Not for the Faint of Heart

WARNING: The following post contains graphic content not suitable for those faint of heart...or stomach. If you are happy not knowing where your meat comes from, please do not scroll down. Seriously.

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to work in Porcella's kitchen. To say that I was nervous and filled with apprehension is an understatement. You see, on the agenda for the day's prep was head cheese.

Before I arrived on Saturday, I'd never even had the stuff. As if the name alone wasn't repulsive enough, my only exposure to head cheese was behind Oscar Meyer molded plastic containers hanging in the grocery store. One look at the chunks of unfamiliar bits assured me, I wanted nothing to do with it. Although, I did wonder...why is it called cheese when it was clearly displayed in the meat section?

In all honesty, I couldn't even bear the sight of head cheese. Back in the day when I actually ate packaged meat for the masses, I was happy to choose the safe and more familiar bologna. Maybe the ingredient list for bologna included things I'd rather not think about, but at least the manufacturer had the courtesy to grind the contents unrecognizable!

When I ran into Noah and he agreed to let me come play in the Porcella kitchen, I had visions of a French bistro experience--making sausage, terrine, or confit. No, instead, he took endless amusement telling me we'd be making head cheese. Every part of my girly self screamed, "Ewww...."

I have been known to be quite gullible and part of me hoped this was a big joke. I searched his face for the tell tale sign of a prank. Nothing. He was serious. HEAD CHEESE. There was no getting out of this. After all, I'd been bugging Noah to let me come for weeks. We had a few beers and then he said, "I won't blame you if you don't show up tomorrow." That sealed the deal. The gauntlet was thrown. This was about honor now! I had to go.

That morning, I dragged myself out of the house. I decided to skip breakfast--the thought of making head cheese was already gross enough. No need for me to add any drama by loosing my breakfast over this.

When I arrived at the shop, it was clear there may have been a wager placed on whether I'd show up. I faked it with my best bravado, "Of course I'd be here!!!"

Once I stepped into the kitchen, Noah wasted no time getting started. He emerged from the walk-in, triumphantly holding the pig's head like a prize. (Drum roll....)

Unwrapped and resting on the cutting board, I studied the head. I'd never been this close to any whole animal I consumed on a frequent basis. While Noah gathered together his giant saw and splitter, I made my peace with the pig. Then, at some point, my universe shifted and the pig became an object rather than a being. Why, I'm not really sure. I'm still pondering that point.

Breaking the moment, Noah arrived at the prep table with his tools. The saw was at least 3 feet long! Adding to the surreal experience, the saw resembled one I vaguely remember my dad using to cut firewood. The splitter was a tool I'd never seen before but it had the hefty look of a hardware tool--clearly invented for another purpose.

The pig was in a sad state from the beginning. It was missing an eyeball and around both sockets, for some reason, the eyelids had been removed.

Swiftly, Noah set to work (and thankfully spared me the task of actually doing the sawing). He explained, "There's no waste here. The only things we don't use are the eyes and the brain. They both give off a bitter taste, so we remove them. Other than that, everything gets used." He removed the sole remaining eye and set it aside.

With his thumb wedged into the pig's ear for leverage, he began sawing, straight through the middle.

Once the head was split, the brain was removed. It was in two segments, both encased and easily removed intact. The two lobes of the brain were approximately 4 oz. each--roughly the size of the palm of my hand.

Finally the head is clean and ready to be cooked--ears, skin, teeth and all. (Notice Noah's skull and coffin tattoo.)

The two halves of the head were put into a large pot. Added were trotters (hooves), carrots, celery, and a cheese cloth nest of spices. The pot was filled with water and let simmer for 6 hours.

After I left and the simmering was complete, Noah let the head cool down and then picked it clean. What is remains is packed into a mold with the cooking liquid, which was reduced down to about 8 cups. According to Noah, no gelatin is needed because of the addition of the trotters.

I stopped in the store a couple days later and sampled his handiwork. For all my anxiety and trepidation, the head cheese was really anti-climatic. It really didn't taste as strange as I expected. Noah served it with vinegared onions, coarse mustard, and bread. I have to admit, it was quite tasty.

As an added bonus...Noah was kind enough to send me the process of those onions...which were amazing. Here's what he said, "Red wine pickled onions are a pretty standard pate condiment, I make mine with red wine, red wine vinegar, sugar, salt, bay leaf, coriander seed and mustard seed. Bring to a boil, add onions , cook for about 5 minutes, turn off heat and leave onions in pickling juice until cool. Strain and use. "

In all honesty, this experience was one that left me with more questions than answers. I was surprised at my reaction...both in approaching something so completely new to me, and of the shift in my thinking. When did the pig simply become a "thing" to me? At what point did I become desensitized?

Now I realize how far removed I am from the food I eat. In countries around the world, what I witnessed is a normal part of life. Yet in my Western idealized world, without putting a "what if..." in motion, I could have lived my whole life never getting up close and personal with the food that reaches my table. I'm grappling with what that means, and what I'm going to do about it. Stay tuned.

Charcuterie, part I: Click here.