Thick seam, thin seam, honeycomb,
brown tripe, weasand, elder,
cowheel, dripping, neatsfoot oil,
are what we sold at 25 St Nicholas Street [Letters 3 & 27]. The stomachs, udder, oesophagus and feet of cows. Boiled and bleached to an uncanny whiteness, by “tripe dressers”. The seams billowed like formless albino creatures in the vats of water in the yard, slithered on the marble slab in the sun-filled window.
We never ate it – ‘poverty food’, ‘invalid food’, my mother, who managed the shop in return for the accommodation behind and above the shop, called it.
I came upon a small factory processing tripe on my cycle ride across France, just a few miles from where I’d lived forty years before. The daughter had returned to the family farm ‘to devote myself to tripe’. They sell it canned. I wondered if their trotters came from the abattoir I’d worked in. In England tripe means rubbish, in France it means trickery. I decided that Hermes, the god of travellers and trickery, who was the tutelary god of my journey, must also be the god of tripe-dressers, thought of 25 St Nicholas Street, cycled on.
I’ve eaten it once, brown tripe, peppery and hot, in a thick roll soaked in spicy liquor, in Florence, sheltering from a summer storm, thunder and lightning, between Dante’s house and the church where Beatrice is buried, touched by the overflow of notes to her. I contemplated leaving my own question for her, for him, that life-changing week. The tripe sandwich was delicious.
Tripe still has regard in Italy. There is an Academmia della Trippa. In 2013 it reprinted the recipe book, “Ninety-Nine Homely and Delicious Ways of Serving Tripe and Cowheel”, brought out by UCP (United Cow Products) in 1932 as a last attempt to keep the market going. Apart from a few market stalls in south Lancashire, and in Chinese dim sum, British cows’ stomachs now disappear into pet food.
Tripe was always eaten, recorded from Homer on, mentioned in Shakespeare, enjoyed by Pepys – ‘a most excellent dish’, referenced in Barnaby Rudge. In 1832 an inn in Liverpool advertised, “Beef steaks, Chops, Cutlets and Tripe, served up in the first style at moderate charges.”
But it was in the 19th century, in industrialising south Lancashire, especially in the cotton mill towns, that it became a popular food, and specialist tripe shops opened. It was cheap protein, a quarter the price of beef. And it was ready to eat. Cold – popular in summer, honeycomb, with salad; and as street food – tripe pieces on skewers on a night out. Contrite men who had spent too long and too much at lunchtime in the two pubs on our street would buy a quarter of pieces, my mother’s cool civility and the bitterness of the malt vinegar dissolving their alcohol-fuelled cloud of public bar well-being as they ate it out of paper on their mazy way home. And hot – as the protein in a quick meal, tripe and onions a favourite, when many women worked in the mills and had an hour to get home, make a family dinner (eaten at ‘lunch’ time), and get back to work.
In 1906 there were 260 tripe shops in Manchester alone. In 1924, Burnley still had 52. In 1917, The Tripe de Luxe Restaurant was opened in Wigan, complete with palm trees, ladies’ orchestra, and “lavatory accommodation provided on the most scientific lines.” A company in Yorkshire canned tripe and sold it in Harrods.
The Depression, and meat rationing from 1940 to 1954 (tripe was not rationed), kept the trade going. There was often a queue outside our shop waiting for it to open in the late 1940s.
But rising affluence, changing tastes, and the falling price of chicken did for it. Our shop closed in 1960 when the site was bulldozed for a shopping arcade, didn’t reopen on another site, the last tripe shop in Lancaster. For a several years there would be a tray of tripe in the corner of butchers’ windows, but they went as the tripe eaters died.
One day I will seek out one of those market tripe stalls, buy a pound of thin seam, cook one of the ninety-nine homely and delicious recipes, and find out what my mother deprived us of – or saved us from.
In Search of France’s Green Meridian, Keith Walton, p217.
With thanks to my main source, Tripe: a Most Excellent Dish, by Marjory Houlihan.