Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Remember the Pig's Head?

Not the most photogenic, but certainly one of the most memorable meals.
I once thought that everyone had a story about a pig’s head. I believed this because, as it happens, I have two.

I was around 11 when I had my first swine encounter. My grandmother, who lived in rural West Virginia, couldn’t believe her good fortune when a neighbor offered her the head of the hog they were butchering. “Don’t they know that’s the best part of the pig?” she asked in disbelief.

Her excitement was so contagious that my two brothers and I were giddy when the neighbors brought over the freshly severed head in a galvanized-metal washtub. I can still picture the head with its glistening eyeballs, perky ears and flared nostrils. I expected it to snort any minute.

After we got a good look at the beast, the hijinks began. Daddy reached down and casually plucked out an eyeball. I squealed like a pig as he and the eye chased me around the yard. (I wonder now about my recollection of the easy eye extraction. I just read an essay in which Christopher Kimble, former editor of Cook’s Illustrated, described the arduous ten minutes of sawing with a sharp paring knife to perform an “eye-ectomy” on a calf’s head.)

My grandmother, watching the chase scene, must have muttered something like, “Enough horseplay (or hogplay). We have work to do.”

Then came the serious job of turning the head into “good eatin’.” My grandmother, with my Japanese mother’s help, cranked out hog’s headcheese and sausage. The best part for me was the brain. I can still remember the texture and taste – a little crunchy on the outside from frying but sweet and succulent on the inside. Even then I knew that I was experiencing a delicacy. It’s taken a few decades and a few pages of reading Kimball and MFK Fisher to appreciate how difficult it is to properly prepare a brain.

But the favorite part of the head, at least for my younger brother, was the tongue. After it was boiled, he walked around eating the unappealing organ as if it were a hot dog. I think he liked the shock value as much as the flavor.

That head provided us with lots of delicacies, but, more important, it gave my brothers and me a lifetime of stories. If we’re together for more than a day, someone will ask, “Remember the pig’s head?”

It was no wonder then that, when I found Crudo Restaurant in Phoenix offers a roasted-pig-head dinner, I was ready to bite. Five other intrepid diners and I gathered to “eat high on the hog.”

First came an appetizer of crunchy pig ears in a sweet and hot vinegar sauce. Yes, I’m talking about the same part of the pig that you buy for your dog  Even my thrifty Scottish grandmother didn’t bother to salvage them. But, oh, if only she had known about the addictive taste and the texture that’s both crunchy and chewy.

Instead of serving the brain as a stand-alone dish, Chef Cullen incorporated them into Italian risotto balls. The flavor was so delicate that I wouldn’t have guessed that brains were part of the dish.

When the waitress brought out the roasted head, we gasped and spent several minutes examining its snout, ears and mouth. We were especially intrigued with the rows of tiny sharp teeth that still looked as though they could tear our flesh. The eyeballs were removed before roasting, so we didn’t get the sensation that Porky was staring at us.

If my grandmother was with us, she would have said something like, “Enough gawking. Let’s eat.” We heaped the fatty, roasted meat on to toasted bread and then added ricotta cheese and a choice of three pickle toppings.

As the conversation flowed, I felt a strong connection with these five women who were gathered around the head of a pig. Even though we all agreed that the meat was too fatty for our tastes, we can’t wait to go out for more dining adventures.

And, no doubt, when we get together again, someone will ask, ‘Remember the pig’s head?”

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