The Land of Pharaohs and Omaha Beef Liver
Aug 06, 2017 02:25PM
By Jahd Khalil
CAIRO, Egypt—Sometime around 2012, I started going to a sausage and liver cart in the middle-class neighborhood of Dokki where I then lived. I was still new to Egypt, having recently moved from the U.S.
The cart, however, was a longstanding neighborhood fixture. Since 1976, from dusk until dawn, Ezz al-Monofy has been serving spicy sausage and liver meats in vino bread (which is like a less-airy hotdog bun).
On any given night, there are 30 to 40 men of all ages, standing and downing sandwiches for late-night snacks. Steam rises from three frying basins, illuminated by bright fluorescent lights. On the otherwise dark street, the glowing cart becomes a beacon for the nocturnal community of Giza, on the western bank of the Nile opposite Downtown Cairo.
For my friends and I, a visit to Ezz al-Monofy is part of our healing process. The spicy and greasy meat, washed down with some of the saltiest pickles in the Cairo metro, enables our bodies to retain more water. Consequently, the food cart helps our minds to function properly the next day. A long night of drinking Stella—the Egyptian beer, not to be confused with the Belgian brand of the same name—can result in an incapacitating hangover.
I didn’t realize the significance of these late-night food runs until Abou Malak, the cart’s mustachioed cook, who I came to know, asked me where I was from.
“Omaha,” I said.
He stared at me for a second, as if deciding whether I was being honest, or if he should be.
“By the way, this liver is from Omaha,” he replied.
I thought it was some sort of joke.
“Swear on it,” I said.
A bigger man at the cart, with a bigger mustache, gestured at me as if to say, “one second.”
I was afraid I had offended the two men, since I used a more Muslim religious phrase to exclaim my disbelief. For all I knew, they could be Christians, who have had a second-class status in Egypt, and whose security has been threatened (especially recently). He came back with a cardboard box with some blood smudges on it.
The box read:
PROVIDING THE HIGHEST
Produced for Hanzada Company-Cairo, Egypt”
In general, Egyptians love beef liver, and Americans don’t. So by the osmosis of the world economy, Americans tend to sell Egypt liver, and a lot of it.
Egypt is the world’s biggest importer of liver. In fact, Egyptians eat so much American beef liver that there’s a market for American liver near Ramses Square in central Cairo. Meanwhile, American beef producers are actually afraid that they are too dependent on Egypt buying livers, and they have been looking to new markets. But I doubt South Africa, a rising consumer, is up to the challenge. In 2016, 76 percent of all U.S. beef liver exports (68,474 tons) ended up in Egypt.
I’ve been a journalist in Cairo for six years, and it makes sense that the first time I’ve come across a story that really resonates with my American family history—or one that could be written for a hometown publication—has to do with beef.
My grandmother, Frances “Jean” Wheeler, has never seen the mountains or the ocean. My maternal family’s story is one of migration across the Great Plains for various slaughter and meatpacking jobs.
Her grandfather, my great-great-grandfather Emil Peklo from Prague, loaded the family onto a boat and took them to the U.S. According to Grandma, most of the boat’s passengers were sent back, but Emil’s wife gave birth to a son in the harbor, so they were allowed to stay.
When an immigration officer found out Emil was a butcher, he connected him with his brother, who had a meatpacking house in Chicago. The family went west to work there. With the savings from that job, he moved to Lynch, Nebraska, to open a butcher shop.
“Peklo in English is hell. H-E-L-L,” she said. “And he had on his window, “Go to hell for your meat.’”
“Uncle Vic could put on a Sunday dress shirt, roll up his sleeves, put on an apron, and take apart a whole cow without getting a drop of blood on his suit,” Grandma said.
I love my grandmother very much, but she has a tendency toward hyperbole, and the anatomy of a cow makes me doubt this claim. A cow liver can be between 10 and 15 pounds, and anybody who has cut one up knows they’re more slippery than muscle meat.
In the prep area of Ezz al-Monofy, the sous chefs do not have the mind, nor the time, to worry about getting blood on their shirts with a bunch of hangry men around. They cut the liver into pencil thin pieces, which are thrown into 2-gallon pots before being mixed with fried garlic.
After tossing the liver around with a spatula in the oil, Abou Malak adds coriander, cumin, salt, pepper, chili pepper, nutmeg, and more garlic. Another cook slices the vino bread with a box-cutter, slathers them with sesame paste that’s thinned out with lemon juice, and sprinkles that with fresh parsley before passing them to Abou Malak to fill with a serving of liver.
If liver is not for you, the cart also sells home-style sausage and Alexandrian sausage. I’m not aware of the beef sausages’ country—or anatomical region—of origin.
Liver sandwiches are the Egyptian equivalent of the hot dog. They are cheap and probably the nation’s most famous street food. But prices are going up. Recently, a food-ordering service, Otlob, released an infographic warning that the price of a liver sandwich had quadrupled since 2013, and was expected to keep rising.
Rising food prices are a major concern for the Egyptian public. In fall 2016, the government floated the exchange rate, which meant that the price of the Egyptian pound plummeted in comparison to the U.S. dollar. Although Egyptian food prices may seem extraordinarily cheap to American readers back home, the pound’s declining value means it’s increasingly expensive for regular Egyptians to buy anything.
The changing currency dynamics also means American beef has become more expensive to purchase. As a result, the share of liver exports to Egypt from America went down from 82 percent to 76 percent between 2015 and 2016. In 2014, the North African country was the largest importer of liver in the entire world.
The American beef industry uses the term “variety meat” for liver, kidneys, brains, stomach, and such. It’s a beautiful example of an American industrial euphemism. The phrasing implies “choice,” a cornerstone principle in American free-market philosophy. Egyptians use a term that translates to “sweets,” or “fruits of meat,” which sounds more poetic and folksy.
