My first memories of making valentines are from my days going to school in Chilmark, when it was still a two-room schoolhouse, I remember the craft paper, the glitter and my first introduction to those little candy hearts with messages on them like “Be Mine” or “LUV U.” We would give them to our teachers, bring them home to our parents and give them out to friends and classmates. At a certain age, for me it was third grade, the words on those little hearts took on a whole new level of meaning. When received from the right person, with the right words, you began to believe them and to feel the power of ones hormones we act on far too often as we get older. That year I tore open a valentine from a classmate and found tucked into the bottom a heart that read “My Star.”
I took those words to heart and on the kickball field later that day, when attempting to stretch a double in to a triple after lofting the ball off the side of the school (our green monster in right field) I was thrown out from across the playground by the same girl who had delivered me those words. As I slunk back to the backstop, realizing my stupidity in testing the arm of the girl who only a week before had taught me how to throw a spiral with a football, I also realized Valentine’s Day isn’t as straight forward as I thought. As adults, hopefully we have made our mistakes early on (in safe places like the kickball field) and learn to show appreciation simply and honestly. I’m sure we can all recall missteps we have made on what has been made into yet another American holiday turned into a day of indulgence and consumption. In reality, it is a day when simple gestures of gratitude are the most important.
Last year on Valentine’s Day, I was carousing around the city of New York on a tour of all things April Bloomfield, a soft-spoken British chef who is responsible for the fad of the gastro-pub in America. Her cooking is considered refined English cooking with Italian influences and is very pork-centric, her dishes always heavily salted (which equates well for her restaurants’ bar tabs.) After feasting with great gusto on bone marrow, chicken liver mousse, pigs’ feet and pickles at the Breslin, my cohorts decided we hadn’t given her enough money in one night, and we ended up at the Spotted Pig to close the evening.
There I ran into an old acquaintance celebrating her birthday in a room on the third floor. She claimed to remember a meal I had cooked for her years before (I doubted her sincerity) and I pretended to be happily single on Valentine’s Day. After an awkward exchange on the flight of stairs leading to the exit, a mutual friend broke the ice by telling the story of my finding a deer on the side of the road in Chilmark. It had been killed by a car moments before I found her and the warmth had not left her body yet. It has always made sense to me to eat an animal’s heart, since throwing it away would be wasting a perfectly good cut of meat. I was taught to clean an ox heart in the basement of a restaurant in London and since then have never wasted the opportunity to eat one. All animal hearts I have eaten are something to behold. The most common ones to a consumer would be chicken, lamb, pig or ox. If you are a hunter, then obviously fowl, rabbit or venison are also readily available. The heart is a hard-working, compact muscle; when trimmed properly and cooked quickly — or more commonly for a very long time — the meat is tender and succulent.
The heart represents all things romantic and nostalgic on Valentine’s Day, with images of Cupid flitting about, his winged silhouette always holding a bow and arrow. But the myth of Cupid’s quest for love has coy undertones with a storyline mimicking something you might see on reality television today. Venus, Cupid’s mother, sent Cupid to shoot the beautiful Psyche with an arrow, which would cause her to fall in love with a monster. This was because Psyche had grown so beautiful that people had started to neglect Venus, and her envy got the best of her. Cupid ended up pricking himself with the arrow intended for Psyche and fell in love with her instead. In a harrowing, tumultuous saga, Cupid and Psyche finally end up together and everyone lives happily ever after. If only life could be that fair.
I felt like Cupid recently while hunting wild pigs with a bow and arrow in Georgia. Like April Bloomfield, I have a deep love for pork and have had nominal success raising pigs myself. The romanticized idea of hunting them in the wild brought me all the way to Georgia where I stalked them for about 12 days, seeing nothing until the last morning of our hunt. I sat in a tree and watched the sunrise above the forest canopy, telling myself it was still a worthwhile experience to spend those days in the woods without landing a pig. As I began to gather the courage to climb down the tree and admit defeat, out of the brush a pack of wild pigs came running up to the pond near my tree. There were three sows, one boar and a spotted piglet. I readied my bow and dropped my arrow. I was smitten, just as Cupid was. I took a Hail Mary shot and missed badly.
After taking a second shot from a closer distance on the ground, only to have it ricochet into a tree, I did what you are told never to do: I chased the pigs into the thick brush where they live, buck knife drawn and a crazy feeling in my heart. Hours later, with cuts all over my body, after looking a wild boar in the eyes at four feet and backing down to his challenge, I returned to my tree to retrieve the first arrow I had dropped. Tail between my legs as if I had just been hit with a kickball, I was bloody, exhausted and defeated. I had hoped to be cooking a hog in celebration of a long-storied hunt, but instead we made do with a white-tailed deer my hunting partner had skillfully shot the night before. I cleaned the deer and for dinner that night alongside clumps of roasted oysters, we grilled a deer heart over a cedar fire and dipped it in melted butter with rosemary and lemon. As melted butter dripped off our chins and down our forearms and the heart was devoured before it had a chance to cool, I felt no ill will for not getting what I wanted and was blessed with exactly what was in front of me.
Ox Heart with Island Watercress and Mermaid Feta
(Author’s note: This recipe is a riff on Fergus Henderson’s dish served in his restaurant in London.)
1 ox heart
salt, pepper and olive oil to marinate
2 large handfuls of watercress
1 cup Mermaid Farm feta cheese, crumbled
juice from half a lemon
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper
Trim the ox heart of any excess fat off the top or larger end. Find the lobes or separations in the heart’s muscles, just as some of you may have done with a leg of lamb or venison. Slice the heart into pieces, following each lobe. Lay each piece flat and slice as thinly as possible into pieces about two inches long and one inch in width. Toss them in a bowl with salt, pepper and olive oil to marinate while preparing the rest of the salad. In a salad bowl, combine the watercress, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper and toss until well coated.
On a hot grill or in a saute pan over high heat, saute the strips of heart very quickly. Should be about 20 seconds on each side. When the pieces are just cooked, possibly medium rare in the center, toss them among the watercress and place in the center of a large plate. Sprinkle feta over the top equally to your liking and serve with a generous crackle of fresh pepper. Enjoy.
Chicken Heart Stew
15-20 chicken hearts
8 garlic cloves
2 cups canned tomatoes or tomato sauce
1 teaspoon chili flakes
2 cups red wine of your choice
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, removed from stem
In a large pot, saute chicken hearts over medium heat, season gently with salt once they are in the pot. Turn them frequently to ensure even browning on all sides; a bit of caramelized residue is desired on the bottom of the pot, should take about 10 minutes. Add the garlic cloves for the last two minutes, then pour in tomato sauce, add chili flakes and red wine. Stir to incorporate. Allow to come to a simmer, then turn to low heat for at least two hours or until sauce is very thick and hearts are tender. Add water as needed throughout cooking process to ensure it does not stick. When you are happy with the consistency of sauce and tenderness of hearts, remove from heat, stir in rosemary, check seasoning and add salt if needed. Serve with boiled potatoes or with pasta as a ragu.