For all the talk about how food can bring us together, it can divide as well. There are dishes that polarize. Take tripe.
It is standard equipment on every cow that ever produced a T-bone and has been pleasurably eaten for centuries, at least. But if an indiscreet tripe lover should happen to mention his predilection in the company of those who do not share it, the mildest reaction will be cruel mockery. More likely is a look of abject horror, as if he had just admitted to taking part in some of the less savory rituals of a Black Mass.
Even though they must keep their affections secret, there is a group of tripe lovers out there, and there are chefs who cater to them with more than a steaming bowl of menudo. You're most likely to find this offal brotherhood in restaurants that specialize in more informal fare, French bistros and Italian osterias.
"We have people who call to see when we will have tripe, and they'll reserve two portions for that night and then two portions to take home for later," says Gino Angelini, chef at the justly celebrated Angelini Osteria on Beverly Boulevard, near La Brea Avenue. "My customers really seem to love this."
Tripe is always served as a special at Angelini Osteria. "Tuesday is my day of tripe," he says. "I can't have it on the regular menu because sometimes I can't find the tripe and then people get mad when it's not there."
Tripe is the stomach of a ruminant--any cud-chewing hoofed animal with an even number of toes and a multi-chambered stomach. In this country, that almost always means a cow, but you will sometimes see lamb tripe and veal tripe at specialty butchers. Chitterlings, the offal choice of the South, comes from the corresponding parts of pigs, so it is not really tripe, pigs not being ruminants.
Since cows have more than one stomach, there is more than one kind of tripe. Three are commonly eaten, and they differ mainly in texture. Honeycomb is the most common type of tripe; you'll know it by its pronounced diamond pattern of hollows and ridges. Book tripe is also found in some markets. It gets its name because its ridges lie in straight lines, like the pages of a riffled book. Least common is plain old tripe--the main stomach. It looks slightly furry, like a sheared sheepskin seat cover.
In French, these cuts are called, respectively, caillette, feuillet or bonnet and pance. The same bits in Italian are reticolo, centopelle and rumine. Those names are primarily of academic interest--you'll only need them if you're working from an untranslated recipe. Of more practical use are the names in Spanish, since it's at Mexican markets that you're likely to have the best luck finding different varieties of tripe. At Economy Meats in Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles, honeycomb tripe is sold as casita, book tripe is libro and the big, shaggy stomach is panza.
Whatever it's called, tripe is pretty tough stuff. Generally, the more work a muscle does, the more cooking it will take to become tender. And what does more work than a cow's stomach? Plan on braising any tripe dish at least a couple of hours. The good news is, it's almost impossible to overcook. Really good tripe has the soft texture of well-washed silk.
At this point it should also be noted that really good tripe does not smell overly "tripe-y." Rather, there should be just a hint of stink--like putti, those angels painted on the ceiling of Roman churches: heavenly forms with earthy faces. You can also think of it as being akin to certain great Burgundies, where a bit of a "barnyard" aroma mingles with a silky texture in such a way that it is regarded as a complexity rather than a fault.
There's more good news. In the old days, tripe required much more cooking than it does today, as well as elaborate preparations before you could even put it in the pot. Almost all the tripe you'll find in markets today has already been bleached with lime and precooked. The smell should be fairly mild, though there may be a faintly uric tinge (whether this comes from the animal or the chemicals used in preparation is hard to say).
Tripe purists sniff at this new cleaned-up convenience. In "Simple French Food," Richard Olney calls it "emasculated."
Angelini, on the other hand, remembers the bad old days, when housewives had to do their own bleaching. "It does change the taste to make it in a factory, but you used to be able to tell who ate a lot of tripe at home by the women with scars on their hands. It's dangerous."
Though the preparation of tripe may have been done by housewives, the eating of it carries distinctly masculine overtones. Tripe, like many other strong-flavored foods, carries with it a tradition of a certain hardy bonhomie.