There's no getting around the ick factor. Though a great many of us have made our peace with carnivorousness, and sought out sources for sustainably raised meats from farmers who husband their animals with a commitment to concern for their welfare, the prospect of handling, preparing, and ultimately eating certain anatomical features of said creatures fills us with dread. Ethical consumers or otherwise, who of us is willing to come face to face with our food? As a point of comparison, have a look at the post on spare ribs I recently posted. I'm sure at least some of you reading this would look at this photo and say, "yum" (or words to that effect).
While the thought of cooking this
(talk about face to face) probably gives you some pause. Or makes you outright revolted? Now why exactly is that?
[This is a post in two parts. If you want the little scholarly excursus, keep reading. If you want a recipe and food porn, go here, to part two.]
Let me note, as I have on occasion here, that I'm a socio-cultural anthropologist who has taken up the study of "local food"ism, with a particular focus on pasture-raised, outdoor, niche-market, what-have-you pork here in the Piedmont of North Carolina (speaking of which, here's some textual confirmation of the fact, and a shameless plug). And it will come as no surprise to find an anthropologist taking an interest in the many taboos that attend to eating animals.
Take the spare ribs. Why spare ribs? No, this isn't a cute reference to Adam's gift to Eve, it refers to the ribs that are attached to a pig's belly. More specifically, this contrasts with the ribs that attach to the loin of the animal, which we now call babyback ribs, thanks to insufferable jingle marketing. But note, a pig has spare ribs (and babybacks, and a loin, for that matter) while you and I have only ribs. What I mean by that is that when a pitcher wants to back a batter off the plate he hurls a heater into his ribs - or maybe his rib cage. But not into his spare ribs; nor does he pop him in the babybacks. The point (for those of you a tad baffled by the baseball metaphor) is that people have ribs, while pigs have spare ribs and baby backs (oh! and don't forget rib tips!). In other words, the language we use to designate the edible elements of the animals we eat is structured so as to distinguish those bits from their equivalents in the human anatomy. Human loins are those features we cover with a loin cloth; pig loins go into pork chops (and note - humans don't have chops, either!) Such differentiations in language (and the claim I'm making here follows rather directly from a classic account by Marshall Sahlins and is not that removed from what Edmund Leach had to say, in a somewhat different way) actually shape out attitudes towards food. The human anatomy is euphemistically rendered when making reference to edible animal cuts. We can enjoy our barbecue spare ribs, but would probably be disinclined to order "smoked pig's rib cage" (the unavoidable ick factor) even though they are one and the same thing.
But when it comes to the head, we have no such poetic license available to us. A head by any other name would not be meat. Again, to extend the argument, if the language we use differentiates pig parts (and it works for ruminants, too) from their human counter"parts", thereby rendering them edible, then it makes sense that certain parts of the beast that draw attention to the similarities between we humans and those livestock would also be deemed inedible. To find it disgusting to eat animal parts that are "just like" our human parts confirms for us the idea that it must be ok to eat those creatures' bits that are "so different" from ours. And we ignore these similarities, and make them tabooed in our culinary habit (an anthropological way of characterizing the ick factor) largely through the language we use to sustain those differences (edible) and similarities (ick! inedible). After all, there's no reason why we couldn't call pig heart, or liver, or spleen, or head for that matter by names as equally fanciful as tenderloin, chuck, and brisket and then dig in!
Much as I find this language-based argument compelling, it needs to be modified in a few ways. First, it's clearly NOT the case that this logic of edible:inedible::euphemism:literalism holds up for all peoples at all times. For one thing, some pork consuming peoples have express preferences for those parts that many of us find so repellent. Blood sausages are a holiday treat in Slavic countries. Soul food is often centered on food like chitlins/chitterlings (though, again, its hard to find the chitlins on a human). All you Scottish readers are no doubt ready to jump in with haggis (ok, ovine, not porcine), a sort of ne plus ultra of the inedible as glorious. In many of these cases, though (all of them derived, in significant part from Euro-American histories of cuisine) the pride of eating such dishes is, itself, an expression of the "ick logic" I've described. That is, foods deemed inedible were, by virtue of that quality, meant to be appropriate for those strata in society not entitled to enjoy all of the benefits of the "truly" edible. Soul food is fine, but we'd rather eat high on the hog. “Eating chitterlings is like going slumming,” as Eldridge Cleaver said, "The people in the ghetto want steaks. Beef steaks." In other words, edible vs inedible is just another way of ranking the people that eat, not the food they eat. I find that a little simplistic, and dismissive of many people's actual tastes and preferences. But I don't think it's a stretch to say that there is culinary and aesthetic value to be had in taking what's been deemed socially undesirable and turning it into a source of esteem, and even celebration.
