I sat in my office lunchroom in Cambridge, Ontario surrounded by five colleagues, all partaking in our daily lunch routine. Subway was present. McDonald’s was there. A homemade sandwich. A salad. And on my plate, a thick slice of my gelatinous homemade headcheese on spelt sourdough bread. Believe it or not, my attempt at traditional headcheese wasn’t actually that tasty – but I pretended it was as I vigorously defended my packed lunch and tried to wax eloquent about the concept of “nose to tail” eating to my somewhat incredulous lunch mates.
“Nose to tail” eating is a growing movement towards eating as many parts of an animal as possible so its doesn’t go to waste. It seeks to respect the animal’s sacrifice by honouring all the cuts of meat – not just the choicest. But truth be told, it turns out that “nose to tail” eating is quite laborious – especially when you are the one doing the cooking. Take my headcheese for example – a traditional dish made from the whole head of a pig. You just need to soak the head in a salt water brine. Then just boil it in an herb seasoned massive pot of water.. Then just separate the edible meats that fall off the skull, boil down the remaining stock to the point where it gels thickly upon cooling, add the meat pieces, and chill it in a nice rectangular form. 24 hours later – just slice and viola. An instant delectable treat to share and enjoy in the company of your work colleagues. (Note – I was only able to convince one co-worker to try some).
In theory, “nose to tail” eating was a concept to which my wife and I were deeply committed. Following our discovery of what to us was the atrocities of the industrial agriculture system, we longed to be able to opt out – specifically as it relates to meat. Dreams of raising our own homestead hogs, pressing our own sausages, and curing our own bacon permeated our mind. Within a few years we had settled our first homestead. We purchased hog panels, electric fencing, solar energizers, researched watering systems and sourced locally grown organic grain. Those pigs were going to till up the plot for our future vegetable garden. They would eat our kitchen scraps. They would thrive outdoors as nature intended. We were ready to raise our first pigs.
What we weren’t ready to do was deal with the incredible bounty of meat and fat that came from our beloved pigs. If we were going to respect and honour the pig we were going to have to gain some serious kitchen thrift skills. Skills long lost by the majority. We were going to have to teach ourselves how to cook, cure, and render. We’d be moving beyond simple pork chops and sausages. We’d be tackling pig heads, fresh liver, trotters, kidneys, mountains of fat, and of course – the tail. We learned that the homestead hog offers all this bounty – and only asks one thing in return: That we make its sacrifice our pleasure. In other words – that we develop the skills to cook and/or cure the innards and extremities so that we can enjoy them – not just tolerate them.
In the years since our first homestead hog we have sought to honour our pigs in this way: Make their sacrifice our pleasure. Our first prosciutto was too salty. The first batch of rendered fat into lard was melted at too high a temperature. The head cheese failed to impress the office. But 2019’s sausages are incredible. The country liver pistachio pate was absolutely delightful. The soups and stocks made from our trotters, hocks, and bones have nourished our family all winter.
The burden of the hog bounty has stretched our palates. it has squashed our squeamishness. It has forced us to revive lost culinary arts. And it has blessed us with truly delectable salubrious treats – worthy of sharing in the office lunchroom.
Ken Dam lives with his wife Claire and their daughter in rural Hamilton, Ontario, on a small-scale permaculture farm still in its infancy. Together they explore developing skills that nourish their relationship to the land, to food, to their community, and to one another.