Friday, May 2, 2008

Head Cheese...not for the faint of heart.

In January, I got an urge to make head cheese after reading about M.F.K. Fischer's recipe for "Aunt Gwen's Cold Shape" in the Art of Eating. Head cheese is not cheese at all, but a homemade luncheon meat. It is molded in a terrine and made by boiling a hog's head, taking the cooked chunks of facial meat, snout, and tongue and gelling them together with the cooking stock. The head has so much cartilage that, as it cooks, it creates a natural gelatin automatically.

My Czech grandmother used to make head cheese, both from hog's my family had raised on the farm and later, from hog's heads she had to specialty order from the butcher. After watching her make it as a child, I was so disgusted that I could never bring myself to eat it. But now, as an adult after becoming both a foodie and a devotee to M.F.K. Fischer, I knew I had to try it. At first I tried eating commercially made head cheese but it is extremely inferior and even scarier than eating hotdogs because you just don't know what's in it.

Then, it just so happened that Kent's former boss at the Milky Way used to make head cheese for the charcuterie plate when she worked at Wolfgang Puck's Postrio in San Francisco. Andrea graciously agreed to teach me how to make head cheese the way that would have made Grandma Krahulik proud.

First, however, I had to procure a fresh hog's head. I put an add on Craig's List, and lo and behold, I got a near immediate response. Tony agreed to let me watch him butcher the hog and photo document the process.

The whole experience was horrifying and enlightening and thrilling and, ultimately, delicious. In Gastronant: Adventures in Food for the Romantic, the Foolhardy, and the Brave (2005), Stephan Gates writes that after making head cheese, "You'll emerge blooded. You'll be a braver cook, more honest in your relationship to food, and with a deeper understanding and respect for the animals that give their lives to feed us."

What follows is the step-by-step process by which I did exactly that.

This is what a hog looks like moments after it is killed. Notice the spray of water on the hindquarters. This is so dirt won't get on the meat once the skinning begins. To kill the pig, it is first stunned with a shot to the head and then the throat is slit, hitting the main artery of the heart. It is surprisingly quick, and the pig doesn't make any noise.

They start skinning just above the hooves of the rear legs.

As soon as the ankle bones are exposed the carcass is hooked and hung. This helps the excess blood drain.

Once the hide is removed, the head must be cut off next. While it's relatively easy to cut through the neck muscles, severing the spinal cord is more difficult because the curvature of each vertebrae makes it impossible to get a straight cut.

After the head is removed, the rest of the butchering is much less gory. When the chest cavity is split open, as long as the organs aren't cut or burst, everything is rather immaculate. The purple-veined organ at the bottom right is the bladder. Also visible are the small and large intestines. (The belly meat right by Tony's hand is where the bacon comes from.)

Once all the guts are removed, Tony uses an electric meat saw to split the carcass in half lengthwise.

I take the head (and front trotters) home and soak them in cold water to draw out the blood. The head is skinned, except for a strip of hair that runs down the length of the forehead, which makes it look like Piggy has a mohawk.

After soaking, Andrea bravely removes the eyeballs with a fillet knife.

She also scalps the mohawk off until the head looks like this:

After the head gets a high pressure rinse in the sink, cleaning the mouth and nostrils of any gunk, it goes into the pot with the trotters, carrots, parsley, onion, cloves, bay leaf, sage, a bottle of white wine, and enough water to submerge the whole thing.

Then, it must cook for about eight hours at a slow simmer. If it cooks too quickly, the meat will be tough and the stock will come out murky.

Foamy impurities rise to the top and must be skimmed off periodically.

When the head emerges from the pot still steaming, it looks like this:

We pick the meat off the skull by hand. The head (and trotters) have so much natural gelatin in them from the cartilage that the meat is as sticky as if it was doused with glue. The smell is incredibly wonderful. The meat is surprisingly delicious. It tastes exactly the way good pork should. It is tender and succulent.

The tongue gets chopped up too. (But the trotters are discarded. Their function was merely to enrich the stock with gelatinous goodness.)

Andrea decided to add some carrots to the mix for color as well.

Meanwhile, we strain the cooking stock with a coffee filter lined sieve and heat it until it's reduced by half. This stock will have enough gelatin to gel all the pieces of meat and carrot together.

Next, we line two terrine molds with plastic wrap. In a moment of inspiration, Andrea decides to line one mold with thin slices of carrot.

The meat and the reduced broth get poured in the terrine molds.

The head cheese chills overnight in the fridge, and when it emerges the next morning, it looks like this:

I sliced it and served it chilled with cornichon pickles, mustard, and baguette (not pictured).

Head cheese tastes like highly refined, essence of pork. It sort of reminds me of eating cold fried chicken, the meatiness and rich fattiness pleasantly coats the mouth. Taking a bite of cornichon cleanses the palate enough to make you crave the next bite.

I can safely say I am no longer afraid of head cheese. However, I have trouble finding people who will share it with me. (Kent won't touch the stuff.) So, Henry Miller the cat, and I eat head cheese together.


Diane said...

Oh my god, that first photo of the dead pig looks EXACTLY like bully when he is sleeping.

Goodbye, bacon. Goodbye.

Renee and Jana said...

I am equally fascinated and repulsed by your pictures. But I laughed really hard when I saw the head and imagined Kent opened the refrigerator and finding those crooked teeth and ugly snout jumping out at him. Your marriage is surely going to last forever if he can withstand that.

Joy said...

I've been reading Little Heathens by Mildred Armstrong Kalish--it's about a woman who grew up on an Iowa farm during the Depression--and I just finished a chapter called "Farm Food" that I think you would love. She includes a bunch of yummy-sounding recipes (mostly of simple foods) along with a not-quite-so-detailed-or-vivid-as-yours description of making head cheese. Thankfully I had your post to fall back on, so I didn't have to just imagine the process.

Anonymous said...

How amazing. What a lot of work but I love head cheese so I would think it would be worth the time and effort. Brings back memories of the one time I made it! Mom

Anonymous said...

How amazing. What a lot of work but I love head cheese so I would think it would be worth the time and effort. Brings back memories of the one time I made it! Mom

Adam said...

I commend your commitment to understanding exactly where the head for your terrine came from. As a meat cutter I am always excited when new individuals are reconnecting with the reality of eating meat: death. There is nothing scary about it until it's shrouded in guilt and misinformation as the industrial farming companies has so successfully done.

I think you'd be intrigued by some of the photo essays I've done on the topic. I'll happy share some links if you like.