To be clear, hog head cheese (or is it hog’s head cheese? More on that later) never was an urban dish.
It’s certainly made cameo appearances in cosmopolitan dining rooms: Maya Angelou, for instance, was fond of serving the Southern charcuterie in her New York City brownstone on New Year’s Day, with Champagne to puncture the pork’s richness and celebrate the coming year. One of her friends later told The New York Times that it was her job to buy hundreds of dollars’ worth of ears and trotters from a Hell’s Kitchen butcher so Angelou could make the delicacy.
Still, a shopper at Fair Deal Grocery on the Eastside was skeptical when she was offered a free sample of locally-made hog head cheese after checking out. She grew up in the neighborhood, but didn’t encounter hog head cheese until she lived among Caribbean immigrants in New York City.
“We had pickled eggs and pig’s feet, but only people from the islands would have this,” she said, cocking her head at hog head cheese producer Santel Powell’s improvised spread of hog head cheese, crackers and Jam Jar Sweet Shiraz.
Powell, whose parents opened Fair Deal in 1953, doesn’t remember too much hog head cheese from his childhood either: His formal introduction to the dish came courtesy of a one-time colleague named Charlie Turner. “A country boy,” Powell says. Turner brought his mother’s hog head cheese to potlucks at the DuPont plant where they worked.
“I liked it, so I fooled around with it,” says Powell, who recently launched the Ed Tommy Davis Hog Head Cheese line.
Like many Charleston entrepreneurs who’ve gotten caught up in the city’s current culinary fervor, Powell is taking an artisan approach to a simple food item. What’s unique about his enterprise, though, is he's neither trying to mimic what’s already the rage in a bigger city, nor trying to capture the attention of the food elite who live there. Instead, he’s propagating an endangered rural tradition just because it tastes good.
By any other name
To be clear, there is no cheese in hog head cheese. It earned its name because people who are short-sighted and big-hearted might mistake it for a more expensive food, much as they might mistake Welsh rarebit for roasted bunny.
Lord Cornwallis’ father’s cook, Charles Carter, explained the preparation in his 1732 book, The Compleat City and Country Cook. Carter’s recipe calls for just two ingredients: Salt, and the head of a hog.
“You must bone it and lay it to cleanse 24 hours in water and salt,” Carter wrote. “Scrape it well and white: Lay salt on the inside to the thickness of a crown piece, and boil it very tender. Then lay it in a cheese press, cover it with a cloth, and when cold, it will be like a cheese.”
He concluded, “You may souse it.”
Carter meant cooks could plunge the faux cheese into a vinegar solution to preserve it. But souse has survived as another name for pig heads reformatted as loaves: Derived from the Old French “souser,” souse is a common term in the Caribbean and south Louisiana, once the cradle of American hog head cheese. According to Slow Food USA, there was a time when every meat processor in the region had a signature souse.
Or hog’s head cheese, if you’d prefer. That’s the construction which Carter favored, although the Dictionary of American Regional English’s pioneering late 1960s fieldwork showed South Carolinians, by a healthy 6-to-1 margin, were more likely to say “hog head cheese.” (By contrast, eaters living in Maine were four times as apt to come up with the possessive “hog’s head cheese” when asked what they’d call “food made from parts of the head of an animal.”)
In addition to Cornwallis, Carter worked for the Earl of Pontefract and Duke of Argyle, which suggests hog head cheese had a regal reputation in eighteenth-century England. But in the U.S., the dish was affixed to the opposite end of the class spectrum.
“Back in the day, slave owners did not want anything to do with the head of a pig,” Powell says. After emancipation, hog head cheese remained an element of African-American cuisine. Powell continues, “Eighty-nine percent of black people know what it is. But not the younger generation. Even my granddaughter, she ain’t touching it.”
Hot as summertime
To be clear, Powell’s hog head cheese isn’t. Many examples of the dish are primarily gelatin, whether from the pig or a package. Depending on the recipe, hog head cheese can resemble a transparent pimento loaf.
Ed Tommy Davis Hog Head Cheese is meaty and dense. “It’s all pork,” Powell says. “It’s perfect.”
Another cheat popular with modern hog head cheese makers involves swapping out offal for cuts more familiar to American-born eaters. The Best Stop Supermarket in Scott, La., which is revered for its boudin, makes hog head cheese from “pork meat and pork skin,” peppers, onions and MSG.
“Unlike years ago, the hog's head isn't used to make the cheese,” Best Stop assures its online customers.
When Powell makes hog head cheese, which he now does every week or so, he boils the head in salted water for about seven hours. He typically ends up with enough meat from the ears, snout, jaw and cheeks to produce 10 pounds of hog head cheese, but sometimes has to conscript other parts to fill out the mixture. “You might find a foot,” he allows.
Always, he adds seasoning. Powell won’t say exactly which spices he uses, but he applies them according to the final heat level he has in mind. He calls his mild hog head cheese “May in Charleston.” Medium is sold as “June” and Hot as “July.”
“The hottest hot is called August in Charleston,” he says. “So you can understand that.”
While that system makes total sense, Powell’s reason for choosing Ed Tommy Davis as a brand name requires some explanation. It’s named after his granddaughter (the same little girl who doesn’t like hog head cheese.) Her name is Mackenzie.
But when Powell learned his daughter was going to have a baby, he lobbied hard for the child to inherit the name of his maternal grandfather, a sometime rascal who swam across the Cooper River on a dare. He lost, but got his way on his hog head cheese labels, which bear Davis' name and his granddaughter's picture.
This isn’t Powell’s first foray into the food industry. After leaving DuPont in 1999, he ran an American-style restaurant in Suzhou, China for 13 years. But at the Black Mirage, he sold Sea Island gumbo; Mrs. Gladys’ beef stew and 13 kinds of chicken wings. Hog head cheese is a tougher sell, as he discovered when he tried to interest Charleston Grill in it. Word got back to Powell that it was too hot.
In a tone sweeter than most people muster for new paramours and puppies, he dismisses the judgment with an expression that the original Ed Tommy Davis used often, and that family-friendly newspapers never do.
“I don’t have time for anger,” he says. “We’ll see if I can’t get it more widespread."