Exploration of the Pig

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I just finished reading “Everything But the Squeal,” writer John Barlow’s quest to eat each and every part of the pig. While in the Galicia region of Northern Spain, he ate parts that I could never fathom stomaching—think pig feet and ears—but the book inspired me to look past the ordinary choices such as chops and bacon.

I have also spent some time in Spain, on the southern coast, and when I arrived as an exchange student almost three years ago, I had quite a few culinary restrictions. By the time I set foot back on American soil, those had all but disappeared. I had eaten morcilla, the famous blood sausage that my host parents described to me simply as pig’s blood and failed to mention that other ingredients, such as bits of pork, rice or onions, generally make an appearance as well. I also feasted on the incredibly tender pig’s cheek in a local bar. Initially the giant pig’s leg resting on our kitchen counter grossed me out. But by the time I left, I found myself cutting my own slices of Serrano ham each time I passed it.

On a trip to New York City last weekend, I decided to further my own pig-eating journey and order pork belly at a gastropub aptly name The Spotted Pig. To whet my appetite (and bear the 2 ½ hour wait on a Saturday night), I ordered an appetizer that came recommended from the bartender: Devils on Horseback. She explained that even though the ingredients sounded weird (pickled pear stuffed in a prune wrapped in bacon), they were delicious. And they were. Chalk it up to another victory for the ever-popular meat and fruit combo.

My plan to order the pork belly didn’t pan out because they had taken it off the menu. Luckily, the special that night was called the Pig Plate. After verifying that the plate wouldn’t contain anything too risky, I ordered it. The plate came with a pork shoulder rillete, liver pâté terrine and head cheese with a side of toasted bread.

The rillete was delicious, salty and tender. No complaints here. I had been a little nervous about trying the liver pâté. (We’ve been using a form of liver sausage to give my dog pills for years. I lovingly referred to it as meat clay.) Nevertheless, I actually liked the pâté more than the rillete. I can cross another food phobia off my list.

I’m disappointed to say that head cheese will remain on that list, though. I had heard about head cheese, which isn’t a cheese at all, for the first time a few months ago when I was visiting a sausage shop in southern Missouri. It’s a sausage made from meat from the head and basically any other part of the pig that the butcher wants. It can even include cartilage. I declined to eat it on that trip, but figured I had to give it a try now. The head cheese on my plate had no cartilage and had a texture rather like jelly. Each piece of pig was visible, held together with a gelatin substance that is naturally found in the pig’s skull. The texture was too much for me. On an episode of No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain claimed that texture is the “the last frontier” when it comes to food and that cartilage might just be the next big thing. Count me out.

All in all, I crossed two more pig parts off my list. I doubt I’ll be eating head cheese anytime soon, but Barlow didn’t like every meal he had on his expedition either.

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