Headcheese or Souse: a photoGRAPHIC guide.

This post depicts the act of turning an animal into food.

Some may find it gruesome, which may be indicative of a disconnect that is ultimately unhealthy for you and possibly more dangerous to the animal’s welfare.   

Many of you know it as Head Cheese or Brawn, if you’re British. Some confuse it with Scrapple (Head cheese + corn meal) which is similar to Goetta (with oats) which is popular in Cincinnati. It can be made into a Terrine, or loaf and sliced for sandwiches, but I prefer to prepare it the way my grandmother did, which is canned in mason jars. As a kid we used it as a sandwich spread, but I spoon it out and pan fry it. 

My particular Hillbilly heritage hails from the Big Savage Mountain area of the Alleghenies. We’re from Frostburg & Cumberland, MD and Salisbury, PA. We’re mountain folk who tended to be Methodists, whose preachers had no church hall, but rode a circuit on horseback with little more than a blanket- traveling to the isolated hillfolk to spread the Gospel. We are also the type of hillfolk that call headcheese,”Souse”, which is also how we describe being drunk.  Getting “soused” and staying “soused” is all my people had to do when snowed in from harvest-time to spring thaw.

Heh, “My people”.

I am fortunate enough to be able to source pig heads from a local farm called New Creation Farm. I understand that in some parts of the country, Walmart carries frozen pig heads.  God Bless. But I try to source local meats from places where I am fairly certain I am aware of their husbandry practices. 

“Mommy, Can I eat it now?”

This is how you sneak a pig head into the house. This is all your wife should see until the canning is done. Even then, it’s best to have a hiding spot in the basement (not for the processed jars, for you). Take a spoon.

Prepare your work-space out of doors, if you can. Especially if your wife has locked you out of the house.

Here’s how it looks when you first unwrap it. It needs a little shave. Some people have a (hopefully) dedicated straight razor just for this job.

I, however, just use a torch. Don’t forget to get deep into the ears.

The Foxfire Book‘s second chapter concerns a couple of young guys who are helping an elderly lady named “Aunt Arie”  butcher a pig head.  There is a humorous moment when she digs one of the eyes out with a butcher knife and flings it outside, onto a near-by tin roof and it rolls off and hangs “bobbing on a clothes line”. They ask her if it bothers her and she replies, “I don’t care fer’t bit more’n spit’n’th’fire”.

That is not a great way to accomplish this job.  I now pull on the eye with a pair of needle-nose pliers and cut the optic nerve with a pair of kitchen shears.

There is a Department of Agriculture stamp. I don’t know if it’s edible. I cut it off just to be safe.

I also remove the ears.  Some people don’t, they add it to the Souse.  But some complain that the ears are too gristley. I don’t know because I don’t want to risk making a whole batch that is not to my liking, so I remove them just in case. There are recipes out there for just the ears, so maybe I will try one of those one day but it hardly seems worth it for two ears. I throw these into the woods for the animals and let the thought of one of the neighbor dogs running home with these or a skull entertain me.

Next I cut them down to stock pot size with a Sawzall fitted with a long wood blade. You see here in the cross section the hog jowels- pretty much the most delectable meat on the planet. Like a butt roast, it is strong, well-used muscle that must be cooked slow and low into a mouth-watering thing of beauty.

If you can get a hold of some trotters, they add a lot of gelatin (aspic) to the mixture and help a lot when trying to get this to set up if you choose to make a loaf instead of canning it.

You can throw anything you like in at this point. Use spices, trotters, herbs (traditionally Sage), vegetables-whatever suits your fancy. This is your time to make a personal recipe they will be begging for at the company pot lucks. If you are uninspired or not handy with spices, search for bone broth / soup stock recipes and use those spice mixtures. Here’s a simple one that I enjoy. Start here and let your imagination run wild.

Next boil it forever. The longer you boil it, the more you will cook out of the bones.  I suggest 6-8 hours at minimum.  I often simmer it overnight and if I can stand it, 18 hours. This would be a good project on a wood stove.

