Meatpaper FIVE

Head Games
An intrepid home chef braves the brain

story by Bonnie Azab Powell
photos by Bart Nagel


THE PALE, VAGUELY PINK CORPSE lying on my kitchen counter looked disturbingly like Babe, humble porcine hero of the 1995 movie I’d loved back in my vegetarian days. It didn’t help that Tamar kept muttering “That’ll do, pig, that’ll do,” as she expertly dismantled the head, legs, and shoulders.

I hadn’t planned to serve roast piglet for Thanksgiving. But my friends Liz and Dan of Clark Summit Farm had run out of turkeys, so they gave me this little guy. At 35 pounds, he was much too big to fit in my oven whole and far too much pork for our six guests. Luckily Tamar, a cook at Chez Panisse, happened to stop by and offered to show me how to butcher the Babe look-alike. And so it was that the Thanksgiving turkey was replaced by roast piglet shoulder and tenderloin wrapped in belly. The rest went into the freezer.

My conversion from vegetarian to flesh eater has involved not only knowing firsthand where my meat comes from — I’d watched this piglet and his many littermates running loose around the farm, as well as how they met their ends — but trying not to waste any of the animal. That means eating the organ meats, rendering any fat, and using the bones for stock. And then there’s the head. There is only one thing to do with a pig head: head cheese.

Every country that eats pork has its own version of head cheese, but a few basic principles persist across cultures. All head cheeses consist of a gelatinous pressed meat formed by boiling the head (complete with its jowls, snout, tongue, etc.) with a trotter or two (the feet contain a lot of gelatin) and some kind of mirepoix, herbs, and/or spices; chopping the shredded bits finely, arranging them in a mold, and pouring the reduced broth over them; then refrigerating until chilled and set enough to slice.

None of them, however, call for cheese. In his 1926 translation of the pre-Christian cookbook by Apicius, Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome, Joseph Dommers Vehling lists a Roman dish, salacattabia in Latin, that resembles modern head cheese but includes cow’s cheese. He notes that “the presence of cheese in this formula and in our word ‘head cheese’ is perhaps not accidental; the cheese has been eliminated in the course of time … while the name remains with us.”

Other sources also connect the name to the Romans, but only etymologically. Hard cheeses made to supply the imperial army got a new name: formaticum, derived from caseus formatus, meaning “molded cheese.” That’s the root of the French fromage, Italian formaggio, etc., and head cheese — known as fromage de tête in French — probably takes its name from this “molded” or “formed” sense.

But all of this was reassuringly academic to me until December, when I got invited to a holiday potluck for serious foodies. What better occasion to attempt head cheese?

I looked at my piglet’s defrosting head, his eyes so sweetly closed. He even had eyelashes. My stomach turned over guiltily. “This is what it means to eat meat,” I told myself. “A head should be no different from a leg.” I thought longingly of the much simpler moral and culinary calculus of vegetarianism. Then I reminded myself of my belief that human animals live in a mutually beneficial partnership with domestic ones, and that the former need the latter for a sustainable farm ecosystem. I picked up the head and two dainty little hooves, turned the faucet on, and started scrubbing.

I combined the head cheese recipe in The Chez Panisse Cookbook and the one for “brawn” (the English version of head cheese) from The River Cottage Meat Book. Several other cookbooks — Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie, Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast — instructed me to remove the brain. Most butchers split the head in half before you get it, but if yours is whole, you must halve it yourself; if it’s a big one, you must cut it into quarters. Some recipes say to remove the ears; the ones that don’t remind you to clean their insides carefully of wax and hair. Snouts, too. At least one recipe said to remove the eyeballs, which set me to wondering: Did the other recipe writers intend for me to include eyeballs in the mix? Or would they stay in the skull and get discarded at the end?

I got out cotton swabs and tweezers (for the stray bristles on the ears and head), and sterilized a hacksaw. Who knew a piglet’s skull was like granite? I had to enlist my husband to do the halving, and by the time he finished he was dripping sweat. I wanted to fry up the brains, but there were mangled skull bits in them, so they went into the compost. As for the eyeballs, I’ll just say they were surprisingly resistant and leave it there.

By the time all the bits were floating in the pot, I was feeling pretty queasy.

The head of the pack
Chuck Traugott, who makes delicious head cheese for the Bay Area charcuterie company Fatted Calf, boils the head for a while first and then removes the eyes. “It’s a lot easier,” he says. (Now I know!)
Traugott’s recipe is closer to English brawn than to the spicy, vinegary Lousiana “souse” version. “It has a good, clean flavor,” he says. Traugott splits and brines the heads overnight with some trotters, rinses them, then simmers them slowly in fresh water with mirepoix, a bay leaf, and peppercorns. He’s been surprised by how popular it is at the farmers’ markets. “If the right four or five people show up, we can sell out in a hurry,” he says. “Good-quality head cheese is hard to come by. And the expat Brits love it.”

Judging from the food blogosphere, quite a few people like me have been inspired enough by the “nose to tail” movement to make head cheese at home. Rory Berger, a 26-year-old tech product manager in San Francisco, “wanted to go beyond just pork chops and ham and learn to use all the parts of the animal,” he told me. “And the ‘old-fashionedness’ of it appealed to me.”
Berger’s wife was less charmed. “I needed one of her razors to shave the pig’s head, and she freaked out and had no interest in trying any of it.” He ended up eating “about half” of the resulting 15 pounds of head cheese himself and throwing the rest out. “I like it a lot, and I tried to eat it all, I really did, but it’s pretty rich.”

Diane Tang, a Menlo Park software engineer, made head cheese for the first time recently without ever having eaten it. “I thought it tasted like pig Jell-O,” she says. “It was great on a French baguette with some mustard and avocado as a sandwich.”

My head cheese story, alas, didn’t end so happily. While it appeared to have set, the head cheese crumbled into sticky bits of pork as I sliced it. I ended up serving loose spoonfuls of it on top of slices of baguette with arugula, dressed in a mustardy vinaigrette and then finished with lemon zest and parsley. It was a hit; even my dubious husband deemed it pretty tasty. But I don’t think I would go out of my way again to spend the six or seven hours it took to make it.

At least not until I end up with another pig’s head in my freezer.

Bay Area freelance writer Bonnie Azab Powell is the founder of the group food-politics blog and the deputy editor of Edible San Francisco. Her freezer currently contains beef bones, ham hocks, fatback, liver, and tongue — but no pig heads.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Five.