Ever wonder why they call headcheese “cheese”, when there are no dairy products involved in the process?
Okay, first things first, while one of my favorite foods, I will be the first to admit that head-cheese is a victim of terrible branding, perhaps the worst in the food world, right up there with “bird’s nest soup” and “lung pie.”
Headcheese is traditionally make from the meat pulled from a whole pig’s head, simmered in a savory, seasoned stock, with a foot or two (for the collagen in the tendons) until falling off the bone.
Cheek meat, tongue, and various other tasty bits from the nooks and crannies of the skull (but never the brain) are used to make up the tureen of meat, then suspended in the collagen-heavy cooking stock, which turns into a solid gelatin when the whole thing is chilled.
This gelatin is called “aspic”.
Okay, so back to the point…why the heck is it called “cheese?”
This requires a bit of a history lesson. In the 1700’s when this process (tureens in aspic) became popular, the word “cheese” wasn’t used just in reference to diary items, but instead referred to a process of forming ingredients into a loaf, pressing it under weight, and chilling until solid.
This was known as “cheesing.”
Two of the most popular were “cheesed curds” (what we call cheese) and tureens of meat and aspic, especially those with the tender and delicious meat from the face of pigs and calves, called “cheesed head”…which eventually morphed into the term we use today… headcheese.
Typically it’s sliced for cold sandwiches, and served on rye bread with mustard and thinly sliced sweet onions.
Chef’s Note: If for some reason that grosses you out (and it shouldn’t, it’s basically the same thing they do with hotdogs, only using higher quality parts) you can some comfort in the fact that the stuff you see labeled “Headcheese” in the supermarket deli counter, is actually just chopped pork shoulder in aspic, as the process for making the real thing is considered too expensive and labor-intensive to be worth it. (Welcome to the tagline of American food…)
Your best bet for authentic headcheese is to visit our local Russian market, which is also a great place to pick up some artisanal rye bread.
Hopefully I’ve eased some suspicions and some contempt prior to investigation, and (even more) hopefully, I’ve encouraged a few folks to get out of their comfort zone and try something new.
Who knows, a “cheesed-head” sandwich might be your new favorite thing!
You can take a look at MY favorite version of this sandwich, along with some celebrities favorites in my “Celebrity Sandwiches” post.