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Halloween is upon us; a fiendish, spooky, and possibly puerile holiday that never seems to lose its eerie charm or mysterious hold over us. What is it that makes Halloween so intriguing? The answer of course lies in the recesses of the human psyche. It is an indisputable truism that humans are fascinated with the macabre. One need only glimpse at the literary, theatrical and cinematic history of our world, (not to mention the rubbernecking at the scene of any accident), to confirm our beguilement with the dark side of life. One particular ghoulish dimension of this strange allure is decapitation.
Beheading has been a form of execution in numerous cultures for millennia. In fact, in some eras and locations it was the primary choice. Consider medieval Europe, the victims of the Reformation, the English and French revolutions, the invention of the guillotine and the French Reign of Terror. It was even customary after a decollation for the executioner to proudly display the head to the crowd or impale it on posts for all to see. If that’s not proof of our morbid obsessions, nothing is.
It is not surprising then that these gory preoccupations ensconced their way into our folklore, our supernatural mythology, and our archetypes. Throughout the world there exist legends of headless ghosts and creatures:
• Ann Boleyn, the beheaded second wife of King Henry VIII is reputed to haunt the Tower of London.
• Niagara Falls is supposedly visited by the ghost of a headless French general who was murdered there during colonial times.
• Japan is the home to the Kubikajiri, a headless ghost who wanders graveyards searching for its head and eating the heads of the hapless victims it encounters.
• The Specter of McClannahan Hill is headless apparition of a Union soldier who died in a Civil War skirmish eponymously named after the site in Kentucky.
• In my home state of New Jersey a headless ghost is alleged to lurk on Intervale Rd in the town of Parsippany.
And of course there are the headless characters of the literary and dramaturgical realms, the quintessential example being the Headless Horseman of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Even the expression that entitles this article can be traced back to Shakespearean plays.
So in honor of Halloween, I offer you my own culinary version of the Headless Horseman: The heads of animals that we eat! So if you’ve got the stomach for it, try one of these victuals with your candy corn. Happy Halloween!
In Asia, fish heads are steamed, deep-fried, simmered, etc. and the delicate meat of the cheeks is relished. Sometimes even the eyes are consumed. Fish head soup is well known in many Asian cuisines but it can be found worldwide. For example, I’ve come across Norwegian and Cuban recipes. Fish heads are typically simmered with aromatic vegetables to make a broth. Then, depending on the cuisine any number of flavoring directions could be taken. For example, South-East Asian preparations may employ coconut milk and curry. The actual heads may or may not be presented in the final dish. If you’re daring enough to make fish head soup, remember to remove the gills. They can impart bitter and nasty flavors to the soup.
It is universally agreed that the pig is one of the most bountiful animals on the planet; hence the saying that everything but its squeal is useful. Guanciale is an unsmoked Italian bacon prepared from the pig’s cheeks or jowls. It is delicious and adds a wonderful new level of flavor to many dishes. If you’re lucky enough to find it, use it as you would pancetta.
Pigs ears, although most popular in Asia are also world renowned. In China they are braised, boiled, stewed, fried, etc., and mixed with various seasonings such as soy sauce and chili paste. In Japan pigs ears are boiled and pickled. The snout is also edible and utilized in all sorts of preparations world-wide including soup, rice and braised dishes.
Lobster and shrimp heads are routinely utilized to make stock. In the case of lobsters, the innards are usually cleaned out leaving just the shell. Like any other stock, the heads/shells are simmered with water and aromatics. However, unlike chicken and veal stocks that take hours and hours to produce, shrimp and lobster stocks are usually complete in 15, at most 30 minutes. With crawfish, the timeless New Orleans favorite, after the body is split in half and the tail meat removed, connoisseurs of the viscera then place the frontal segment in their mouth and proverbially “suck the head.”
CHICKEN AND DUCK HEADS
In China when chickens are roasted, it is not uncommon for the meat from the head and even the brain to be consumed. Some cultures add chicken heads to soup. In Taiwan, known for its street fare, you can find fried duck’s heads. Considered a delicacy, duck heads are deep-fried and then served on a stick.
Sheep, lamb, pig, calves, ox, and believe it or not, even monkey brains are consumed. Brains are highly perishable and should be consumed the same day they are purchased. They need to be soaked first in regular water, to extract blood and impurities and then acidulated water to help firm up their texture.
Brains are amenable to sautéing, poaching, frying, baking or broiling. They can also be braised in court bouillon and/or wine. They are also used as a filling for pies, made into a forcemeat, (a finely ground mixture of meats and flavorings), or incorporated into meat loaves.
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