For years, I’ve enjoyed reading and rereading my collection of Agatha Christie mystery stories. I’ve never bothered to count them, but they completely fill three 30-inch shelves in my bookcase, and it takes months to work my way through the entire collection. At the time they were written, mostly during the first half of the last century, they represented upper-class life in England fairly accurately. This was the world that Agatha Christie lived in and knew best. There were country manor houses with butlers, housemaids, valets and chauffeurs. People had tea brought to their rooms before breakfast, and in late afternoon in the parlor. Dinner was seldom served before nine in the evening. There were house parties lasting several days, and breakfast available nearly all morning in the dining room, often including such delicacies as kippers and kidneys. Steak and kidney pie was a staple for a pub lunch.
Now, I’ve never eaten kidneys, except those incorporated into some of the ground-up, spiced-up concoctions known as “lunch meats” and various things fitting roughly into the sausage category. I have consciously eaten most other internal organs including brains, heart, liver, tongue and sweetbreads, but try not to think about the functions of some of those organs or what they look like before they find their way to the table. Together, these edible organs are called “offal,” a 14th century word that combines the words “off” and “fall” and means simply “discards.” It’s easy to see how they got that name when you think about it. The word can be pronounced either “oh-ful” or “ah-ful”, but I prefer the first pronunciation to keep it from being confused with “awful”– which is a little too descriptive. During The Great Depression and WWII, when meat was expensive and often scarce, my mother followed the example of thrifty housewives throughout history and often served some of those cuts of meat to stretch the grocery budget and make sure we got enough animal protein in our diet.
Three things came together recently that resulted in a silly little poem I called Kidney Pie, a dish I’ve never tasted and don’t especially care to. Just the day before, I had been to a meeting with a group of my poet friends, and had poetry on my mind. Also, I’ve been reading Agatha Christie again because I admire her ability to create puzzles. I like her recurring characters, especially Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. And because I am forever trying to unravel the secrets of how to write a good mystery story.
The third factor was that I had driven about two and a half hours to a reunion lunch with several of my life-long friends and was now about halfway home on the return journey. Having been steeped for nearly three hours in high school reminiscences and catching up on news of classmates both present and far away, my mind drifted toward home and the book I had been reading the evening before. It involved one of Christie’s classic house party murders in which one of the guests had indulged in steak and kidney pie in a pub as he traveled to the country house where the party was to be held. We know there will be a murder, because this is an Agatha Christie story, and we know there will be kidneys at breakfast because it is a country manor house. We also know that Hercule Poirot will solve the mystery using his “little gray cells,” rather than running around with a magnifying glass searching for cigarette butts and fingerprints. Brains and kidneys– and what was that word that meant edible internal organs? Oh yes, offal, wasn’t it? What a funny word. Sounds awful.
It is no wonder I couldn’t resist playing around with those two words. Offal is awful. What rhymes with awful? Lawful. How about offal, if I pronounce it with an O? Woeful rhymes but I didn’t quite see how that could be worked into a poem about eating kidneys. Think of some eating words. Plates, dishes, forks, bowls. Nothing seems to fit. Wait a minute. Bowl. Bowlful. That almost rhymes. Try it out A bowlful of offal. Must be unlawful. And it tastes awful.
That isn’t going anywhere. Too disorganized. Go back to the beginning. Offal is awful. Is it unlawful? It might be unlawful. It should be unlawful. A bowlful of offal. Here I am, coming into Iowa City already. Iowa City, one of seven UNESCO Cities of Literature worldwide. A city of writers, storytellers, poets. Not because of my latest ditty, I grant you. But it was fun. It helped pass the time. Here it is, and thanks for listening.
This offal is awful.
It must be unlawful
to offer a bowlful
of such awful offal.