I was visiting my cajun-country friend not long ago and he had recently taken his kids on a pig hunt. Feral animals of the Porcine persuasion are BIG TROUBLE in the South and they are heading north.  They are super-aggressive, a threat to children, property (I’ve seen full-sized pig roadkill – imagine THAT crash!) and the environment. If you go on a feral pig hunt, you are a hero to society. Them Cajuns trap wild piglets and raise them in pens for a season or two. WHAT A LIFE, Guys!

This is “Rooty”.

So my cajun-country friend and I decide to make some souse in a a Crawfish boiler.   Taking a cue from the bone broth recipes, I had been adding vinegar early on in the water to leach calcium out of the bones.  I said, “OK, add a bunch of vinegar”. I meant a few good splashes. After I heard about the 10th, “glub-glub-glub” I looked over to see that he had added about 1/3 of a gallon of apple cider vinegar.

“Whoa! Dude! That’s a lot!”

Here I am coveting. I need one of these crawfish pots SO BAD!!

I was worried, and for a moment assumed we had ruined it.  But the end result was delicious. He set it up as a loaf-style terrine. And the skull was so soft I could crush it with my hands (but I left it for his kids to play with).  That bony goodness was now bio-available, set in aspic. For the love of Ted Nugent.  So don’t be afraid of vinegar.

Next, remove the head from the water. Be careful because it is pig-fat slippery and will fall apart and splash into the boiling water if you’re not careful. It is easy to pick the bones out at this point.

A quick hammer whack will get you to the brain. Be sure to keep yelling “BRAAAAAINNNNNN…MORE BRAINN!!” to the annoyance of those around you.

(no one will be around you)

I try to grind it as fast as possible so that I can hot-pack into the Mason jars. Or I keep it hot in an electric skillet, either loose or in unsealed jars. Try not to think about The Wall. Damn You, Roger Waters! Or if you’ve ever been to a GWAR show…

The stock that is left behind will settle into 3 layers: a snow-white mild lard that can be used for baking, a dark, flavorful lard that is similar to bacon grease, and a thick, rich bone broth that can be used for soup stocks, making rice or drinking, etc…

If you cook a long time or add a trotter or two, the bone broth will be so thick and gelatinous, you can stand a heavy spoon in it once it chills. Lovely for your hair and nails. Also it is a source for much-needed Glycine.

If you are on a budget, this is the way to feed your family.  A $15 head will give you several quarts of stock and many pounds of meat. One day I will figure out the calorie price. You can’t beat this anywhere and it’s such nourishing meat.

I’ve been experimenting with smoking the head instead of boiling. I was VERY happy with this. And the big pressure canner is big enough to accommodate a whole head. I don’t need to use the sawzall.

Since I don’t have a great smoker, I finish it in a pressure cooker with very little water – you can still the Stock spices if you like. When you do it this way, you don’t lose the fats into the broth. It gets mixed in with the meat canning. The smoked head is hard as shoe leather. Once again, I was convinced I had ruined it, but it softened beautifully in the pressure cooker.

This is what a smoked head looks like after pressure cooking. Spooky, no?

Here’s a jar of smoked souse in front of “regular”. It has a very rich, dark color and visibly more fat- great for us ketosis junkies.

Here we’re packed and ready for the canner. Use your canner’s instructions.

I’ve even tried a dry brine. I like what “Meathead Goldwyn” has to say about dry brining as opposed to bath brining over at Amazing Ribs. I also find this science of brining article helpful not only for meats but Lactofermentation of vegetables.

My favorite preparation is just nested within (or next to) a bed of Collard or Mustard greens. Here, served with the bone broth and pink salt. I also love to toss the greens in flavored vinegar.

Another is rolled into steamed or blanched Chard leaves which are crisp and bitter enough to mitigate the high-fat mouthfeel of the souse which is salted and cooked to just a little crisp. I just need to come up with a sauce now. I’m thinking Sage-based. I may add a filler (more greens?)

And at the end of the day you have a new toy! Play ‘Lord of the Flies’ or make a scarecrow or marionette. Give it to the kids for crafts. Or just hope one of the neighbor dogs picks it up. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. I usually chase my wife around with it, making it yell, “Sucks to your ass-mar, Piggy!”

I will keep updating this post as the experiments continue.

Lastly, the number of youtube videos about this this are finally growing but here is my favorite. Dude just cuts it off the skull and rolls it into a loaf. Forgive his hairstyle.  I will definitely be trying this technique one day. I think I need a better knife first.

