Louisiana Hog's Head Cheese - Gastro Obscura
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Meats & Animal Products

Louisiana Hog's Head Cheese

A porcine aspic that makes a perfect accompaniment to crackers and sandwiches is fast becoming a rare commodity.

Perhaps if they didn’t call it head cheese, we’d all have a greater appreciation for this delicious, terrine-like velvety meat spread that is at peril of becoming an endangered food. In southern Louisiana, hog’s head cheese is a specialty that used to be a deli and butcher shop staple. A glistening block of quivering meat, this “cheese” is dairy-free, but emphatically not vegan. Made of boiled scraps of pig, including the feet, the fat from the cooked meat provides a gelatinous binding. The boiled pig parts are preserved in vinegar and allowed to cool and set in a jelly roll pan, loaf pan, or some other mold.

A 1732 British cookbook titled The Compleat City and Country Cook had a recipe for hog’s head cheese with only salt and a hog’s head as the ingredients. The author, Charles Carter, recommended putting the boiled meat in a cheese press, and also offered the option to “souse” it, or pickle it in vinegar, which might have given the cheese its alternate name of “souse.”

Although The Compleat City indicated that the dish was made for English high society, Louisiana hog’s head cheese was actually rustic fare, made by those who couldn’t afford the best cuts of meat and had to make do with discarded bits. They boiled the meat and dressed it up with herbs, spices, and minced vegetables. In the American South, enslaved people and their descendants turned offal and pig scraps into head cheese, and many African-Americans in the region rue that their children and grandchildren no longer appreciate the historical significance of this resourceful dish. Legend has it that the poet Maya Angelou would send a friend to buy hundreds of dollars’ worth of porky bits from the butcher in order to prepare her own hog’s head cheese in her Harlem brownstone.

Hog’s head cheese is often spread on crackers (saltines preferred) or used as a filling for po’boys, with a schmear of tart and grainy Creole mustard. Sometimes, it is cubed and consumed like cheese. Some Southerners even enjoy it over grits. These days, artisanal meat purveyors in Louisiana get inventive with their flavoring agents for hog’s head cheese, making it with jalapeño, setting it in a fleur-de-lis mold, and so on.

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