A warm chorus of "Hi," "Hello" and "How are you?" opened the recent meeting of the Liver and Onions Club.
The Pittsburgh group has gathered every other month for about five years at restaurants around the region that serve this old-fashioned main dish that, well, most of the 40-some members love to eat. On a Saturday night in early May they met at Mohan's in Penn Hills, which always has liver and onions dinners on its menu.
Several first-timers were among those who walked in around 6 p.m., to be greeted by co-founder Jeanette Matthews, who introduced herself and everyone else to everyone else.
Ms. Matthews: "This is Colleen and ..."
Colleen: "Mary Jane."
Ms. Matthews: "Mary Jane."
Ms. Matthews gave everyone a list with the 20 attendees' names on it, to encourage them to move around and mingle at the four tables pushed into a long line. Meanwhile she and her co-founder, Penny Lang, slipped a sticker onto one of the menus so one person could win this night's door prize -- a hanging basket of yellow flowers.
Sitting at the first table was the meeting's president (that changes each time), Tom Pekarcik, and his wife -- that is, "first lady"-- Donna. He held the ribbon-festooned wooden meat tenderizer that serves as the organization's gavel.
But that's about as parliamentary as the club gets, as they have just one rule: Love beef liver and onions ... or at least come with someone who does.
Mrs. Pekarcik, of Penn Hills, confessed that she'd never even tasted liver, but she planned to order it tonight. "I figure, I'll try it," she said, gamely. "I'll at least like the onions."
As they waited for their orders, Mr. Pekarcik reminisced how his father, who raised him and his three siblings, used to regularly skillet-fry and serve liver, plain. "I never knew liver came with onions until I saw it in a restaurant." His father also always served liver with hot tea -- a tradition Mr. Pekarcik thinks his father's mother started.
Several club members are old enough to speak to the days in the 1940s and '50s when liver was cheap and, as Mrs. Matthews' mother used to put it, "good for your blood."
And several attendees are young enough to remember being children who wanted nothing to do with this yucky smelling and looking stuff.
"We'd see a bowl of chocolate in the refrigerator and thought we were having chocolate pudding for dinner. Much to our chagrin ..." So went the raw humor of McKeesport's Colleen Carroll, who came with her mom, Mary Jean Carroll of White Oak.
They laughed it up at a table with two other first-timers: Judy Boyle Fannin of Plum and her mom, Barbara Boyle. Both disliked liver when they were children, but as daughter put it, "I think when you get older, your taste buds change."
"It's totally different than any other kind of meat. ... It has its own flavor," said Barbara Boyle, noting that she makes it with bacon and onions. "That's really good."
Colleen Carroll: "That's REALLY fattening."
Liver isn't the object of scorn that it once was, if only because it's steadily fading from cookbooks and home and restaurant menus. This despite the recent trendiness of offal, which hasn't quite led to McLiver 'n' Onions.
In diners and family restaurants across Middle and Southern America, however, liver remains a comforting, popular presence. You might be surprised at how many places in greater Pittsburgh offer it, including Eat n' Park and Kings.
The club has had liver everywhere from Lawrenceville (Hambone's) to McKeesport (The Viking) to Delmont (The Lamplighter). The previous meeting was at Morgan's in Penn Hills, which serves it with balsamic vinegar. Otherwise, the preparation tends to be simple -- either with gravy or without, as at Mohan's.
People still tend to love liver or hate it.
Liver lovers Ms. Lang and Ms. Matthews cooked up the Liver and Onions Club when both worked for the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council. (Ms. Lang now is a parent engagement specialist with Wireless Neighborhoods; Ms. Matthews is retired, but still volunteering and teaching.)
Ms. Lang starts the story: "I said, 'I'm so hungry for liver and onions!' "
Ms. Matthews: "I said, 'Penny, I know the secret to making good liver and onions" (getting the oil in the skillet "spitting hot" before you put in the flour-dipped liver, and cooking it for only a minute or two on each side to keep it from getting tough).
Soon they were in Ms. Matthews' Plum kitchen with a half dozen other kindred spirits, eating liver and laughing all night.
The try to just have fun with the club, giving away door prizes and holding 50-50 raffles before they eat, then enjoying each other's company during and after the meal. The president's job is to pick the place and make sure it has enough liver on hand for the number of folks who've RSVP'd as coming. The joke is, if you don't come, they'll elect you president for the next meeting.
