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The Head Cheese
Jan 13, 2013
My beloved spouse is fond of describing his years of single living by saying, “Bachelor life is not for the squeamish.” Married life may not be much better — especially in the culinary department.
When Mike picked me up for lunch the other day, he was in a snit. He'd seen post-Christmas bargain fruitcake at a local big box store and bought four to sample. When he went back for more, he was disappointed to see that someone had beat him to the clearance rack. He was only able to bring home 36 fruitcakes. Why, that's less than one a week for the rest of the year! He felt somewhat better when he glanced over the receipt and realized that they'd failed to charge him for one. I feigned awe over his bargain-hunting skills. "Buy 39 clearance fruitcakes, get the next one free? That's a heck of a deal, dear."
Given his passion for the notorious holiday treat/gag gift (he wants to start an Fruitcake Anti-Defamation League), I shouldn't have been surprised that he could handle all the challenges that my family's Scandinavian-American Christmas feasts had to offer. Pickled herring — no big deal. Sødsuppe, a Danish fruit soup, was downed with glee. I even heard Mike whisper to my father that the lutefisk was delicious. Clearly the man has an iron stomach.
So when I had a chance to bring home a bit of free meat, I didn't hesitate. Heier's Meat Market in Hosmer had been nice enough to send John Andrews (no relation) a box of delicious meats in appreciation for the article he’d written for our November/December issue about the cuisine of Germans from Russia enjoyed in Hosmer, Eureka and other places around the state. When I eyed the head cheese, John was kind enough to share. I was eager to try it. I remembered Laura Ingalls Wilder writing about it in her Little House series…and let’s be honest, the faces people make when the subject of head cheese comes up was another powerful incentive.
But what does one do with head cheese? If you google "head cheese recipes," you learn how to make a stock using a pig, cow or sheep's head. The gelatinous broth is cooked down, mixed with meaty bits from the animal's skull, onions and spices and refrigerated until firm. But then what?
I asked Ruth Steil, South Dakota Magazine's Administrative Assistant and food expert, if she knew any good ways to eat head cheese. Turns out she grew up on it fried with blood sausage and topped with white Karo syrup. Too bad I didn't have any blood sausage. Other sources suggested treating it as a luncheon meat. Office Curmudgeon Roger Holtzmann overheard our conversation and remarked, "The whole question is an oxymoron. There is no good way to eat head cheese — it belongs in the compost pile."
Nonsense, Roger! As it turns out, head cheese is rather tasty. After a small sample, Mike & I decided it’d be good sliced it up thin and served on pumpernickel with a little lettuce and mustard. Mike thinks it tastes like ham, so he took to it right away. I was surprised by its firm texture and hint of onion flavor. The head cheese sandwiches have made a fine accompaniment to our lunchtime bowls of soup. I’m thinking of trying the leftover luncheon meat as a pizza topping this weekend. We’ll see what that does to my stalwart spouse’s stomach.
To try head cheese yourself, check with your local butcher or pay a visit to Heier’s Meat Market of Hosmer.