Sunday, November 14, 2010


I remember Gramp butchering a pig once and there were a lot of people around. This was in the wintertime and there was a big steel barrel full of water that had a huge bonfire under it to heat the water. They killed the pig and then heaved it in the barrel and pulled it out again and all the guys started scraping it with knives. I later learned they were shaving the bristles off it and that the hot water made the job easier. I remember Granny then made headcheese.

-Marvin Streich, in The Streich Family

Half a pig's headThe above quote is from a family history that my mom wrote. Marvin, her eldest cousin, penned several pages of his earliest memories for inclusion in the book. Since he was born in 1934, and his Granny died in 1942, the abovementioned slaughter must have taken place around 1940.

I nearly fell off my chair when I first read Marvin's memories. I grew up visiting that same farm, where at one time pigs were killed and boiled and shaved and made into headcheese, but by the time I was born these traditions were defunct, and the recipe and appreciation for Granny's headcheese had been lost. Marvin's childhood memory of the pig was like a passing reference to a kingdom now sunk beneath the sea. These days, reading about headcheese in Larousse or Henderson is a strange, semi-academic exercise, but only sixty years ago my great grandparents were making it from their own pigs.

I recently helped Kevin with some butchering. I left his house with a belly full of pork chops and a cooler full of the two halves of a pig's head. I've collected a few recipes for head over the past year, but I figured my first experiment should be headcheese, in memory of Great Grandma Streich.

Headcheese is a simple but ingenious preparation. The head is cooked in simmering water, so the low, moist heat can break the tough connective tissue into gelatin. After cooking you are left with very tender meat and very rich broth. If you reduce that broth, the gelatin is so concentrated that it sets when chilled (at which point it could be called an aspic). The meat and reduced broth are mixed together, packed into a mold, and chilled to set. The headcheese can then be sliced and eaten.

Recipes tend to be dead simple, usually just a pig's head and aromatics. Often trotters are added to boost the flavour and gelatin content of the broth. A bit of acid helps break down the connective tissue and improves the final taste. Since abattoirs split pigs in half along the spine, my recipe is for a half head.

  • half a pig's head
  • one trotter
  • one carrot
  • one stalk celery
  • one leek
  • one head garlic
  • parsley stems, thyme, bay, peppercorns
  • splash of vinegar

Pig heads are awkward, with bulky jowls flanking a long snout. They're a bitch to store, which is why Kevin throws them into the oven while he butchers, a simple solution that I think is becoming a beloved tradition. Even working with half a head, my stock pot was nowhere near big enough. I had to break the head into pieces so that it would fit in my two biggest pots. I boned the head so that I could work with the relatively slender skull and a large slab of meat, which could be cut into manageable pieces.

The boned pig's head
Combine all the ingredients in a pot (or pots...) and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, skim, skim, skimming the whole time. Lots of grey foam will form on the surface of the water. After roughly three hours, test the tenderness of the meat. A sharp knife should easily pierce the jowls.

Strain the mixture, reserving the liquid. Discard the vegetables and herbs. Return the broth to the stove and reduce by about half. To test your aspic, put a few tablespoons of the broth into a small bowl or cup and refrigerate. It should set firm and break clean when a finger is dragged through.

While the broth is reducing, pull all the edible bits from the head, which, by the way, doesn't separate conveniently into bones and meat. There are all kinds of other substances, like the snout, which I think is cartilage, but takes on a fantastic, yielding, buttery texture after boiling. Make sure to include stuff like that. When I refer to "meat," below, I am referring to all edible bits collected from the head.

The edible bits of the head separated from the inedibles

Seasoning is a bit tricky, because the pulled meat and reduced broth have to be salted separately, and because the finished headcheese is served chilled or at room temperature. Season agressively, as the lower eating temperature will mute the salt.

Pack the meat into a terrine or loaf pan lined with plastic wrap. Pour the aspic over the meat. Gently push the meat down to release any air pockets. You can see that this produces a headcheese with a higher meat-factor and lower gelatin-factor than the commercially-produced kind languishing in your supermarket's deli. Let the terrine set in the fridge overnight.

