Sky Full of Bacon

Sky Full of Bacon 04: A Head’s Tale

If you have 19 minutes, this is a great video on making a headcheese from Michael Gebert, especially as we see the pig’s head from the point of purchase at the market, through to the finished dish.  A great reminder of using the whole animal. —Michael Ruhlman

Could eating head cheese be a moral act? In “A Head’s Tale,” I follow a piece of meat most of us would avoid, a whole pig’s head, from organic farm to restaurant table. It’s a thought-provoking, and only slightly gross, journey. And trust me, it was tasty!

Sky Full of Bacon 04: A Head’s Tale from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

We’ve gotten so used to only eating anonymous squares of meat that it’s shocking to encounter a piece of meat with a face. Yet traditional cultures have always used every part of the animal, and there are sound environmental and moral reasons for doing so… not to mention the culinary ones for not letting some of the most delicious meat go uneaten. In this Sky Full of Bacon, I follow the progress of an organically-raised pig’s head acquired by locavore blogger Rob Gardner, from the farmer to a restaurant, Mado, where chefs Rob and Allison Levitt turn it into testa, Italian head cheese, and make a strong case for restaurants taking on the responsibility of using the whole animal. It’s a thought-provoking piece about what we owe to farmers and the animals we eat, and while it does contain some in-your-face pictures of a real live dead pig head, there’s a lot more on the Sky Full of Bacon mind here than just grossing you out.

Presented in association with The Local Beet; running time 19:19.


Rob Gardner blogs at Vital Information and at The Local Beet.

Dennis Wettstein can be found Saturday mornings at the Oak Park Farmer’s Market, held in the parking lot of Pilgrim Church, 460 Lake Street, Oak Park.

1647 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Chicago, IL

And Special Guest Headcheese Taster Helen Rosner blogs at Menu Pages Chicago.

The Paul Bertolli book Rob Levitt talks about is Cooking By Hand. For a home cook-level book about Charcuterie, Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie is a good choice; I learned to make bacon there.


Recipe for Mado’s Testa

Making head cheese should be within the ability of any reasonably good home chef.  It does require adjusting seasoning to the amount of meat you have, so precise amounts are not given and I assume you can season to taste reasonably well.  But the other techniques should be easily achievable for most cooks.

1. Place head in a large stock pot with a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme, a head of garlic, and a couple of onions.  Cover with cold water.  Bring to simmer and skim any scum that rises.  Simmer for about 12 hours, until very tender.

2. Remove head from pot, reserving stock.  Let cool to the point where it’s comfortable to work with, but still warm enough to pick meat off the bones easily.  Go over the entire head, removing meat from every nook and cranny and separating fat or other stuff from meat by hand, but keeping the meat in fairly good-sized pieces.  Discard any glands, eyeballs, etc.  Carefully peel the skin off the tongue to remove the thick, bumpy skin which you do not want to run across in your finished testa, and chop into half inch or inch-sized chunks.

3. Meanwhile, in a mortar, grind a couple of tablespoons of fennel and mustard seed and a couple of teaspoons of allspice and clove, along with a couple of chilis.  Add this to a quart of the reserved stock, and reduce until fairly rich and dark.

4. Place the meat in a bowl.  Salt it fairly strongly—since it will be served cold, the seasoning will be somewhat muted.  Squeeze the garlic bulb into the meat as well.  Mix thoroughly, but don’t break up the chunks of meat.

5. The easiest way to make a testa is to put a layer of meat in a terrine, pour some of the reduced stock over it, and repeat until you have two or three alternating layers.  (This is what I call the French style in the video.)  Place in refrigerator and it should set overnight and keep at least a week.

To make the Italian style loaf, roll out a length of plastic wrap, spoon the meat onto it, and pour the reduced stock over it.  Roll it into a slightly loose “sushi roll” and set aside.  Roll out a second length of wrap, place the “sushi roll on it, poke holes in the roll, and then roll it up inside the second piece of wrap, squeezing air out of the roll as you tighten up its shape.  (Watch the video for a better sense of the techniques here.)

When you’ve done as much as you can by hand, tie the ends with kitchen twine, leaving a fair amount of extra plastic at each end.  Then twirl the roll as shown in the video, gradually squeezing the meat into a tighter roll.  Tie this shape off again and place in the refrigerator to set overnight.  Slice cold.

About Sky Full of Bacon
Sky Full of Bacon #3: The Last Brisket Show
Sky Full of Bacon #2: Duck School
Sky Full of Bacon #1: How Local Can You Go?