More info on the Feral Hog problem:

Why I minimize the ‘Paleo’ or ‘Primal’ terminology.

My health coaching certification is through Mark Sisson’s Primal Health Coaching Institute. I chose it because I agree with just about every conclusion Mark has come to based on my own research that started about a decade before I found Mark. But even Mark has said, “Maybe the term ‘Primal’ doesn’t have to stick around.” Why? It’s just an ideal.

What is this “Paleo Diet” or “Paleo lifestyle”?

Agriculture was the “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race”
~Jared Diamond
Though any simpleton could characterize it as running around with a bone through your nose, killing animals with stones and eating their flesh raw. It is actually merely a quest to figure out just what this human animal’s diet really should be. It is fairly obvious that we have lost track of this as technology-starting with agriculture- has advanced. So when I see someone claiming to “debunk” the Paleo diet, I have to ask ‘WHAT Paleo diet”? The concept doesn’t really belong to anyone, though many claim it. Loren Cordain’s Paleo diet? Robb Wolf’s? Nora Gedgaudas’? There is no official ‘Paleo Diet’. Are they debunking the concept of the Paleo diet? As if humans ate incorrectly for millions of years and didn’t get it right until we had steel-cut oats? 
And the quest for our true, healthiest diet isn’t even that. It’s actually a quest to ascertain which neolithic innovations and habits are the causes of unnecessary morbidity and early mortality, which is suddenly important to us now that life expectancy is decreasing for the first time, ever, in the richest countries in the world. No one in this Paleo “movement” is against technology per se. This brings us to Mark Sisson’s ‘Primal’ construct.

What is this “Primal Diet” or “Primal lifestyle”?

Mark Sisson is not a scientist like Loren Cordain or Chris Masterjohn. His not a Physician like Doug McGuff. He’s a guy with a good mind for science who takes the time to review the mountains of data produced by scientists and physicians and organize it into a cohesive lifestyle plan with the twin goals of not taking years from your life or life from your years with these so-called neolithic agents of disease. “The Primal Blueprint” is his branded version of the Paleo vision of optimal health. “Blueprint” refers to the influence of your DNA on your health and refers to your ability to “tune” your DNA expression through epigenetics.
But he recognizes that there are neolithic agents, discoveries and technologies that are truly beneficial, such as computers (when not abused), electronic heart monitors, Lactobacillic fermentation, dark chocolate, Dairy-if you tolerate it,  or non-insulinogenic natural sweeteners that require modern processing or even distilled spirits! Mark calls this “Primal Living in the Modern World” and his critics like to point out these individual nuances as hypocritical or “not so primal” with snarky glee. But they are missing the point and really just show that they aren’t reading his work. This situation can be confusing for neophytes, too. “How am I ‘Primal’ and preparing food with airlocks and drinking Tequila, again?” Well…
Some of Mark’s inconsistencies are a little hard to carry water for, though. He has claimed to dislike “Primal Analogues of Neolithic agents of sickness” (i.e. primal chocolate muffins) but shares recipes for just such things all the time. I guess science must always be revised and his concept of “Primal Living in the Modern World” is getting looser. That does not, however, dismiss his basic concept that you can be in control of your body and play your metabolism like a fiddle once you know what’s going on. Once you accomplish this, you’ll know how to let these cheats in.
That’s why I say let’s skip the whole ‘vocabulary’ business and refer to this work when needed. Words are incredibly limiting ways to express abstract concepts, anyway. I happily draw from the experience of Vegans, Ayurvedics, Paleos and Primals, holding the feet of each to the fire of scientific scrutiny based on my own understanding of modern science.
I am not going to coerce anyone to “go Primal’, but if you want to, I’m the guy to tell you how and why. And of course I will advertise to draw those people, too.
You may see a pro-vegan/anti-paleo blog post that reads, “No, pasta is not killing you”.  This is true. Chronic hyperinsulinemia is what’s killing you .  Pasta is just one quick way to get to hyperinsulinemia. So are sugary beverages. So is coffee cake. You choose the form of The Destructor, Ray.  I can show you how to navigate those waters with reason, logic and good, old-fashioned book science. And the paleo scientists are pretty sure there wasn’t tons of hyperinsulinemia around 15,000 years ago.
Lastly, thanks to hearsay, social media misguidance and irresponsible journalism, some may come to the Paleo/Primal philosophies with a jaundiced view (that’s a liver joke! Get it? Hepatocellular build up of excess bilirubin!). They may think it’s trendy or a fad and stop listening to good information based on that. Of course this kind of intellectual bigotry is not really my responsibility, but I circumnavigate it when I can. The Paleo guys claim quite the opposite; in the Geologic scale of things, even farming is new and trendy at 12-15,000 years young and processed foods are a lightening flash that hasn’t faded away from vision just yet. They want a new understanding of what “optimal” is that isn’t shaped by lobbyists, superstition or activism science.
And I’m all for that.