Liver, though, is ultimately a category unto itself, a comfort food of both the rich and poor. When I first encountered liver in Nebraska, I viewed it as leftovers cooked for/by those who couldn’t afford “regular” meat. But a look back into history shows its place in American fine dining, too.
In the heyday of Omaha’s stockyards, liver sometimes enjoyed luxury status. In 1946, Caniglia’s steakhouse had liver and spaghetti on the menu for $3.25. In 2017 dollars, that’s about $42. Macarona Reda in Downtown Cairo’s Bab al-Louq neighborhood has “macarona bil kebda” (spaghetti and liver) for 7 Egyptian pounds (less than 42 cents).
I assumed my grandmother would have eaten liver growing up, being the daughter and granddaughter of butchers and growing up poor.
“Are you kidding? I didn’t like liver,” she said. “When I was pregnant with your uncle John, I had iron deficiency. I had to eat liver three times a week. I fixed liver one time for your grandpa, mom, and uncle Monte. And he said, ‘What’s this? I won’t eat it, and my kids won’t eat it!’”
My grandparents met each other, in part, because of the meat industry. When my great-great-grandfather Emil’s son, Emil Jr. (my great-grandfather), attempted to borrow money to continue his studies at the seminary, his mother said no, according to Grandma.
So, great-grandpa Emil Jr. moved across the state line to Winner, South Dakota, to work at a different butcher. Then, he moved to a meatpacking house in Pampa, Texas, during World War II. Finally, he moved to South Omaha after the Pampa factory burnt down.
My grandmother was a child during the family relocations. Her roots would take hold in Omaha. She was working at a hide processing company in South Omaha when she met my grandfather. He was working at a truck wash that also serviced the stockyards.
In 1947, when the Peklos moved to Omaha, 2,016,768 cows moved through the Omaha stockyards. By 1955 the stockyards were the biggest meat producer in the world. That superlative lingered over my hometown until 1971.
My mother grew up in Papillion. My father came from Lebanon; he was studying engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln when my parents met.
By the time I was born, peak beef production had passed in Omaha. Even so, the remaining Omaha-area meatpacking plants still process huge amounts of cattle today, with slaughter and butchering having become heavily industrialized.
The Nebraska business responsible for supplying my favorite beef liver cart in Egypt—Greater Omaha Packing Co.—processes 14,000 head of cattle a week, almost 728,000 a year, at its South Omaha factory off 32nd and L streets.
When it comes to eating red meat, my time living overseas has brought one major epiphany: Growing up in Nebraska has spoiled me.
I’ve tried hard to replicate some of my favorite Omaha dishes in Egypt—for example, Big Fred’s prime rib sandwich. But I can’t do it.
Cuts of meat just aren’t really the same in Egypt, and the pricing is much closer than one might expect. It’s a double-edged sword: You can get a filet for 80 Egyptian pounds (equal to $4.41 in U.S. dollars) per pound in Cairo, but stew meat can cost 60 Egyptian pounds (or $3.25) per pound.
The lack of common vocabulary once meant I went home from an Egyptian market feeling pretty excited about an extremely cheap rib-eye, but when I unwrapped it, that feeling turned into confusion. It turned out to be spleen, and I failed miserably at cooking it.
On return trips to Omaha, I relish the city’s renown for beef.
For days leading up to my homecoming, my father and I will message back and forth on the topic of meat cuts that I’d like to eat. He then purchases the beef in bulk from the meat market down the street from our house and freezes the rest.
My first meal after arriving at home is usually a steak, if it’s warm enough to fire up the grill. In the wintertime, it’s usually corned beef (on a Reuben sandwich), since I have yet to come across high-quality deli meat in Cairo.
The absence or presence of food in a particular place can tell you a lot about how local people are connected (or disconnected) to other parts of the world.
Recently, China reopened its country to American beef products, which might be a good plan-B for Nebraskan liver merchants in the event that Egypt becomes a less lucrative market.
On the face of the global beef trade, the tradespeople (the butchers) are increasingly mobile globally. In fact, many butchers in the United States have come from the Arab world, and they are exporting Nebraska meat back to their countries of origin.
The trend is evident even on the rural outskirts of Omaha. In Lexington, Nebraska, the meatpacking industry employs hundreds of resettled Sudanese and Somalian refugees. The immigrants take apart thousands of cows every day.
With Cairo, Egypt, as a major transit point for refugees, it’s possible that tomorrow’s Sudanese-American butcher is right now eating a liver sandwich from a Nebraskan plant where he might work in the next year.
Then again, with mounting anti-immigration rhetoric in American politics, maybe not.
Visit greateromaha.com for more information about the Omaha-based company that supplied the author’s favorite beef liver cart in Egypt.
Egyptian Beef Liver Recipe
1 quarter pound beef liver, cut into inch long, pencil thin strips
2 tablespoons cooking oil
4 tablespoons freshly minced garlic, divided
1 teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon white vinegar
3 spicy green peppers, chopped
¼ cup tahina (sesame paste)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Chopped parsley for garnish
Hot dog buns, for serving
Heat the cooking oil, then fry 2 tablespoons garlic until just beginning to brown.
Add the sliced beef liver, and toss until cooked through. The meat should turn a grayish-brown.
Add the remaining seasoning, vinegar, and peppers. Toss.
Taste and adjust seasoning and salt.
Mix the tahina and lemon juice in a bowl, then spread on the hot dog buns, and sprinkle with parsley.
Fill each bun with the liver mix.
Serve with pickled carrots, turnips, peppers, onions, and/or pickled tomatoes.This article appears in the July/August edition of Omaha Magazine.