Facing reality

Homemade brawn. Photo © Jacqui Newling.

Some recipes are a joy to follow, others can be quite challenging. For me, brawn is in the latter category. And a cautionary warning – some images in this article may be confronting or disturbing. No offence is intended in showing these images.

Procure a pig’s head and feet. Clean and divide the head. Take away the thick part of the cheek, which may be salted for future use. Put the remainder, including nose, ears and feet, into a saucepan with enough water to cover them. Simmer gently 4 or 5 hours till the meat falls from the bones, turn into a pan, remove bones, season to taste with pepper, salt and nutmeg.
Put into moulds previously wetted; when cold it will turn out, and is ready for use.
May be improved by arranging slices of hard-boiled egg in mould when preparing it.

Cookery book of good and tried recipes,Women’s Missionary Association of the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales (1920), first published 1895

All in a day’s work

Testing recipes from old cookbooks and culinary manuscript collections is a welcome preoccupation for a food historian. We’ve relished in the delights of Mrs Nisbett’s ginger cake, Auntie Tot’s lemon biscuits and the Rouse family’s carrot pudding, but not all the dishes enjoyed on or forebears’ tables are quite as pleasurable to make. As the recipe above may indicate, brawn falls into the latter category; it is made with meat from a pig’s head set in its own naturally jellied aspic.

Brawn, moulded and sliced. Photo © Jacqui Newling

Brain food

In my role as ‘colonial gastronomer’ I learn by doing – which is more than just eating something, but understanding how it is made. As a field of historical inquiry, the product that ends up on the table gives us a taste of the past, but the preparation processes, the time, effort and skills involved in creating a dish, give a greater insight into the cook’s experience, rather than just the diner’s.

I’ve collared eels, boiled tongues, made jelly from calf’s feet and mock turtle soup from a calf’s head, but never brawn. Cooking calf’s heads was quite confronting, and I had resisted making brawn for this reason for some years. But I finally plucked up the courage to buy, cook and disseminate a pig’s head in my home kitchen when writing a journal article about Pedagogy and the Senses [1] titled, ‘The Eeeuw Factor, The Viscerally Sensorial Realities of Being the Colonial Gastronomer‘ [2].

Ready to boil. Photo © Jacqui Newling

Changing tastes

Recipes for brawn are common in early Australian cookbooks and magazines, but its popularity appears to have waned as the twentieth century progressed. Brawn was often listed in The Australian Women’s Weekly ‘prize winning recipes’ pages but barely rates a mention after the 1970s.  It can still be found for sale in delicatessens as ‘presswurst’ – suggesting its prevalence in northern European cuisines, and sometimes on gourmet menus as pâté de tête or ‘head cheese’, but it is not part of Australia’s mainstream culinary repertoire, especially as a homemade dish. Needless to say, brawn’s main ingredient, a pig’s head, is not something we see displayed in butchers’ shop window displays, let alone in supermarkets. Like many other offal dishes, brawn’s popularity faded after the Second World War, as prime cuts of meat returned to the market after rationing, dishes like brawn, tongue and tripe became associated with austerity and poverty. But I wonder to, did people just not want to deal with whole heads in their kitchens, and the messy, mucky process involved with making such dishes as brawn?

The makings of brawn, ready to be sorted into edible and non-edible parts. Photo © Jacqui Newling

Gut reaction

Brawn making is a highly sensorial process, involving all the physiological senses, touch and vision particularly. When I made brawn these unavoidable realities triggered strong ‘gut’ and disgust responses. This left me wondering if cooks in the past experienced similar distaste, disgust and felt emotionally and morally disturbed by the impact of handling such an intimate part of the animal. (Any part of an animal is intimate, but a head and face have a very powerful presence). The most challenging and confronting parts of the exercise were ‘facing’ the head in its whole form, eyes, ears, snout all reminding me of the living animal, and the dismembering process once it was cooked, experiencing the differences in texture and colour of the various parts of the face – cheek, tongue, snout and sorting the edible parts from the bones, sinews and other extraneous matter.

