New Orleans, La. –
New Orleans butcher Benjamin Terranova likes his hog headcheese in the morning. He's developed a habit of laying a thin, wobbly, nearly translucent slice of the meaty loaf over his breakfast grits. He advocates the practice to customers at his family-run Terranova's Supermarket in Faubourg St. John, where he and his son Anthony make their headcheese according to an old family recipe that dates to the 1940s.
Other inventive local eaters use hog headcheese in the same way over their red beans, while some put slabs of it on hot French bread with Creole mustard for headcheese po-boys. Smear it on a Saltine cracker and you have a classic hunting camp canap , but just dress up the presentation a bit and it can be the centerpiece for a festive formal table.
Hog headcheese is versatile, it's rambunctiously flavorful, and it has attached itself to the Louisiana palate through family tradition and sometimes offbeat usage. That might have helped save it from final obscurity.
Of course, this local charcuterie product is not cheese at all, but rather a chilled mold of pork strands, gelatin and vegetable seasonings. It was originally a food of frugality, the product of parsimonious farmers and home cooks. It shares a heritage with countless other jellied meat preparations from Europe, and it's also closely related to daube glace, an old French Creole dish that recycles bits of beef as a jellied spread. In rural Louisiana, hog headcheese became part of le boucherie, that tradition where several neighboring families would gather at one farm and share the labor and rewards of slaughtering a hog. The families involved tried to use every part of that pig, and that included turning tiny bits of meat from the head and gelatin from the bones into hog headcheese.
But as national prosperity spread during the last century and fewer people were in touch with their own food production, such thrifty customs and their delicious yield seemed in danger of slipping away. As leftovers and scraps became less vital in the American household, it seemed the know-how and tradition for using them would diminish too.
Still, a persistent craving endured, and butchers around trend-averse south Louisiana kept the tradition going. More recently, as national culinary trends have fixed on charcuterie, and as the "snout to tail" dining aesthetic has gained contemporary chic, hog headcheese is making a comeback in the unlikely setting of upscale dining rooms.
In New Orleans for example, the restaurant Cochon and the adjoining shop Cochon Butcher make their own hog headcheese. The restaurants Domenica and a Mano serve Italian versions of headcheese as part of their salumi selections, while at Luke there's a German rendition of the same product. At the American Sector restaurant in the National World War II Museum cubes of fried headcheese even anchor a salad of purple hull peas and greens.
Despite such prominent play on notable menus, it was the humble roots of hog headcheese that long ago established it as a local staple. And those roots still give the hardscrabble delicacy its essential character, whether it's served at expensive restaurants or crafted by neighborhood butchers. Hog headcheese is one headstrong tradition that's not going away.
Creole Country Sausage Company
512 David St., New Orleans, 504-488-1263
3308 Esplanade Ave., New Orleans, 504-482-4131