How I Learned to Love Piss Pie
Steak and kidney pie is a fine old British dish that I have eaten twice in the line of duty over the last year. On both occasions, I found the urine scent of the kidneys disgusting. For some reason I find it difficult to swallow an organ meat that smells like a public restroom.
Normally, I am an offal-loving guy. As I pointed out the first time I choked down the urine-flavored pie in a review of the Firkin & Phoenix, a British pub on Westheimer, I love the brain masala at Indika, and the sweetbread tacos at the Tacambaro taco truck. And as I demonstrated the second time I munched the pissy pastry at Feast, the rustic British restaurant, I am quite fond of the ox heart, duck necks, blood sausage and liver dishes served there.
I want to like kidneys. If only to strike a dashing literary figure like the James Joyce character Leopold Bloom who "ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls; he liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faint scented urine." It's just that I can't find the "fine tang" in the scent of urine.
After my first encounter with steak and kidney pie, my friend and fellow food writer, Paul Galvani, invited me to come to his house to sample his version, which he insisted I would like. Galvani grew up in England and he and his wife, Chris are both great cooks, so I was tempted.
The invitation brought to mind two similar offal-insulting incidents I have had in my food-writing career. When I began reviewing restaurants for the Austin Chronicle, back in the last century, I once made a disparaging remark about a bowl of chewy menudo. That got me an invitation to a reader's home for a properly prepared bowl of the stomach lining soup. I learned that if the menudo was cleaned well and boiled it until it was extremely soft, the soup was quite delicious. Now I eat it all the time.
The French tripe sausage called andouillete was the subject of my second ill-considered comment. I think I pronounced it "inedible." This earned me an invitation to the home of an accomplished French chef who prepared a long-simmered andouillete in a mustard sauce that was quite sumptuous. I learned what to look for in a French tripe sausage from that experience. (I like the version at Bistro Provence on Memorial.)
I brought Paul Galvani along with me when I reviewed Feast so he could sample the steak and kidney pie. He admitted it smelled strongly of urine, but he liked it anyway--an opinion I found unfathomable. And he once again insisted that I come to his house for a steak and kidney pie I would love. So last weekend, I finally accepted his invitation.
Ever the prankster, Galvani wrote piss pie, shepherd's pie, and roasted vegetables on the blackboard menu that hangs on his kitchen wall. The pastry he served me was gorgeously decorated with little leaves and flowers cut out of dough. "Sort of like a well-decorated urinal cake," I snickered. I got a big serving and picked at it tentatively at first. But he was right, it tasted great. The little bits of kidney had a flavor like liver. In fact, it was so good, I had a big second helping.
"Okay, what's the secret?" I had to ask.
Galvani handed me a raw beef kidney from the fridge. It weighed a pound and quarter. We did a little biology class dissection. The outer part of a kidney looks and tastes a lot like liver, he explained. The urine smell is isolated in the tougher white fiber found in the innermost part of the kidney, which can easily be trimmed away.
So why don't restaurants trim away the funky part? "Because you waste more that way, which raises your costs. And besides, some people like the funky smell," Galvani concluded.
So now I can say I like steak and kidney pie--if its prepared the way Galvani does it.
Over dinner I chuckled that so far, writing I hated menudo, andouillete and steak and kidney pie had earned me a lot dinner invitations. That prompted an interesting suggestion. One of the other guests at Galvani's piss pie party, a member of Houston's British-American Business Council named Rob Schoenbeck, said, "Why don't you write that you hate caviar?"