after browsing in the store appended to the restaurant?it sells Celtic kitsch, like Gaelic bumperstickers and clog-dancing tapes and Irish candy bars and wall-hangings?we drove eastward in Alan's car through the dark, quiet, lower-middle-class streets, and it was mind-blowing what you could see in the distance. Kearny's on a bluff, and from it we could see across the North Jersey industrial plains, pulsating with amber light and all the way to the Manhattan skyline, rising grand and evil. It was a lonely moment, and God knows what it must do to you to live in that sooty neighborhood and see that sight in the distance every day of your life. Actually, for most people it probably does nothing.

    At any rate, we'll have to return to Kearny next January, around Bobby Burns' birthday, for the haggis. The waitress informed us that they move a good amount of black pudding, but that haggis isn't popular.

    "As for me," she said, "I didn't like haggis back in Scotland. I'm certainly not going to eat it here."

    Argyle Restaurant, 212 Kearny Ave., Kearny, NJ, 201-991-3900.