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17 Responses to “Sky Full of Bacon 04: A Head’s Tale”

  1. David Hammond Says:

    Some farmers put pork bellies and hams in their compost pile! That’s very disturbing, though not as disturbing as the portrayal of Oak Parkers as prissy pains in the ass. Still, a very informative and interesting piece. Well done, SFOB crew.

  2. Natalie Sztern Says:

    I got here via Ruhlman and I am a homecook. Fabulous video; you make it seem so easy. Sister lives in Chicago Buffalo Grove so next time I visit I am coming in for that headcheese…

  3. stephanie vacher Says:

    fantastic, I think I’ll try head cheese now that I know how it’s made :]

  4. Brian Mitchell Says:

    Fantastic video! I found my way over here by way of M. Ruhlmans blog and boy am I glad I did! Being in Chicago and seeing these local places is fantastic. Thanks for the good work!


  5. Why you should eat the whole pig « Says:

    […] you can squeeze some extra time out of your today, please go here and watch this video of people eating the entire head of a […]

  6. Carl Tashian Says:

    Hey, this is great stuff. Coincidentally, I just put a movie together about making headcheese, too! We made it here in Brooklyn a few days ago. This is definitely a growing movement…

    Here’s the link:


  7. Sky Full of Bacon » Blog Archive » Lardoblogging: The Sequel Says:

    […] my one adventure in lardomaking might have been my only, except that during the production of my current Sky Full of Bacon podcast, starring Rob Vital Information Gardner’s pig head, Rob also gave me the back fat from his […]

  8. Conrad’s Garage » Blog Archive » new kitchen stuff Says:

    […] the Chuck from Wettstein’s Organic Meats at the OPFM.  This is the same producer featured here, mentioned in this Ruhlman blog post (Oak Park getting a shout out by Ruhlman!).  The meat […]

  9. Owen Lightly Says:

    Great stuff! I did a post on headcheese on my blog as well. Check it out!

  10. Mike Simmons Says:

    Question, did the head have the brain in it too or was it removed?

    I am mainly curious if the brain cooked in there as well and if making my own head cheese if I should include that or get a bone saw and remove it.

  11. Michael Gebert Says:

    I can’t remember now, I will investigate. My hunch is it was already removed, since I don’t remember seeing it at some later point. There may have been some dialogue about it that didn’t make the final cut.

  12. Sky Full of Bacon » Blog Archive » Top Ten For 2008 Says:

    […] Copa, with a side of raw beets in a kind of mustardy sauce, at Mado. Yeah, I made a podcast about their headcheese, but this is the housecured meat that wowed me, and so did those […]

  13. Clever Food Blog » Rules for Better Dining Says:

    […] Chicagoan Michael Gebert writes the blog Sky Full of Bacon.  He does far more than just write–he has one of the best local-focus video podcasts around.  You should take it upon yourself to go back and watch them all.  There are only a dozen or so at this time, but each is like a great documentary showcasing some local gem.  Sometimes, instead of a professional-quality video podast, or a collection of links, he’ll share personal stories about food, like his grandmothers’ piccalilli recipe.  In interviews with local chefs and merchants, some mentions have been made of some of my favorite central Illinois producers.  See if you can figure out my favorite source for lamb.  I’ll give you a hint… it’s in SFoB4: A Head’s Tale. […]

  14. Sky Full of Bacon » Blog Archive » Local TV Eats Local! Says:

    […] The local CBS station does a piece on eating local featuring two people who’ve been in Sky Full of Bacons: Cassie Green of Green Grocer and Rob Gardner, Vital Information/Local Beet, procurer of pig heads. […]

  15. Sky Full of Bacon » Blog Archive » Mado the Closer Says:

    […] charcuterie platter had three things on it— our old favorite testa, housemade ham (a touch boring, frankly, and quick to dry out; the same meat would probably be […]

  16. Sky Full of Bacon » Blog Archive » Sky Full of Bacon 15: Big Chef Small Farmer Says:

    […] Sky Full of Bacon #6: There Will Be Pork (pt. 2) Sky Full of Bacon #5: There Will Be Pork (pt. 1) Sky Full of Bacon #4: A Head’s Tale Sky Full of Bacon #3: The Last Brisket Show Sky Full of Bacon #2: Duck School Sky Full of Bacon #1: […]

  17. Sky Full of Bacon » Blog Archive » Sky Full of Bacon 06: There Will Be Pork (Pt. 2) Says:

    […] About Sky Full of Bacon Sky Full of Bacon #5: There Will Be Pork (pt. 1) Sky Full of Bacon #4: A Head’s Tale Sky Full of Bacon #3: The Last Brisket Show Sky Full of Bacon #2: Duck School Sky Full of Bacon #1: […]