This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for February 20. 2020, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
Hog headcheese is a delicacy, salivatingly longed for by some of us and disgustedly despised by those who don’t appreciate real gourmet eating. First of all, for those of you not familiar with this culinary delight, I must explain that it is not made of cheese, but, as the name suggests, mainly from the head of a hog. I had always considered my love for a variation of it to be an inherited taste from my German Wendish ethnicity. Until I heard it referred to as an “American Southern ‘thang,’” at one time very popular among Cajuns in Louisiana.
Now often considered a “Southern ‘thang,’” it was actually made and eaten just about everywhere in Europe where pigs were raised, mostly made from the head of the hog except for the eyes, brains, and snout with at least one or two pig feet thrown in to create the gelatin. It was already eaten and enjoyed in England in the Middle Ages, where it was called “brawn,” especially popular with peasants, because the hog’s head was not as expensive as the parts providing bacon and ham. And in the U.S., it never really was a “Southern ‘thang,’” because it was made and liked in New England and Pennsylvania (especially among the Amish), and in many other parts of our country.
I grew up calling it “Suize,” the German word for “souse,” which is a type of headcheese, differing from plain headcheese in that it also contains vinegar, spices, and red and black pepper. What Germans call “Suize,” Czechs called “suic” or “huspenina.” I’m not sure which version is made and greatly enjoyed in Mexico, but Mexicans call it “Queso de Puerco.” Purists probably prefer headcheese, because makers of souse do not limit the meat used to just the head of a pig, but frequently will add pieces of the pig’s heart as well as beef tongue and chicken feet. Usually headcheese does not contain the ears of the hog, but I have eaten souse which did, adding some gristle to the mix.
Obviously, different areas in the United States have different versions of headcheese and souse, just as different regions in Europe have their own variations, but all similar enough you wouldn’t call them something else.
It is not uncommon for those who restrict their menus to bacon, ham, and pork chops to confuse another culinary delight of mine with headcheese and souse. It’s called head “sausage,” which we made at hog killing time in the good old days of my childhood more often than souse. Regular sausage was made by stuffing raw ground pork into the small intestines of the pig, whereas head sausage involved cutting up the cooked meat of the head and organs and stuffing this into the lower intestines and stomach of the hog, then boiling the filled sausage in a large kettle. I’m not sure whether it was also smoked or not, but my mother and grandmother liked to fry slices of it for breakfast along with slices of bacon. Although I have always liked head sausage, it was never as delicious to me as headcheese and souse.
It never occurred to me that there was anything unrefined about eating headcheese, souse, and head sausage, because I grew up thinking of “Suize,” as we called it, as a delicacy, but then I also grew up thinking the same of pickled pig’s feet. It was not until I was married, and encountered by wife’s rejection of souse and pig’s feet that perhaps some people didn’t regard them the way I did. Then when my daughters showed revulsion for my favorite snack menus, I suspected that my tastes were somewhat uncouth. However, I know some very refined people who eat raw oysters, and that is my idea of uncouth. I don’t even like cooked oysters! And what about the French who eat snails? To each his own! You can have your snails and raw oysters, but as long as I live, I will always experience a longing for headcheese and souse.
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and the author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.