But there's another reason to see certain limitations to the language-based perspective. It happens to be the case, as this year-long Charcutepalooza indicates, that a great many food activists and enthusiasts are turning especial attention to these otherwise inedible bits, and revitalizing them as new sources of culinary privilege and priority. No longer should we turn up our noses at these unmentionables, we should coldly confront them: face to snout. I should note that I'm known by a handful of anthropologists today, as a student of exactly this sort of snout-centric (more commonly known as snout-to-tail) cuisine, as I've presented a paper or two on the social and cultural dimensions of the matter. Peter Kaminsky has already claimed the title of "hamthropologist" for himself; I suppose that leaves me with "shankthropology," or "guanciagrapher"
In any event, it seems a new article of culinary faith that a commitment to animal welfare, care concern about the food that you eat, and the animals from which it derives (here I must add a link to this video that's been forwarded to me umpteen times- it perfectly captures this new ethos: ""Know your Food!") requires to make the best possible use of every last remnant of that creatures material being. My favorite quotation to that effect comes from David Chang, the prevailing pontiff of pork fat:
"Farmers do not raise walking pork chops. If you're serious about your meat, you've got to grasp that concept. And if you're serious about sustainability and about honestly raised good meat - which is something that we're deadly serious about at Momofuku and we try to get more in touch with each day – you've got to embrace the whole pig."
So "embrac[ing] the whoe pig" is an expression of precisely one's commitment to "good meat." A good many other chefs and customers (and bloggers; you can find their rhapsodic waxings everywhere) have equally suggested that eating every last bit of the pig that gave its all is a way of showing reverence and appreciation for that life, lest it have been lead in vain. Headcheese (yes, I'm getting to it!) is just another way of paying your respects.
Now as an enthusiast of both pig farming on pasture, as well as charcuterie, I have strong sympathy for such aspirations. But, I am forced to point out (it's the anthropologists' code: evidence matters!) that if you really want to be sure that every scrap of pig gets well and truly used (i.e. to satisfy what's called the "utilization problem" in the pig business), then non-industrial pig production and consumption leaves a LOT to be desired. To begin with, it is just not possible to process pigs in the small, "artisanal" slaughter facilities that most small-scale producers have access to, and preserve all of the pig for sale. USDA inspectors will check out the liver of the pig, make sure it's up to snuff (which is also a good indicator of the pig's general physiology), and release it for consumption. But the rest of the offal? Heart, lungs, chitlins, blood, spleen, bladder, etc. all of that is simply a waste product. Down the chute. Indeed, check out this head I'm cooking with: Note the unmistakable bullet-hole right between the eyes. The bullet, which stuns the pig before exsanguination finishes it off, renders this head unusable in commercial enterprise. You cannot get USDA approval to sell a pig's head with a bullet lodged in its skull; if you are able to get a pig's head that is "honestly raised good meat" you must rely on the kindness of a farmer or other purveyor to let you have it. Alex Blanchette, who's studying factory farming in the US, pointed out to me some time ago that "consuming" pigs does NOT mean merely "eating" them. There are far more and more economizing "uses" of the pig that are only possible when pig's are produced on an industrial scale, and can be – literally- rendered into everything from bone glue for shoes, to gelatin to clarify wine, to heart valves to treat coronary disease.
If you don't want that pig to go to waste, headcheese is not exactly the best way to accomplish this end. Not that I'm encouraging us to promote industrial hog production. I simply don't want to mistake an interest in culinary revitalization for a commitment to "real" animal welfare. There are a 1001 good reasons to support outdoor pig production, but the virtue of embracing the whole hog at dinner is more of a gesture of solidarity (and perfectly legitimate in those terms) than a mode of pig welfare maximization.
Ok! The next post will, at last, tell you what to do with this "inedible" unpoetic pig's head on your kitchen table!