"When you come down to it," said Ms. Matthews, "we're nothing but a dinner club. But we have a theme."
"We only do it every other month because we know it's really not that good for you," Ms. Lang said with a grin. (Liver is high in cholesterol, but it also is high in vitamin A, B vitamins and iron.)
On this night, she didn't even order liver, opting instead for Mohan's famous fried chicken.
Ms. Matthews ordered just a baked potato, because gastric bypass surgery means she can't eat much. But she had a few bites of liver from her son Ed's plate. Eddie loved liver even as a 6-year-old, though his younger siblings did not (his brother wrapped it in cheese to make it more palatable, then fed it under the table to the dog.
Why does Mr. Matthews still like it? "I guess the consistency." Onions, for him, "That's a must."
Ms. Lang leaned towards him and his plate. "I just want a little tiny taste," she said, and he was happy to oblige.
Ms. Lang: "I love the way it smells. For something so strange, it just tastes so good."
Mrs. Pekarcic tried her first bite of liver and -- she liked it.
"We're proud of you!" Ms. Matthews announced.
The club welcomes new members; e-mail PittsburghLiverandOnions@gmail.com.
There are more liver fans than some might think. Mrs. Matthews is an honorary member of the Regina Liver Lovers Luncheon Club, which started in Canada in 1984 and has spun off other clubs (stedwill.sasktelwebsite.net/liver.html). A Christmas verse of that group's "Liver Lovers Anthem" goes:
Onion rings, are you listening,
On the plate, liver glistening,
It's a beautiful sight
We're hungry tonight,
Eating in a liver Wonderland.
On this night, Pittsburgh club members generally cleaned their plates. As per protocol, Ms. Matthews asked the cooks to come out from the kitchen. The club gave them an ovation, and she presented them with a Certificate of Appreciation. The cooks looked warily pleased.
Club members' goodbyes were even warmer than the hellos.
Their next meeting is to be a July picnic. President Pekarcik said, "All in favor of having liver on the grill, say 'Ay.' "
They opted for more traditional burgers and hot dogs, though someone will bring a liver and onions side dish.
In "The River Cottage Meat Book" (Ten Speed, 2007), Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is quite funny on the subject of liver. "The coarse slabs of beef liver I was served up at school were braised to the texture of a giant pencil eraser, with hideous veins like bicycle inner tubes. And they tasted as if they'd been marinated in the school urinal. I couldn't get a morsel past my lips without gagging. In the end I persuaded my mother to give me a note containing that magic word 'allergic.' And I didn't go near a piece of liver for another 15 years."
But, the Brit came around to liking it when it was good quality and properly prepared. Here is his recipe, which he prefaces with, "The marriage of onions and liver is much celebrated in many food cultures, and this is just one way of achieving it."
- About 1 pound very fresh calf's liver
- 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 dozen baby (i.e. pickling) onions, peeled but left whole
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
- Scant 1/2 cup aged vinegar [he recommends aged cider or balsamic]
- 2 dozen sage leaves
Cut the liver into slices 1/3 inch thick and trim out any coarse tubes, then set aside. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large, heavy frying pan over a low heat. Add the onions and sweat gently. They mustn't take color quickly but should brown gradually as they cook, so that after 20 minutes the outside is nicely caramelized into a dark brown color and they are sweet and tender all the way through. Transfer to a warmed dish and keep warm in a low oven.
Add a little more oil to the pan and turn up the heat so that it sizzles. Give the liver slices the lightest dusting of the seasoned flour and lay them in the pan. For liver nicely pink in the middle, turn after 2 minutes and cook the second side for just 1 minute. Transfer to 4 warmed plates while you quickly finish the sauce.
Deglaze the pan with the aged vinegar, scraping up any crusty morsels from the base as the vinegar bubbles and reduces. When you have only a scant tablespoon of sauce left, trickle it over the liver. Heat up another film of oil in the pan and fry the sage leaves, turning them as they become crispy (this only takes a few seconds).
Scatter the sage leaves and onions over the 4 plates. Serve with creamy mashed potatoes [recipe elsewhere in the book].
-- "The River Cottage Meat Book" by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (Ten Speed, 2007)
Bob Batz Jr.: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1930. First Published May 20, 2010 4:00 AM