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Liver and onions dinner recalls old times in Baltimore

"Liver and onions — the poor man's gourmet delight."

— Stevens Bunker, retired Baltimore sea dog

The taste sensation of beef liver is like licking a piece of smooth, shiny metal. To the bite, the texture is akin to corduroy — wide wale and brown — and leaves a subtle film across your tongue and the roof of your mouth.

Liver and onions — a staple of working-class communities with strong German heritage, and therefore an old favorite in old Baltimore — endures here as a savory snapshot of the way our grandparents ate.

"It reminds me of shopping with my Nonnie, my Italian grandmother," said Kathleen Birrane of Dulaney Valley of adventures some 40 years ago at the Pantry Pride in Mount Washington. "She always bought the most horrible things: calf brains, pig's feet, tripe. Tripe! But liver is still one of my favorite old-fashioned dinners. Thick onion slices browned in bacon fat and melted down and piled on top. Succulent."

Not as popular as it was when city lunchrooms catered to factory and shipyard workers, a good plate of liver smothered in onions and gravy is still available in most every diner — from Jennings Cafe in Catonsville to the Sip & Bite in Canton — worthy of the name.

"On my first date with my wife, Sharon, back in 1978, I took her to the Sip & Bite and ordered the liver and onions to impress her with a classy East Baltimore meal," said Stevens Bunker, who used to run the China Sea Marine Trading Co. on Thames Street. "I think she got the fried scallops."

Liver and onions is a favorite at restaurants with an older clientele, like the Peppermill in Lutherville. It goes for $6.99 a plate at Jimmy's in Fells Point and is available seven days a week at Eichenkranz in the heart of Highlandtown on Fagley Street.

"It was a staple of life," said Zelma Meyer Holzgang, a 1953 graduate of Notre Dame Preparatory School who grew up in Hamilton, which she called "the liver and onions capital" of Crabtown. Her mother bought fresh liver at least once a week at Jacobson's Grocery on Harford Road near the old Cameo Theatre.

When the fabled Haussner's Restaurant closed the first week of October 1999, Holzgang and family made sure to order the delicacy one last time with a side of creamed spinach.

Just after Easter this year, Holzgang reprised the meal that still polarizes her identical twin daughters: Mary Helen Sprecher, a former crime reporter for the Guide of East Baltimore, and Suzanne Zaremba, a critical-care nurse at St. Agnes Hospital.

Few things in life are more contentious than a plate of liver and onions.

Sprecher, a dog lover who feeds her pooches liver from the table, craves it. Zaremba, a cat person, would rather lick dirt off the kitchen floor. They are best friends.

"It's the only substance on earth more divisive than fruitcake," said Sprecher, whose Columbia kitchen was the site of the family's recent liver experience.

Out of town at the time, her twin delivered invectives via email.

"The taste put me off as a child when I had to eat it. I'd pick out the onions and hide the liver under something else on my plate," said Zaremba. "Once I became a nurse and discovered the liver's function, my true hepatic-phobia disorder surfaced. No offense to my wonderful mother, but I can't imagine taking a bite of liver anymore than I would chomp on [an old rag] after cleaning the kitchen stove."

(The organ is essentially a filter, taking in all of the blood that leaves the stomach and excreting bile. Native Americans used bison bile as a condiment. It is high in cholesterol and packed with iron, zinc, protein and Vitamins A and B. Calves' liver is more tender than those from older cows and a less "dirty" filter of accumulated toxins, thus preferred by aficionados. If you can't find calves' liver at the supermarket, try the butcher stalls at Lexington Market.)

Sprecher's desires were realized not long ago when her mother put her to work chopping onions while she prepped a pair of skillets: one for the bacon, one for the liver, which Holzgang picked up at the Safeway in Towson for $2.49 a pound.

Robert Dudek, who runs a family-owned meat shop on Mace Avenue in Essex, carries "young baby beef" liver for $3.89 a pound. Dudek, whose father opened the store in 1969, said liver and chicken wings are a good measure of how American eating habits have changed in the past half-century.

"We used to sell 30 or 40 pounds a liver a week; now it's down to about five or eight pounds, there's no call for it. It used to be cheap," said Dudek. "Chicken wings used to be 19 cents a pound, and we couldn't give 'em away. Today they're $2.19 [a pound], and we sell out."

Back in Sprecher's kitchen, Holzgang chides her daughter (as only a mother can) for not cutting the onions properly and instructs her to dredge the liver in flour seasoned with salt and pepper while she cuts a new onion the right way (more sliced, less chunked).

"You want the [raw] liver to be dark pink or red but not brown," said Holzgang. "You slice the liver [lengthwise] but not too thin or you lose the taste. The flour keeps it from drying out."

Another cooking tip, from Birrane of Dulaney Valley courtesy of her grandmother, is to prep the liver by trimming the congealed "hard areas" and soaking it in milk to remove some of the metallic "organ taste." Some cooks saute apple slices with the onion.

Holzgang prefers to not fry the liver in the bacon fat as many do. Instead, she used a second pan just for the liver, frying it less than 15 minutes until "faintly pink on the inside."

"A hint of pink," quipped Sprecher, a joker. "The thought of pink."

Holzgang declared the liver "Perfecto!" and ladled the bacon and onions atop each portion. Sprecher served it by candlelight in the dining room with sides of asparagus spears and chunked potatoes baked in the oven with onion soup mix and vegetable oil.

As mother and daughter dug in, Sprecher's husband, Stephen Sprecher, sat down to a plate piled high with chicken wings slathered in hot sauce. His distaste for liver is intense, and when he's out of town on business, he makes his wife promise that if she cooks liver she will grill it outside so it won't stink up the house.

Enjoying a tender mouthful, Sprecher said, "The worst thing you can do to liver is dry it out."

To which her husband replied, "The worst thing you can do is eat it."

Zelma Meyer Holzgang's Old Hamilton liver & onions

Makes six servings

1 pound of calves’ or “baby beef” liver, sliced lengthwise to less than a half-inch

8 to 10 bacon slices, cut in half

1 medium onion, sliced into rings

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/4 cup flour

1 teaspoon black pepper

pinch of salt

Heat oil on stove in skillet (cast iron preferred). In second skillet, begin frying bacon (use this skillet only for the bacon). Lightly dredge liver in flour seasoned with salt and pepper. Brown on each side — about four minutes total — so the center retains a pink hue. Remove from pan and pat with paper towel. Saute onion in liver skillet until clear.

For gravy, spoon excess flour — one tablespoon at a time — and a little water into liver skillet with onion until desired consistency. Return liver to pan, cover and simmer for another 10 or 12 minutes. When bacon is crisp, spoon onions and gravy on top of each portion of liver and top with bacon.

Serve with steamed asparagus spears and potato of choice.

—Recipe courtesy of Zelma Meyer Holzgang

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