An intrepid home chef braves the brain
story by Bonnie Azab Powell
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.”
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.
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
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
Area freelance writer Bonnie Azab Powell is the founder of
the group food-politics blog Ethicurean.com 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.