Heads or Tails?

Do you lick your plate at the end of a meal? I do. My friends can attest to that. I don’t leave any food evidence after eating and rarely does the food in my refrigerator go bad. I’m not exactly sure what contributed to this instinct of mine, but I have a pretty good guess. Neither of my parents wasted food when I was growing up. Ever. I can remember my Dad eating spotted, mostly brown bananas, fruit flies circling, instead of tossing those things where they belonged: into a compost pile. But, that was my example and thus I am my parents’ child. So, when I started becoming involved in helping a few friends with butchering animals for meat, one of the first things I became aware of was how much of the animal is wasted in our current customs.

We eat the middle of animals, but somehow the extremities have been forgotten. Worse than forgotten, they have been stigmatized as food for the poor. In our arrogance of privilege, we have become weirdly snobby about our food choices. Hamburger and fries from a fast food joint? Yes, please! Cheek bacon? Ummmm, no thanks. Au contraire, says the rest of the world. Most of these wasted bits are actually delicacies in other countries with different food traditions. Or even in our country just a couple of generations ago (My grandmother tells stories of growing up on a farm and how they would use everything on the pig but the oink!). Just as we fear and ostracize that which we do not know, these foods have gotten a bad rep only because we have not been exposed to them. Here are just a few examples:

Chicken feet are considered perhaps the most prized part of the chicken in many Asian countries. Indeed, exported chicken feet from the U.S. contribute to a not small sum of profit for the large chicken producers here in our country.

Tripe, or sliced and boiled stomach, (usually cow’s stomach). Tripa Romana is an Italian dish where tripe is served like a pasta and covered in a spicy red sauce. In America, you would be wont to find this anywhere but a high-end, white table cloth laden restaurants. All I can say is: don’t look at me to pick up the tab at those places!

Pâté, (ground up liver, butter, and seasonings) could sit in the company of caviar. Expensive, for refined tastes only (read: very rich flavor, eat only in tiny bites and preferably on crackers or toasts).

Cheek Bacon (AKA jowl bacon or Guanciale), See previous post “Demystifying Bacon” to read all about how this is made.

My goal in helping my friend harvest this pig was to use as much of the otherwise disposable parts as possible. Not being a saint and not having copious amounts of time to spend on this endeavor, I narrowed my scope to a few spare parts that I was determined to find a use for: the pig’s head, the stomach, the heart, and the liver.

First, the head. The head should be one of the more highly prized parts of the pig. Why is this? There is a lot of meat on the head and the head contains the tongue, arguably the best tasting cut once processed. It also contains the cheeks or jowls, which can be turned into bacon. My intent for the head was to make scrapple, a dish originating with the Pennsylvania Dutch. These guys had a sense of humor, don’t you think? “Hmmmm, what do we call this stuff made from the hog scraps Earl?” “Well, I do declare, we outa up an’ call it scrapple!” Simply, the process would be to take the boiled head meat and grind that with seasonings, mix with cornmeal and press into a loaf pan. After the scrapple is cooled it is sliced cold and fried up like pancakes. To serve: spread with butter and drizzle hot slices with maple syrup. Just be sure to enunciate when you say scrapple. You don’t want people confusing your breakfast offering for that game with the little wooden squares with letters on them.

The day of slaughter, my friends and I set up a propane burner with large stock pot. Two of us began skinning the body of the pig, while one of us took the head, which we had cut from the carcass, and began to skin it. Skinning the head is like a final exam in pig skinning. The contours of the cheeks and snout provide for some varied terrain and challenges. Furthermore, there are eyes to avoid, ears to cut off (we decided that we weren’t quite skilled or motivated enough to skin the ears to use) and the precious cheek areas to piece out for curing and smoking. The eye’s were removed by severing the connective tissue and optic nerve (I believe) to free them. Within about 2 hours of trading off on this job, my friend and I finished the first pig’s head and into the stockpot it went! I attempted the second head by myself (to be given to a lucky friend, who would cook it up according to his family’s traditions, I believe they had raised animals) and meticulously skinned and cleaned it like the first.

The head we were preparing simmered away in the pot and after about 5 hours of cooking the meat had fallen off of the skull. We let this cool, reserved the broth, and ground the cooked meat. For the actual scrapple making, our recipe was as follows:

“Amish Spiced CAL Scrapple” (CAL is for the initials of the cooks who helped)

3 to 3 1/2 quarts reserved pork broth

3lbs. ground cooked pork

4 1/2 C cornmeal

3/4 C buckwheat flour

2t dried sage

2t dried thyme (whole)

2t dried nutmeg

2t black pepper

2 t sea salt

In a large stock pot, we brought the broth up to a simmer and then stirred in the cornmeal and buckwheat. We let this simmer for about 10 minutes, while continuously stirring (if you don’t stir it will get lumpy, think polenta preparation). Then, we mixed in the ground meat and spices. This addition thickens everything right up and you’ll want to keep stirring for another 5 or 10 minutes. Voila! You’ve got this big pot of what looks and smells like a pretty tasty spiced porridge. The final step is to pour it into loaf pans, or containers, and chill it. To eat, simply slice it up and fry slices in hot oil or butter much like pancakes. Serve with butter and maple syrup!

We made a double batch of this scrapple because we ended up with about exactly 6 pounds of ground meat from the one head (minus cheeks). We used all the containers we could find and even resorted to spooning some scrapple mixture into a little pastry or muffin tray (I’m not sure which it was designed for) with the hopes of ending up with a few nicely shaped rectangular patties. Fried up the next morning in a nice hot cast-iron skillet, the scrapple was scrumptious!

Although it made for a long day, I was pleased with how the scrapple turned out and the learning process was neat as well. I can’t think of a better compliment to give me than to call me thrifty. But, I had no idea how thrifty (and open-minded) I would become when given the opportunity and encouraged by some phenomenal accomplices! Eat your pork heads (and tails?) people…my parents would be so proud!

In the next edition, I’ll talk about what creations were made with those other “spare” parts: stomach, heart, and liver, stay tuned…

-Farmer Leda

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