I`m hoping you`ll read the next paragraph before flicking away in disgust (as I may have years ago).
The idea of eating a pig`s head is something that is psychologically difficult for many but few ponder why they find it so difficult? It`s fascinating to me that on the `fear-factor`scale of things, a pig`s head would rank high while it`s chops or honey (the regurgitated contents of the stomach of a bee) are considered accessible meals. I hope you`ll consider reading on.
This post has no pictures. If you`re hesitant, you can `safely`read on. Tomorrows will feature pictures but they won`t and appear on the main page and will be hidden under the fold on the direct link. This article also discusses why I believe this meal is also a dish that many of my vegetarian friends are an advocate of – though they won`t partake.
The first time I saw the dish was on `St. Practice`night in 2010. This was the Monday evening before `St. Patrick`s Day`and was a neighborhood party for those working in the service industry who would not get to partake in the greenest party of the year.
The evening had started innocently enough. A highly touted oyster shucking competition went down and the entire bar were fed samples through the competition. I use the term `bar`loosely – we were assembled in a heated tent in front of Leslieville`s Ceili Cottage (also the home of our CSA and all-around awesome place). There was loud celtic music playing and free oysters encouraged many to grab an extra glass – it was a festive night.
Around 11:30 the staff erupted from the kitchen carrying trays of bread, cheese and preserves. They placed the spread on the bar, carefully leaving room for something hot as they laid down a few cutting boards in the middle of the condiments.
Within a few minutes Chef Kyle Demming (of the soon-to-be-opened Sausage Partners) entered the room (he is a lanky giant and difficult to miss with a calm serenity and projecting kindness coating him) with two full-sized pigs heads. He placed them between the condiments, jabbed his chef`s knife into one of the skulls (I`d later learn they are sliced like this as part of cleaning so there`s a natural resting place) and said, `Have at èm!` Chef then backed into a corner and watched for the next hour.
I can`t say there was an initial rush to dive in. Several people approached with curiosity and I found myself next to a Gentle Giant who was from Newfoundland. He grabbed the knife, told me to grab two pieces of bread and cheese. He grabbed the knife, hacked away and produced two open-faced sandwiches. We toasted our meal and fired it back. The gratification was instant and this is indeed one of my reasons why I believe that cooking the head is important – not only does it use the entire animal but it tastes amazing! I know describe it as extreme bacon to those who are curious.
It didn`t take long for people to start to line up. Before long, the line consisted of almost everyone in the room – with Chef in the corner. I spent most of the rest of the night in that corner, talking to Kyle. Our pig had been a small-farmed Tamworth and came from Kawartha Ecological Growers (still one of the main farmers we support). It was easy to cook – just do it slow.
The rest of these observations and reflections on cooking the entire head are from that evening as well as the two times since that night that I have cooked a head (one was a Tamworth and the other was a wild boar):
- I must emphasize that it tastes phenomenal. Extreme bacon good. Without that, this would be a dish that could turn people away. I show them how to eat it, step back and let the others sell the dish. If a few people eat it, they will drag others to it. Of the people who have eaten the dish, I have never seen anyone say anything short of extraordinary things.
- As people line-up for the dish,many are uncertain (almost to the point of mild fear) of what they will experience. It`s a different emotion than one gets from eating something new (i.e. Alligator or Camel) for the first time – because the people in line have generally eaten pork. It`s what I call the familiarity-paradox: because we know the ingredient but aren`t used to coming face-to-face with dinner, the discomfort is even more pronounced and unfamiliar.
- The meal is a no-preach message about connecting to your food. You have to cut your own piece (or have a friend do it). You are connected by default of recognizing what is on that tray and what is in front of you. It`s not an easy task to do what we ask others to do for us (i.e. butchers and abattoirs). There is no denying what it is – and conversations around meat consumption, farming and our relationship to meat are simply natural. We had 3 Vegetarian friends at the last party and all were equally engaged in pleasant conversation around topics such as our lack of connection to our food.
- Economics. An entire Boar`s head fed samples to more than 60 people. We went through 4 loaves of pumpernickel and two large blocks of cheese. The Boar`s head was $10 (I paid $15 for the Tamworth last October).
- Use of the whole animal. To think that one of the most delicious parts of the animal goes to waste because it`s psychologically difficult is tough to accept to me. It is odd to consider that the belly of the pig is somehow an elevated ingredient compared to this.
- Tradition. This ties in the last two points – dishes like these were the gourmet meals of many poor economies and cultures. Lobster was also once seen as the food of the poor while SPAM was elevated as high-class. On the journey to return to real ingredients, tying in culinary tradition and learning new dishes offers an amazing opportunity to grow as chef and diner.
- Connection to other meat. Many (if not most) who eat this, will explore their connection with meat and what it really is that we eat. It’s not something that can easily be described in words but I believe it’s an important experience in a time where our connection with what is on our plates is becoming lost (Jack Kerouac named William Burroughs Naked Lunch after the concept of seeing what was on our plate for what it actually was and not just a but of meat or a carrot).
We’ll share how to cook it, serve it and eat it – without jamming it down other people’s throats…tomorrow. 🙂
Have you tried a head before? Would you? What do you think of some of the points above? Do you have any to add – or any to counter? Feel free to add to the discussion below.