Hey, Thanks! Professor Ignacio “Doc Oc” Ocasio

                                            photo credit: CWRU
“HELL HATH NO FURY like Oxygen with unpaired electrons!!”
Ignacio Ocasio, Teagle Professor of Chemistry, CWRU

Case Western Reserve University’s beloved “Doc Oc” was a character the likes of which you meet once-in-a-lifetime.

He was renowned for his ability to know the name of almost every incoming freshman as they arrived on campus.  During the CWRU application or acceptance process, students were asked to provide a photograph to the University.  He would get a hold of these photos, then while teaching his summer lab class, scan each one. He would crop it to a mug shot and label with the student’s name and make this his screen saver. Then he would fly to Puerto Rico to visit his mother for the rest of the summer and write the following year’s homework while learning names sitting on the beach. Then he would return to teach another year and repeat the process as he did for over 30 years. He never married, had children or even a fish tank. His life was CWRU students. Many students coming to Case are pre-med hopefuls or engineers, so most of them had to take his introductory class.

When he returned to his office for Fall semester, several students would be waiting for him to open the door, just as they do after every class.  His office was full of students all day long in perpetual Chemistry tutoring and many spent just as much time at his apartment, watching football or movies or listening to him play piano. He was the consummate carrier of CWRU Team Spirit, appearing at football games, the ‘Hudson Relays’, judging “Mr. CWRU” and attending most social events. Doc Oc was considered by many to be his or her “actual” college advisor, including by yours truly. He would look you in the eye and give you the most honest opinion a person could give (often under his breath with sidelong glances).

Professor Ocasio was also a brilliant pianist. He was actually pursuing Grad school for both Chemistry and music at the same time. I don’t remember if he went to the Peabody Conservatory or turned it down-that may be part of the story, but when his father became terminally ill, he felt that he had to chose between the two, so he chose Chemistry.  One day he was asked to teach a Chemistry course for nurse and never looked back.

Things were not always easy for Doc, though.  He never Published and if memory served was never tenured. So every time money problems came up, CWRU would float the idea of canning Doc Oc, prompting near riots, circulating petitions and impassioned letters to the campus newsletter, which they surely expected because it happened every time they did this. He even faced some harassment concerning his Puerto Rican heritage from some miscreant students.  As a non-traditional (very old) student who actually took his introduction course twice (once in ’96 then ~2003 as a refresher concerning my employment) He talked very openly with me whereas he wouldn’t even curse around undergrads. I know a lot of his opinions of some inner-workings of CWRU and his perception of the shift in the general personality of students from 1980 to 2005. He gave me many insights and comforts in a very competitive, high-stakes environment and always made me feel that it was no B.S.-despite his manic, coming-from-all-directions, over-the-top energy that made you question if you were in the same quantum state as he (that’s a Chemistry joke).

In 2005 Doc Oc passed away suddenly at the young age of 53, anguishing thousands who responded passionately.

In morbid hilarity, Doc Oc already had his funeral-including music- planned and we followed it to the ‘T’ at Harkness Chapel with his mother and sister attending.

In 2008, We cast his likeness in Bronze by the Hudson Relays Rock, facing the incoming pathway so that he could greet all that are coming to the Quad. 
Not Doc Oc, but this was his Lecture Hall.

 The “Hey, Thanks!” Series will be about the people who made me love learning life sciences and love teaching them even more.  They sit on my shoulder as I try to replicate for others what they did for me.