What Is Head Cheese and Is It Actually Cheese?

I am a rather open-minded eater. Foods that are classified as gross, I will gladly try and often enjoy. For example, I am a strong proponent of candy corn, and I am in good company: Mythical Kitchen’s own Josh Scherer shares my position. And when it comes to meats, I extol the virtues of hot dogs and scrapple, knowing full well what parts of an animal they contain. But sometimes I just can’t. And one of those times is when head cheese is on offer. Hopefully I can make it through this article without ralphing. Steel yourself, because we’re going to answer the question, what’s head cheese?

What is head cheese made of?

Head cheese aka hog head cheese is certainly more head than cheese. In fact, there isn’t a trace of dairy in it. With that in mind, you sure you wanna know what is in head cheese? Okay. Head cheese is made of pig scraps that primarily come from an animal’s head: tongue, snout, cheek, ears, sometimes heart, and, if they are feeling wild, the feet. Thankfully, they leave out the eyes and brain because that would be “too weird.”

Head cheese was first created in Europe during the Middle Ages, where lords and land barons would get all the best pieces of meat, leaving the scraps for peasants and serfs. Left with little choice, they came up with this concoction, and who can blame them? When half the population is dying from the bubonic plague and the average life expectancy at birth—for land owners only; for the poor it was less—was 31 years, you eat whatever you can get.

Why is it called head cheese?

Well, the head part is easy, since it’s made from the meat taken from a pig’s head. But why cheese? Some trace it back to the latin, forma, which is the route of the French word for cheese, fromage. Forma refers to the mold used to make both terrines like head cheese and cheese itself. Others say that it’s because head cheese has a sort of cheese-like texture. 

How to make head cheese?

Now, you might be thinking, “Luke, all the stuff in head cheese is also in scrapple and you love that? What’s the difference?” All I’ll say is that sometimes, presentation is key. And even though scrapple is a gray loaf that doesn’t resemble meat at all, head cheese is on a whole other level.

Head cheese is made by boiling the selected animal parts, which releases their natural collagens. These collagens cool and form a kind of jelly. See where this is going? That jelly is often amplified with gelatin or aspic, and the whole mess is pressed into a mold along with the chunks of meat. 

The end result looks a lot like a terrarium, except instead of a beautiful ecosystem encased in glass, it’s a horrorshow of pig parts visible through the sheen of a clear, savory jelly. And then it’s sliced like bread. It’s hard to decide what is worse: the visible pig’s nose or the jelly that surrounds it. I’m having panic sweats just thinking about it.

How to eat head cheese?

The best way to eat it is to not eat it. It’s better used as bait to capture trolls or other mythical forest aberrations. Or putting it in the bed of your sleeping enemy like the horse head in The Godfather (spoiler alert). If, however, you are interested in enjoying head cheese (some Sporked staffers claim they love the stuff), then you can treat it like pâté and spread it onto crackers or toast. Or you can slice it and use it in a sandwich. Those who like it say it is particularly good with pickles and mustard.

About the Author

Luke Field

Luke Field is a writer and actor originally from Philadelphia. He was the former Head Writer of branded content at CollegeHumor and was also a contributing writer and actor to the CollegeHumor Originals cast. He has extensive improv and sketch stage experience, performing both at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and with their Touring Company. In addition to writing, he also works as a Story Producer, most recently on season 4 of Accident, Suicide, or Murder on Oxygen. Keep your eyes peeled for his brief but impactful appearance as Kevin, the screaming security guard, in the upcoming feature The Disruptors, directed by Adam Frucci.

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