Sunday, February 5, 2012

Pig's Head for Dummies

When it comes to head-to-tail restaurants, I don't know my ass from my elbow. And if you're like me, neither do you. So here I am sharing what I have learned from my first encounter with pig's head, at Mike Isabella's Graffiato.

1. When you order pig's head in a tapas restaurant, it's not going to be the whole head.

This seems obvious now, but at the time I was thrown by the name" "pig's head".  I did try to get clarification from our server, by asking if the dish actually looked like a pig's head. He said yes. But of course, the answer to that question depends on what your notion of a pig's head looks like. The better question would have been: is it a whole pig's head?

Lesson learned: when it costs $10 and is expected to arrive within 10 minutes, it's not going to be the whole head.

This insight logically leads to the next point:

2. A pig's head has many parts. If you are not getting the whole head, you need to ask which part.

Pig's Head with Sausage and Braised Red Cabbage
Once the tapas-sized portion had arrived, I was too stunned to ask the server what it actually was. But as it turns out, there is an astonishing number of people out there writing passionately about the various parts of a pig's head. The next day, I skimmed through the tales of butchery -- accounts of home chefs disarticulating their first porcine skull, using boning knives and crap saws to cut through cartilage, sinew and bone -- to focus on the parts themselves. (These accounts really made me wonder: how desperate are we to rediscover where our food comes from? In their descriptions, the writers make an attempt at humor that is really the literary version of nervous laughter; then swear to leave butchering to a professional next time.)

First, there are the obvious parts:

Snout (pure skin and fat)
Tongue (must be scraped free of tastebuds)
Ears (hairy and need to be shaved, but then offer a nice crunch of cartilage)

But it was the insides of the head itself that interested me. It seems that this can be divided into three categories that need to be separated:

Pure meat: the largest pockets can be found in the cheeks, underneath the eye sockets, and near the brain at the base of the skull

Flesh mixed with collagen and fat: this is the part I think we were served at Graffiato. It corresponds perfectly with Chichi Wang's description: "the amorphous, somewhat undefinable mass of fatty tissue and gelatinous collagen that's holding everything together on the head." Although Wang writes fondly of a "softer, creamier texture that's pleasantly gooey and gummy," I beg to differ. Masses of fatty tissue is not my idea of pleasant.

Refuse: teeth, bones and rubbery bits.

Head cheese is another possible meaning of "pig's head": various parts of meat, fat, tissue and tongue from the head are braised and formed into a meatloaf. Some chefs use scraps, others mix in choice pieces of meat. Some recipes call for further slicing, breading and sauteeing of the loaf. Some come with delicious sounding sauces.

It seems the possibilities are endless, which is why, when you see "pig's head" on the menu, you really should not take it at face value. Whether you willingly plunge into the unknown, or try to press for more information, try not to be in the situation we were in, where your server arrives with pig's head for dummies.

Photo credit: Chris Svoboda

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