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fried chicken livers offer new taste in fine dining but prejudice lingers

grapeseed's fried chicken livers

When I called Whole Foods in Silver Spring, Maryland to order a pound of chicken livers for a French salad I was making, the guy at the meat counter paused for a moment. "Chicken livers?” he said. “Uh, you might try Safeway. We don't really sell that kind of stuff here.”

That kind of stuff? I could understand if they didn’t carry it, but the attitude I could do without, thank you very much.

The fact was that I had just begun to overcome my own bias against the slippery innards, recognizing that they were respectable cousins to goose and duck livers (which, in pate form, I would happily slather on a crusty French baguette). The last thing I needed was to be snubbed by Whole Foods. But the message couldn’t have been clearer: chicken livers were considered unworthy to sell in their store.

Obviously, there is a disconnect between the culinary tradition of France, where chicken livers are used in pate and added as the piece de resistance to salads, and that of the United States where they aren’t offered at all, or are dime-cheap, deep fried, and sold by the bucket.

So when I saw fried chicken livers on the menu of Grapeseed, one of the finest wine restaurants in the Washington D.C. area, I was surprised and amused. What were they up to? I wondered.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one. When word got out that Grapeseed had added fried chicken livers to their first course menu, there was definitely a buzz, said Grapeseed’s Chef de Cuisine Jason Ramos.

“A bunch of my chef friends called me and said, ‘how are those chicken livers?’” said Ramos, chuckling.

Adding triglyceride-raising southern comfort food to a fine dining menu could be considered risky. But the Washington D.C. area is just the kind of place that such an experiment could work. It caters to beltway elite but is still south of the Mason-Dixon line where down-home cooking rules.

Grapeseed, which offers 100 wines by the glass, serves their livers with poblano and bell pepper jelly and suggests pairing them with the Trentadue “Old Patch Red” from California. The recipe is similar to one served by the James Beard award-winning Cochon restaurant in New Orleans, where Grapeseed Owner and Chef Jeff Heineman drew his inspiration.

Still, Ramos admits, there is “a perception,” right or wrong, that fried chicken livers are food for the masses and not fine dining. “Think about calamari: How long was that trash food?” he said. “Chicken livers? Why not?”

My husband and I had just settled in at the chef’s table at Grapeseed when I first spotted the menu item. I was prepared to ignore the little experiment all together (still overcoming my bias) until I witnessed a tall, gray-haired man run to the chef’s counter and shout into the kitchen, “Those chicken livers are amazing!” The line cooks turned from their work handling a dozen hot pans on spitting flames and looked at the man, who added, “You should sell them by the dozen!”

Whatever doubts I had vanished. When the waiter came back by, I announced our first course: fried chicken livers. Their crispy outer edge and soft, pink middle dipped in poblano jelly (basically a fancy sweet and sour sauce) presented enough range in flavor and texture to keep me poised for more.

I wasn’t the only one ready to mainline this delectable organ. “It’s a big seller,” Ramos said. “It’s becoming normal.”

“Becoming” is the operative word. Chicken livers still have a ways to go before everyone has gotten the good news. When my mom approached her meat counter recently in Portland, Oregon and asked for chicken livers, the butcher wanted to know if she had cats.

“No,” she said. “I eat them myself.”

Reader Comments (5)

I thought this a most wonderful and dearly written piece on a very misunderstood food. Thank you so much for the great article!!!

February 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterScoop

Angela, from a fellow Marylander (transplanted from the DEEP South), I must say that I loved your post for multiple reasons:

1. I love chicken livers (and gizzards too, especially deep-fried gizzards from the Lexington Market);

2. My wife and I really enjoy the Grapeseed restaurant;

3. I don't shop at "Whole Foods" for a host of reasons, their "attitude" being just one (but we LOVE Wegman's in Hunt Valley).

Thanks for reinforcing some of my "stubborn" opinions.

March 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDocChuck

Hi Scoop and Docchuck,

Thanks for your comments! I've become quite a fan of chicken livers since I started investigating and tasting them. Here's a post script: I was shopping at Whole Foods yesterday and to my amazement I saw a 1 pound bucket of chicken livers. Someone must have been listening...


March 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAngela Potter

Hey Angela - I was searching online for a chicken liver recipe and came across your blog. What a coincidence that I live in DC and just bought a container of them at the Whole Foods near me!

April 16, 2009 | Unregistered Commentercity girl dc

City girl D.C. -- That funny -- as you may have seen from my post script, they started carrying chicken livers shortly after I blogged about this. I now see chicken livers there regularly, thank goodness. I hope you found a good recipe. Grapeseed would not give me theirs but I recommend going there and trying them since you're in the area!

April 22, 2009 | Registered CommenterAngela

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