Unlike the majority of items featured in this monthly examination of “weird” food products found at your local grocery store, I have actually handled this Lost in the Supermarket subject matter.
In my early twenties I worked as a meat and cheese technician (aka “deli monkey”) at a Kroger grocery store. If anything in my life was going to turn me into a vegetarian, it was this job and the constant groping of giant bologna rolls (I mean literally, not in the parking lot with the assistant manager after closing time). But wiping greasy meat sweat off of my hands became normal after a while.
There was one genre of meat I never got used to (well, two, but the less we talk about liverwurst, the better). I was largely unfamiliar with head cheese and hot souse until some of the older customers began ordering them and I finally laid eyes (and, eventually, hands) on these meat-esque wonderments.
They seemed like some Willy Wonka-like butcher/mad scientist’s fever dream. What appeared to be a glorious array of leftover slaughterhouse scraps were globbed together in some weird gelatinous goo. The head cheese appeared more rubbery and its gray hue made it the black-and-white version of the crazy butcher man’s outlandish vision; hot souse was the full Technicolor version, with red flecks of peppers and spice and an overall orange aura (insert Snookie from Jersey Shore joke here). Both shared a similar pungent, sweaty socks odor.
Do I need to even mention I never tasted them?
Head cheese, in innumerable variations, is much more popular in Europe and other parts of the world, but just because I find the head cheese-making process disgusting — cook the head of a pig (or cow or sheep), extract the flesh, brain, eyes, ears and tongue (heart and feet sometimes, too), chill it all in a “meat jelly” mold — doesn’t makes me ethnocentric. Though originally a way to use the otherwise-unused parts of the animal, pork hocks are often used today for an alleged higher quality. Souse is made the same way, but it’s pickled in vinegar and spices.
People mostly eat it like lunchmeat, straight-up on a sandwich or, my choice, with a cracker. Just handling and looking at the head cheese made me queasy so I stuffed it into my mouth quickly, expecting the worst (I approached it like a contestant on Fear Factor eating a tub of worms). I was shocked at how innocuous it was. No gagging. Not even an “ewwwww” face. It tastes a little like a slightly spicy piece of fried bologna, with a little more texture, of course.
I was scared when I read an online praising of head cheese that added the caveat, “As long as I don’t think about why some bites are crunchier than others, it’s pretty enjoyable.” Thank God I got a bone- and hoof-free batch. The consistency of the flavor is surprising given the patchwork makeup.
Despite being a completely different brand (Queen City Sausage) than the head cheese (Boar’s Head), the hot souse tasted nearly identical. If there was a difference in spice level, it was miniscule.
It’s not something I could see myself eating often, but I can at least understand why people might acquire a taste for it. I once loved canned deviled ham, which actually has a flavor similar to head cheese, so who am I to judge?
It’s interesting how the least involved senses work so hard to keep you from getting your food to the only sense that matters. The appearance, texture and odor of head cheese scream “Not if you were the last scrap of food on earth!” But, while they weren’t necessarily overjoyed and will probably never experience that sensation again (side effects included a stomach ache and heartburn), my taste buds were far from offended.
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