So I’ve been trying to think for a while now about how best to present this post, what angle to take, etc. and I don’t think I’ve really settled on one, but I wanted to put this up because it is not only important to me (thinking through ideas and experiences), but also for some others out there to maybe think about how far removed we are from some of the culinary practices of yore.
So here’s the scenario… My advisor, a former student of hers, and I all gathered at her house last week with some deer parts to do some zooarchaeological experimentation. The “former student,” who had been responsible for procuring the deer material in the first place, was interested in looking at skull fracture patterns. She’s a biological anthropologist and so is attempting to trace how different skull fractures occurred (as in with what types of objects, at what speeds, and from what angles) in a warfare situation because she is studying a population of skulls that were warfare casualties (that’s all the details I know).
My interest in the deer was, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to discover, much more culinarily-minded. I wanted to use the skulls to replicate (to a certain degree) some colonial period recipes. So I’m sure you’ve heard the term before “armchair academic” or something along those lines, meaning that the scholar just sits in their office and reads books about whatever topic they’re studying and never goes out into the field and actually does any hands on work. Well, I personally know that I learn better by doing, by being active, rather than passive in my learning, so I decided that I really needed to try to start actually making at least a few of the colonial recipes that I have spent so many hours reading.
Given that we were working mainly with skulls, I decided to use the deer skulls as a proxy for calf’s skulls (yes I know it’s not the same, but it’s as good as I’ve got) in several recipes from The Virginia Housewife, a cookbook by Mary Randolph first published in 1824. Since I have a, some would say, rather unhealthy obsession with turtle soup and am overly excited about reintroducing it into the Philadelphia food repertoire, I thought I should certainly make a “Mock Turtle Soup” and would also make a baked head with the other of the two skulls.
Now both of the recipes (to follow) instruct the housewife or cook that they will need to cut the head in half as a first step, this is in part to be able to remove the brain and also to be able to gain easier access to all the meat on the interior of the skull once the head has been cooked. This task is absolutely not for the faint of heart or stomach! It basically entailed taking an axe and chopping, with small and somewhat precise strokes down through the center of each of the two skulls. The only real disgusting part is when you’re hacking through the brain case and some of the brains ooze out at you, just try not to let them splatter your shoes or glasses. Honestly, I was surprised at how little this operation bothered me. “Good!” I thought to myself, “Perhaps I could have cut it, on some level, as a housewife in the eighteenth century.”
The Mock Turtle Soup is basically like making a soup stock with the skull, sans brain, eyes and tongue. The finishing touches can be quite different depending on the recipe you follow, but the basic first steps simply involve boiling the head for a couple of hours. As it turns out, this is really only as far as we took this recipe, except for making one of the accoutrements to the soup, which I’ll get to in a second. I was, I will admit, highly amused to open the stockpot lid and look down to see teeth sticking up at me. The fact of the matter is we just would never ever expect this in our country today. As I said before, we are so far removed from the animals we eat these days that to even consider making a dish where the origins of the meat are so clearly and literally staring you in the face, it’s just too much to even think about.
So the other dish that we made for the Mock Turtle Soup were brain cakes. I describe these like crab cakes but with brain instead of crab. Just breadcrumbs, egg, brains, salt, pepper and any other spices you might like. Form them into little balls and then fry them in fat in a frying pan until brown on both sides.
Onto the baked head. This recipe was also interesting because it used the brains in an entirely different manner, for the crust on the outside of the dish. First you brush the head with egg yolk, then sprinkle with breadcrumbs and seasoning, and finally sprinkle the top with the brains. Now before you put this dish in the oven, it does not at all look appetizing, but let me tell you, after about an hour and a half in a 350º F oven, it looks great (light golden brown crust), and smells even better!
A couple of other notes… Notice how in the recipes the measurements aren’t exact; this was the norm of the time, exact measuring, including oven temperatures and length of cooking time, didn’t come into fashion until the end of the nineteenth century. Also, we didn’t actually consume any of these foods, not because they turned out badly but in part because I wasn’t sure that the meat was entirely safe and I didn’t want to risk it, and also, it turns out that my advisor is a vegetarian, who knew?
So perhaps you’re wondering why on earth people went to the trouble of use the heads of animals in their cooking repertoires in the past. Well, first of all, they tended to try to use as much of the animal as was possible; there was virtually no waste. But we also know that head dishes were a high status dish. The reason for this is the amount of time and effort it took to prepare them. It is no small feat to split the head and to complete all the other delicate tasks which are involved when cooking with this part of the body. This would, consequently, be reserved for households where the servants could devote the additional time to the preparation and presentation of these dishes. I know of friends who have traveled to other countries and been served head dishes. If this should ever happen to you, rather than being affronted and disgusted, hold back the gag reflex, and think about the extra amount of effort that dish represents, a tribute to your importance.
I’m hoping that this is just the first of a number of historic culinary adventures. I cannot even express how wonderful it was to be following the recipes printed in 1824!
Have the head nicely cleaned, divide the chop from the skull, take out the brains and tongue, and boil the other parts till tender, take them out of the water and put into a knuckle of veal or four pounds of lean beef, three onions chopped, thyme, parsley, a teaspoonful of pounded cloves, the same of mace, salt, and cayenne pepper to your taste–boil these things together till reduced to a pint, strain it, and add two gills of red wine, one of mushroom and one of walnut catsup, thicken it with butter and brown flour; the head must be cut in small pieces and stewed a few minutes in the gravy; put a paste round the edge of a deep dish, three folds, one on the other, but none on the bottom; pour in the meat and gravy, and bake it till the paste is done; pick all strings from the brains, pound them, and add grated bread, pepper and salt, make them in little cakes with the yelks of an egg, fry them a nice brown, boil six eggs hard, leave one whole and divide the others exactly in two, have some bits of paste nicely baked; when the head is taken from the oven, lay the whole egg in the middle, and dispose the others, with the brain cakes and bits of paste tastily around it. If it be wanted as soup, do not reduce the gravy so much, and after stewing the head, serve it in a tureen with the brain cakes and forcemeat balls fried, in place of the eggs and paste. The tongue should be salted and put in brine; they are very delicate, and four of them boiled and pealed, and served with four small chickens boiled, make a handsome dish, either cold or hot, with parsley and butter poured over them.
Divide the calf’s head, wash it clean, and having the yelks of two eggs well beaten, wash the outside of the head all over with them, and on that strew raspings of bread sifted, pepper, salt, nutmeg and mace powdered; also, the brains cut in pieces and dipped in thick butter, then cover the head with bits of butter, pour into the pan some white wine and water, with as much gravy, and cover it close. Let it be baked in a quick oven, and when it is served up, pour on some strong gravy, and garnish with slices of lemon, red beet root pickled, fried oysters and fried bread.