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We want tripe

05 December 2017


Tripe is back and, in some circles at least, considered very cool. Though it’s not really tripe anymore – it’s a “variety meat”. This curious repackaging doesn’t appear to just be a fad, argues James Cronin, but a signal of a wider trend that provides important insights into where consumer culture is heading.

Can an abandoned way of life ever make a comeback? Certainly, we see fashion cycles come and go bringing with them the resurrection of superficial trends and styles.

Whether it’s the triumphant return of the tailored suits and skinny ties of the 1960’s or the choker necklaces and flannel shirts of the 1990’s, there is a bounty of anecdotal evidence that confirms good business is to be had from recycling the aesthetics of the past. But what if we move beyond style - can we, for example, get people eating the way they did in the past again?

Tripe, oft-considered a culinary relic from a bygone era, often doubles in the English language as a label used in reference to anything best left in the bin. Tripe’s ostensible ‘un-marketability’  in contemporary Britain hinges on the national diet’s transition from cheap offal cuts to more expensive premium cuts of meat and more palatable exotic meal items. But now, tripe’s return signals a possible reaction against the civilized and ever-expanding horizons of today’s food marketplace and a return to simpler, less refined and feral reality.

Offaly hip

Lungs, kidneys, hearts, tongues and blood. What were seen historically as nutritious and cheap foods by the British population took a nosedive in terms of reputation after World War II. In the context of growing consumer wealth and access to international foods, offal was dismissed as distasteful and vulgar. 

What is sometimes referred to as the “fifth quarter” of butchered animals was left behind by many Britons as part of their ‘great disciplining’ to become a civilised and prosperous people.

However, for the past fifteen to twenty years or so, the fifth quarter has been slowly clawing its way back onto British menus – and not necessarily by virtue that it’s a cheaper cut. Many chefs are charging diners a premium for the privilege of a gastronomic visit to the sinewy, offal food culture of our ancestors. We have been seeing what some consider not just a revival – but a kind of gentrification – of offal cuts since the early 2000s, a movement which was catalysed by the release of British chef and author Fergus Henderson’s 1999 foodie classic The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating. Henderson - whose Michelin star restaurant, St. John, is a celebrated destination for consumers who desire to eat "on the wild side" - advocates the celebration of the entire animal carcass and draws heavily on both a contemporary vision for ethical consumption and a culinary imagination based on ancestral and rural traditions of wholesome, satisfying thrift.

Henderson has certainly been what some would consider an institutional entrepreneur in influencing and driving the greater institution of eating and dining toward a particular vision, and getting adventurous diners to revisit the cuts (and guts) of our past. In a post-Henderson marketplace, we are now seeing entrepreneurial activities aiming to win over young tastebuds and recover the fifth quarter – not just for the discerning foodie or the well-heeled ‘restaurant crowd’ but for the average punter. Tripe has been deep-fried and re-branded at hip burger bars and hot dog joints in the Greater Manchester area as ‘Lancashire Calamari’; inner city gastropubs have put pigs’ cheeks back on their chalkboards and relaunched austerity-era ‘mucky fat’ (bread and beef dripping) as the perfect bar food to share over cocktails. Underground web communities such as “The Offal Club” have made nose to tail eating Instagram-able for the masses and the Tripe Marketing Board is enjoying a renaissance, buoyed by the use of social media and a new hipster appeal.

The restoration of offal’s legitimacy for a new generation of consumers is a substantial reversal in what might be assumed to have been ‘progress’ in our tastes and habits as food consumers. For much of what we consider contemporary consumer culture, the norm has been to only cook and consume meat that’s civilised, distanced from the abattoir, and neatly marketed under the popular euphemisms of beef, lamb, pork and venison. A growing number of people now want stuff that hasnt been euphemised. There are new generations who pine for the ‘real’ - the kidneys, the marrow, the blood gravy - all wrapped up in caul fat or suet.

It is of course true that the resurgence of offal might be considered to be a food fad and we have seen this kind of consumer-mania in the food marketplace before (remember the TV Dinner craze of the 1950s, the slow cooker revolution of the 1970s, or the Soda Stream infatuation of the 1990s?). But the revival of something so contradictory in terms of our clean, plastic-wrapped food culture - health-obsessed and medicalised - hints at the possibility that consumers are searching for something that has previously been lost to them.

Challenging the present

In itself, offal represents the anti-standards, the grotesque reality that much of modernity’s slick marketing has tried to expunge; and its return to our dinner plates hints at a desperate search to recover legitimacy for those things which go against the grain. ‘Re-legitimation’ involves a version of a forgotten object or behaviour becoming accepted once again and treated as comparable or even preferable to what is currently championed as normal, even if market actors to date have spent a significant amount of time and resources retiring it with the label of being ‘abnormal’. This is no easy task and, in a sense, is similar to bringing something back from the dead. What’s been happening with offal provides lessons for marketing professionals, cultural commentators and ‘cool-hunters’ in general, because it demonstrates a break in what might be seen as the ‘progress’ cycle of consumption in the 21st century.

Beyond the opportunities that the resurgence of offal represents to agri-food businesses, and those in food policy, the re-legitimation of something more primitive represents a broader and more interesting turn in consumer culture. There’s something playful, feral and unreserved about cooking with and eating offal, and it represents for today’s consumers a conduit to something which has been lost to the current food industry. Offal’s re-legitimation circulates alongside other culinary and dietary trends like the Paleolithic diet, ‘locavorism’, raw foodism, the so-called “primal blueprint” way of eating and broader ancestral health movements – all of which challenge post-industrial, civilized ways of eating.

In any case, the glamour of supermarkets providing a hyper-choice of packaged foods from all around the world is challenged; there’s nothing exotic there. There’s now something more interesting, more hip, in exploring locally and historically. To some extent, this search for what has been lost domestically may be related to the wider context which includes the nationalist attitudes involved in the vote for Brexit, and the attraction to being less reliant on universalised visions of commerce and consumption.

Going back to move forwards

The implication here is that we are seeing a curious reversal of the curve of ‘progress’ in consumer desires and a romanticisation of what came before. Ongoing consumption activities do not necessarily hinge on innovation and appeals to futurism, but might often be tethered to the nostalgic, the retro, and even the obsolete.

‘New’ isn’t everything. In a Hegelian sense, progress should not be viewed as a strictly uni-directional, developmental movement but rather wisdom can be found at every stage of history and so the answer to the future might be buried in the past, just waiting to be exhumed. More businesses would be wise to look again at what the next generation of consumers are really looking for, what fits best with their lives and values. They should entertain the possibility that what consumers really need might not require building new things for tomorrow but might simply involve recovering things which have gone missing from today’s world.