Which leaves me to question: is it privilege, prejudice or ‘preciousness’ that have shaped my thinking that heads, tongues and many other offal products are ‘gross’ articles of food, even though they were perfectly acceptable to past generations and in many cultures still are?

Discarded remnants, not suitable for the eating. Photo © Jacqui Newling.

Facial recognition

It was impossible for me to separate the physiological realities of the meat in the brawn from the equivalent parts in my own face, a phenomenon known as ‘ideation’, and felt comfortable with them as ‘food’. I recorded my responses to dismantling the head in the article:

The ‘eeeuw’ was audible as I withdrew what I can only guess were the sinuses, which extended from within the snout into a concealed cavity behind the bones under the eyes. (As I write this I am conscious of my own sinuses sitting either side of the bridge of my nose, and can imagine – almost feel – the sensation of their being pulled away from their rightful place.) The most challenging aspect, however, was handling the snout meat. Peeling back the skin of the snout revealed a colourless yet vaguely dirty-looking mass within. “Neither fat nor meat”, it was more dense and pliable than aspic or jelly, with no detectable fibre or flesh to give it substance or structure (Henderson 2004: 39). Nose-to-tail chef Fergus Henderson says, “do not be discouraged, it is delicious in your brawn”(2004: 39), so I broke it into blobs, but they clung to my fingers as I tried to flick and scrape them into the accumulating mass of edible facial meat. I found the process so vile and repugnant I didn’t include the snout-substance in the brawn; I couldn’t stomach the thought of it.

The ‘eeeuw’ factor: the viscerally sensorial realities of being the Colonial Gastronomer in Elaine Swan and Rick Flowers, (editors), Locale: The Australasian-Pacific Journal of Regional Food Studies Number 7, 2018, pp. 45-81 p. 67

Narrow minded

With multi-culturalism and increased global awareness our tastes have developed and become more adventurous, however in some respects our diet has narrowed with the loss of many foods that once graced Australian tables. Partly due to industrialised processing and mass market retail chains, but also social trends and prejudices we limit ourselves to conventional butchers’ meats and chicken. Our forebears, however, enjoyed a greater variety of poultry, game and meat dishes, including ones derived from offal. Admittedly there are a great many devotees of offal who relish in brains, tripe and sweetmeats, lambs fry and bacon and steak and kidney pudding, but sales statistics suggest that they are in the minority of cooks and consumers. Whole heads and tongues are certainly out of vogue on the table – too recognisably ‘real’, uncouth and uncivilised, perhaps even barbaric – to be accepted as food these days, and it seems, even when disguised or reconfigured into dishes such as brawn. [3]

Range of meat dishes, including calf’s head and heart, in Mrs Beeton’s book of Household management, c1880s. Rouse Hill House & Farm collection. Sydney Living Museums

Future food

We are increasingly aware that our consumption habits are unsustainable.
With the absence of these foods in our regular diet any sensory connection with them seems revolting and repugnant, and we have lost the emotional tolerance that made them edible substances. But prejudices will have to be put to one side if ‘future foods’ such as insects, lab-grown algae products and so on, are to be on our tables. And while animal food is still an option, we will have to place more value the extraneous offal meats, and ‘get over ourselves’ and face the realities of our food sources.

Sources and further reading

[1] Elaine Swan and Rick Flowers. ‘Sensory Politics of Food Pedagogies‘ in Elaine Swan and Rick Flowers, (editors) Locale: The Australasian-Pacific Journal of Regional Food Studies Number 7, 2018 pp. 1-14.
See also, Swan and Flowers, Food Pedagogies and the Senses

[2] Jacqui Newling. ‘The eeeuw factor: the viscerally sensorial realities of being the Colonial Gastronomer in Elaine Swan and Rick Flowers, (editors), Locale: The Australasian-Pacific Journal of Regional Food Studies Number 7, 2018, pp. 45-81

[3] Stephen Mennell. All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present. 1996. University of Illinois Press.