The pulled meat packed into a loaf pan lined with plastic wrap

Slice. I prefer to bring mine to room temperature before eating. I finished with black pepper and dried savoury, as I know those flavours were common in Granny's farmhouse. It also benefits from an acidic sauce of, say, chokecherries or highbush cranberries.

You'll notice that my headcheese is a bit grey. If the head were first brined, the final product would have the more familiar pink colour. I wonder if Granny used saltpeter...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The War

When I was little, to me there were two essential facts about my grandparents: they lived on a farm, and they fought in "the war," that is, WWII. Even though they never spoke to me about the war, it was central to my understanding of who they were. Possibly it was more important to my understanding of them then it was to their own. I'm sure that Grandpa thought of himself as a husband, father, grandfather, deacon, and train-enthusiast before a soldier. Yet, there was a collection of old service photographs on top of the piano, unmoved, for decades. The shrine-like placement of the pictures told me that those years affected my grandparents profoundly, and that there was some sadness sleeping deep within them.

A government publication called 'Wartime Canning,' which I found in an antique shop in Nanton, ABGrowing up, I found that these two parts of my grandparents' lives, the farm and the war, intertwined in the government programs aimed at reducing stress on resources through rationing, Victory gardens, and teaching people how to preserve food. I doubt that my grandparents bought into the imagery and language of the home front propaganda ("Your apron is your uniform!") They had grown up on small farms during the depression, and were already well-seasoned in canning food and growing vegetables by the time the war came about. However, with brothers and friends fighting overseas, I suspect these activities took on a new significance.

WWII periodicals on rationing, canning, gardening, and other forms of self-sufficiency resonate with contemporary talk of sustainable food supplies. Take the following excerpt from a 1942 BBC radio broadcast by George Orwell. They say there's nothing new under the sun, and Orwell is clearly talking about "food miles," though he doesn't use that exact buzz-phrase.

If you have two hours to spare, and if you spend it in walking, swimming, skating, or playing football, according to the time of year, you have not used up any material or made any call on the nation's labour power. On the other hand, if you use those two hours in sitting in front of the fire and eating chocolates, you are using up coal which has to be dug out of the ground and carried to you by road, and sugar and cocoa beans which have to be transported half across the world.

In other words, sensible, modest living and eating were important.
Unfortunately, they require a kind of simple rationality that is almost extinct. Why, for instance, do we buy cranberries made of fruit harvested from Carolinian bogs, processed, canned, and shipped to our supermarkets, when cranberries grow along the North Saskatchewan?

The only kind of kitchen thriftiness that gets attention these days is eating obscure cuts of meat. My own ancestors weren't particularly adventurous in that regard. They had their own reservations, and I'm sure that my grandma would find it strange that I now eat lamb's quarters and buffalo. Their thriftiness was based more around things like saving pan oils, especially from bacon.

Fried porridge with berries and maple syrup: deliciousThe pinnacle of my grandparents' generations' genius for kitchen economy was their use of left-overs. Of particular note is Aunt Dorie's fried porridge. When there was porridge left over after breakfast, she poured it onto a tray and let it congeal. The next morning she cut the sheet of porridge into rectangles and fried them in reserved bacon fat. This is the kind of craftiness that I thought could only come from Italians peasants (think: polenta).

That wartime mentality would be a boon to Albertan kitchens. Despite what we see on restaurant menus and grocery store shelves, we live in a harsh province. Our food should be more humble and austere than that from, say, California.

We don't need to be survivalists. In fact, complete self-sufficiency is a myth that has run wild in North America, especially on the prairies, with our "frontiersmen" heritage. That being said, we rely far too much on others to grow and cook our food.

Our backyards are Victory Gardens. Our kitchens are War Rooms.

Before the war there was every incentive for the general public to be wasteful, at least so far as their means allowed. We have learned now, however, that money is valueless in itself, and only goods count. In learning it we have had to simplify our lives and fall back more and more on the resources of our own minds instead of on synthetic pleasures manufactured for us in Hollywood or by the makers of silk stockings, alcohol and chocolates. And under the pressure of that necessity we are rediscovering the simple pleasures - reading, walking, gardening, swimming, dancing, singing - which we had half forgotten in the wasteful years before the war.

- George Orwell, from a BBC broadcast entitled Money and Guns, aired in January 1942