working with the head

pig head on our counter

For a brief time, there was a whole pig’s head on our kitchen counter today.

This afternoon, we drove into town. Danny was so excited he had to tap out a rhythm on the steering wheel as he drove. We were on our way to pick up a pig’s head from Seabreeze, the same pig farm we visited a couple of weeks ago.

Actually, I’m pretty sure this was one of the older pigs we saw walking around that day.

I kept flinching my feet on the floor as we talked with Matt, the manager of Seabreeze’s farm store. After all, I was a vegetarian for 10 years, for all of my 20s. Those days are long gone now. (obviously.) And I’ve come to love sweetbreads and make sausages with real casings of intestinal linings. Living with a chef who loves meat has changed me even more. I decided long ago that, if I eat meat, I want to know how it lived, and where it comes from.

Still, I never expected to be staring down at a whole pig’s head through the lens of my camera, on our kitchen counter.

I feared that breaking down the head into component parts would feel like watching Sweeney Todd. But actually, watching Danny at work was a thing of beauty. He loves butchering. Whenever we to go to Don and Joe’s in the Market, he just stands there with his mouth open. “I could be a butcher,” he says as we walk away. So even though he had never broken down a pig’s head before, he felt confident. Excited. As I typed next to him, he bent down his head and applied the knife to every part. Watching him, it doesn’t seem like he’s cutting. Just sliding the knife, this tender touch while he focuses down. Everything before him.

He did stop to show me the brain, smaller than the palm of his hand.

And then he had to go to work, so he left me the cutting board to clean. I was still squeamish. (I was a vegetarian for 10 years, after all.) But watching him, and cleaning up afterward, it became clear to me that this was right. At least we’re using the head, with reverence, instead of it being tossed away. As Danny said, “We’re doing traditional French cooking.”  (He just held the ear aloft from the brine for me to see, as I typed this.) We’re using everything. Funny how we say some parts of the animal are tender and succulent, and the rest we don’t want to see.

So it has been fascinating. He has made a stock with the bones, and it has been simmering all day. He rendered the fat down, slowly. And he will be brining the meat overnight.

He’s making head cheese.

Next week, we’ll be sure to tell you all about it.

7 thoughts on “working with the head

  1. Yay head cheese! After many years I’ve finally developed a taste for it, and now my mom has to share when she brings some home from the market. With Danny making it I’m sure it will be amazing.

  2. Oh, wow. At first I thought I was weird for looking at that head hungrily and thinking of the delicious cheeks and the smell of the whole thing baking. And then I felt better: “We’re doing traditional French cooking.” I can’t wait to read about the headcheese. And maybe run out to the country, buy a pig’s head, and make my own.


  3. I have gone from being a vegetarian to slaughtering chickens and then did a rabbit- too hard. An Ex of mine who said he was an Indian (long story- did not show up on birth his certificate) convinced me to hold on to a rooster until it’s heart stopped beating and that sort of did it for me on the slaughtering. I know it was reverent to be with that rooster until the end but a tad too hard on me. I would be curious enough to taste head cheese though if I do not have to look him in the eye while he is dying.

  4. I can’t get away from you, can I? I spend days poring over Gluten Free Girl and then click on an innocuous link on theotherwhitemeat site and bam! Here you are again!

    If you ever would care to come east to West Virginia (no, not Western Virginia, but the State of West Virginia), every February or March, several families come together for a good old fashioned country butcherin’. Though we no longer raise and slaughter, we buy anywhere from 8 to 10 cleaned pigs and cut them up into chops and ribs and grind bits into sausage and, here’s the best part – we still make our own lard and scrapple and pudding. Gallons and gallons of lard and pans and pans of scrapple and pudding.

    Which was the first thing I thought of on seeing that head laid out. The kids delight in plucking out the eyes and throwing them against the cinder block wall, where they stick. We slice out the tongues, then use the meat saw to remove the jaws so we don’t have to pick the teeth out of the broth later. Then all the heads go into a giant cast iron kettle over a wood fire outside and bubble, bubble, toil and trouble for hours, along with the tongues, livers and hearts. The guys all stand around with a coffee cup tasting, tasting and tasting (and picking out pieces of tongue) the broth until they get it seasoned just right. Then the bones are plucked out and the broth is thickened with cornmeal and buckwheat flour (gluten free! I never knew that would matter to me until just recently, sigh), and the resulting “glop” for lack of a better word, is put into disposable aluminum loaf pans to cool and then is packaged for the freezer.

    We also cure our own hams; we’ve found it easier to just send the bellies out to have the bacon made because they slice it and vacuum pack it in 1 pound-ish packages for us. Which is great, because who wants to deal with that after spending hours and hours and hours steadily stirring a gargantuan cast iron kettle of chopped up pig fat, rendering down into the finest lard you’ll ever see or cook with and cracklins …. oh, cracklins!

    It’s a dying art, what we do when we come together. Not just the food part, but the camraderie and, I guess, sense of community, not unlike an old fashioned barn raising. Many hands really do make light work.

  5. Oh, wow. I love this post. Spectacular photo. Thank you Shauna (and Danny) for so reverently explaining your process. For awhile now, I have felt an obligation to look my meat in the eye (and ear.) I so want to make head cheese but my vegetarian husband has drawn the line.
    Lulu what a picture you paint!

  6. My step father grew up on the farm in Central Illinois and he loved to get a group of friends together to cook a whole hog as often as once a year. The butcher would save the tasty bits and make head cheese for us. So, when I went to Germany as a college kid, it was something I could relate to. Anyone who has a German sausage shop in their town should get to know head cheese, liverwurst and all the rest. In Albany we have Rolf’s.

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