There are some foods which I consider to be more of a method than a recipe- a recipe demands a level of precision that is either unnecessary or unrealistic for the process. What becomes important instead is that certain specific points are met in order to assure both food safety and adherence to traditional form. What follows is my experience making head cheese, with measurements of ingredients which I used included. I believe that this dish holds so much potential for variation and barring a few key mistakes, very little for failure, so I would rather outline the process in the hopes that someone else will endeavor on the adventure. I would never call this easy or quick, but it is incredibly nutrient dense, full of protein, vitamins, minerals, fat, gelatin and collagen. For those suffering from skin or joint or gut disturbances it is a medicinal food, and a food with a rich history from Europe to Appalachia.
That being said, what follows is a description of charcuterie performed in the home with limited tools, and it could contain imagery or descriptions which some may find graphic or disturbing. Death is never pleasant, and if one presumes to benefit from it, using the entire animal and being prepared to face the less mouthwatering faces of food production are the bare minimum of respect that can be paid to the lives sacrificed for your own nourishment.
I think the first time I had heard of head cheese was in the Foxfire books. One of the kids had ventured up a mountain to learn how to make souse from an elderly local woman, and when he arrived she was ungracefully attempting to remove the eye from a hog’s head with a teaspoon. Her concern was to not bust the eyeball, lest the black goo inside spoil the meat. She struggled at length until finally it popped out and flew quite a ways to bounce off of a tin roof and catch on the laundry line, where it bobbed for a moment before dropping.
At least that’s how I remember reading it at 12.
A friend of mine was preparing to help with the slaughter of some hogs recently, and we had talked about the possibility of going in on some meat. In the end, it didn’t seem feasible for me this time around, so I put the idea out of my head.
When the pig’s fateful weekend came around, she messaged me asking if I wanted a head.
More recent impressions of headcheese production came to mind, humorous incidents from a job held last year at a German Deli in Portland, Oregon; A butcher friend rushing into the kitchen and feeding me a piece of boiled meat, “what’s this?!” I asked about the most delicious piece of pork I had ever tasted. “Pig glottis!” Was the gleeful reply, as he practically danced back to work in the next room. Also remembered was the frequent scene of one of the many rotating junior butchers, a bunch of young, possibly (definitely) disturbed 20 somethings of lower class Pacific North Western origins, standing in their bloody white coats and smirking or giggling as they “spanked” headcheese that was setting up in artificial casings in a back corner of the butcher shop.
And also, of course, I thought of Foxfire.
I definitely wanted a head.
For some reason I had thought it was a ways out, that I would receive something pink and frozen, maybe in a week’s time, as my friend lives quite a-ways away.
“What time should I come? ” she asked.
The next thing I knew, I was digging a bullet out of a pig’s skull in my kitchen, and trying to remind myself of everything I’d read and seen with regards to making headcheese. Our hog was very hairy, and the foxfire description had not prepared me for the difficulty of removing the eyes. My inclination was to tough it out and solve the riddle of the eye myself…luckily my friend is not as ignorant as I am and looked up some youtube videos on the subject.
A pair of pliers and a hunting knife later, I had cored out the eye, and was removing the second in a fraction of the time. I’m not trying to be shocking, but rather, didactic- so you should know, the trick is to cut the meat and skin away from the area, and then, as if cutting a hole in a pumpkin, cut back the connective tissue around the eyeball. Once it is mostly free, needle nosed pliers can be used to grab the optic nerve and any remaining fascia, allowing it to be easily cut with your knife.
Now, so much is often written regarding that previous difficult step, that I had not even considered what was next. Your real enemy on the way to headcheese is hair removal. I will not bore you with the details of tedious hours spent attempting to remove those stubborn bristles in all of the many ways we had read of before. Rather, I will let you know that we had our order of operations wrong, and it made our job much more difficult and disgusting than necessary.
Do not believe that you will successfully remove hog bristles without either butane torch or specialized tools. It is unnecessary to keep the skin for this particular project. Before you do anything at all, skin the hog’s head. Problem solved. Then, you will have also removed a large portion of the fat around the eye, and it will be much easier for you to gain access to the eye socket, et voila, you have streamlined your process.
Following the cleaning and preparation, it is an option to brine the head, which I did, but I do not believe this step to be completely necessary.
The morning of production, I rinsed the head, placed it in a stockpot with 5 bay leaves, a quartered onion and some black pepper corns. I added 3 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar to help leach everything possible from bones and connective tissue, and began the long boil.
At 7 hours I removed the skull, took off any meat that seemed over- soft early in the game, dismantled portions of the oral cavity, and separated the jaw in order to make everything fit in the pot better. I then placed the skull and remaining meat, connective tissue , and tendon back in the pot, nose down, with a little bit more water to cover portions of the skull, and continued to allow it to simmer. It is important to remember that gelatin can be delicate, and for a good gel you will want to keep a strong simmer but NOT a rolling boil. This ensures your head cheese will set in the end.
At 19 hours I added 2 more bay leaves, 1 tablespoon of white pepper and 2 teaspoons of nutmeg. I also cut two large carrots in half and added them.
At 20 hours, I removed the skull, and any meat that had fallen into the pot. I added 3 tablespoons of salt and then strained the liquid with a wire sieve, and separated the juice in half. In a sauce pan over medium heat I added 4 tablespoons of pickle juice to one half , while in the other in the same conditions, I added 1/2 a tablespoon of herbes de Provence. While I worked on the rest, I kept the broth warm but not boiling, sine I did not wish to destroy the natural gelatin, but also did not want the juice setting just yet.
Then, I lightly greased some mini loaf pans with lard, and in half I distributed meat and sliced boiled carrots, while in the other half I mixed finely chopped pickles with meat.
Over the pickles I poured the broth containing pickle juice, and over the terrines with carrot I poured the broth containing herbes de provence.
Then I let it cool before transferring them all to the fridge to gel. It can take up to 24 hours for you to get the consistency you want. It can be frozen to store.
My favorite way to eat Head cheese is on a Wasa rye crisp with sliced radish and a sprinkle of greiben, otherwise known as cracklin’s.