Europe and the United States
Picture five pounds of Velveeta sculpted into a bust of Louis Pasteur. Can you see it? OK, that’s just wrong. If that’s what you imagine when you hear the term “head cheese” you’re way off base. I don’t blame you, though – the name is somewhat confusing. Let’s get one thing straight, right off the bat: there is no cheese in head cheese. Suffice it to saythat the “head” part is slightly more accurate, but it’s doubtful that your marketing department would get very far with a product simply called “head”, unless you produce films in the San Fernando Valley. The head component of this dish is most commonly the head of a pig, but don’t expect to see Arnold Ziffel staring at you with his cold, dead eyes when you purchase this culinary oddity at your local butcher shop. I’ve wasted your valuable time with what head cheese isn’t, so out of fairness I’ll bring you up to speed with what it is. Head cheese is a meat product (usually pork) that is generally served cold and sliced as a luncheon meat. In addition to all the edible bits covering the pig’s skull (including ears, snout, and cheeks), it often contains pork tongue, trotters (pigs’ feet) and heart; normally the brain is removed. The pig’s head and accompanying body parts are spiced and cooked down to where all the meat can be easily removed, and then it is finely chopped and placed in a terrine, deep dish or pan along with the broth and chilled. The natural collagen in the bones and hide create a gelatin that solidifies the broth and holds all the tasty bits of skin, flesh and fat together in a translucent suspension that looks like the result of Jackson Pollock experimenting in sculpting. Finally, this block of exploded pork puddingstone is sliced and served with bread. Historically, it has been most popular in the UK (where it is known as “brawn”), gradually spreading in notoriety to the U.S., particularly on the east coast.
Head cheese carries a special nostalgia from me; when I was a child my mother would buy the pre-packaged Oscar Mayer variety to make a fine sandwich. To this day she refuses to let me tell her how it’s made lest I spoil her enjoyment of the dish. Personally, I had always thought the Oscar Mayer variety bore a creepy similarity to the plastic fake vomit available from the Johnson Smith catalog or your friendly neighborhood joke shop. Despite its sometimes off-putting appearance, I was determined to find some to rekindle that sense of amazement at this simple peasant food. I was unable to find the pre-packaged variety at most of the area chain groceries; I was suffering a bad case of head cheese withdrawal and I had to find my 40-year fix.
Enter friend Eddie Lin, who informed me that Ben Ford (chef and owner of Ford’s Filling Station) hand-makes what is probably the best head cheese in L.A. County (although I’m wondering if it’s the only head cheese in L.A County). Ford is a follower of the “snout-to-tail” philosophy, using every part of the animal; his restaurant has a rotating menu of uncommon cuts of meat, and since head cheese is not an everyday staple there, I asked him to let me know when he’d be serving it again. When I received an e-mail stating, “We’re serving it now”, I wasted no time in getting down there. Ford prepares the head cheese two ways: traditionally, in cold slices on a plate accompanied by fresh bread; and in lump form on toast garnished with picked onions and spicy peppers. Being the adventurous omnivore of legend, I opted for both. I decided to start with the dressed-up version; the meat required no chewing whatsoever and the texture was contrasted nicely by the crispness of the peppers and onions. There was just enough spice from the vegetation to enhance the flavor, although it made me that much more excited about sampling it in its purest form.
The moment I had waited for had arrived; the disc-shaped slices were overlapped on a wooden dish with an ample supply of fresh bread standing by. I tried lifting one of the slices first with my fingers, then alternately with the fork and knife, but the soft meat disintegrated; I decided I would do a shmear like a fine cabeza pate. I tried a forkful au natural first; it was truly hog heaven. The fleshy bits were ground down to a fine consistency – the tiniest taste held the right mix of melty fat with hints of tender, stringy muscle fiber. None of these big chunks of unidentified bits floating around, just smooth, buttery melt-in-your-mouth goodness. Since the menu featured fried green tomatoes, I decided to try them as a side dish since it’s anybody’s guess when I’ll get back to Texas. Their tomatoes were slightly red, which added some sweetness yet maintained the firmness required to keep them from falling apart into mush. The beer batter was a nice touch as well.
I have since found an Italian deli (Mario’s) in Glendale, California that carries San Fransisco’s Molinari and Son’s brand head cheese sitting in a giant loaf looking like a shell for a meat Howitzer. They’ll make you a head cheese sub, or like any other deli will happily slice it for you to go. This is the coarse chopped commercial variety with obvious chunks of snout, ears, etc. and as such is a little chewier. It’s more authentic and tastier than the Oscar Mayer variety, but pales in comparison to the freshly made mélange available at The Filling Station.
I’ve come to the decision that Ben Ford truly is the head honcho; I know I’ll be back to try some of his other menu items, but The Filling Station certainly managed to entice me to return again with the promise of good head (cheese).
Ford’s Filling Station
9531 Culver Boulevard
Culver City, CA 90232-2618
GPS coordinates: 34°1’23.41″N 118°23’43.16″W
See video about head cheese from The History Channel