Nothing says “home for the holidays” like headcheese…

A traditional Smörgåsbord favorite, Swedish Headcheese

A traditional Smörgåsbord favorite — homemade headcheese served with red wine vinegar and pickles

My mother’s side of the family has many of traditions that seem to crop up around the holidays. There are the usual ones that almost every family has in common — baking cookies, picking up the freshly cut tree and sticking an orange at the toe of each stocking.

We also have a few slightly more unique ones, such as presents that aren’t as they appear. At our house, if you get a package that feels strangely light, the chances are high that you’ll be sent on a treasure hunt of some kind before you can claim your gift. We take pride in coming up with new ways to out-clever each other, but my grandmother is the reining champ.

She has made me decipher full letters written in Swedish, with only a dictionary to help guide me through the clues. She has folded up money into tiny pieces and stuffed it into dried pasta noodles. I once had to pop a dozen balloons to get a gift certificate out. She’s a devious mastermind when it comes to giving gifts.

She is also the main provider of our more…well, unconventional traditions, which are of the edible variety and stem from my grandparents being full-blooded Swedes. There’s the (recently posted about) homemade pickled herring, the hand-stuffed potato sausage and the headcheese that I avoided like the plague until I was in my twenties and discovered how it good it actually is.

In high school, when you tell your friends that your grandma makes headcheese for the holidays, trust me, you’ll get some looks. But nowadays, as an adult, all the “nasty bits” like heads, offal, tails and trotters are so trendy that no one bats an eye. My husband is a chef at a downtown Portland restaurant that often has coppa di testa (the Italian version of headcheese) on its menu and a professional meat supplier, I can assure you he’s not alone. My company can sell up to five or six heads a week, depending on the time of year. And sometimes, when it seems every chef in town is in synch with each other, we can sell around 10 or more.

What I find ironically hilarious is that my grandmother actually seems more disturbed by this trend than anyone else. This from a woman who willingly eats lutefisk. How is that possible?

But it’s true, I promise you.

In fact, she has a great story about the time she and my great-aunt decided to make headcheese for the first time. As children, they had often eaten it but they had never attempted actually making it until they were adults.

They went down to the butcher shop to select a pig head, brought it home and stuck it in a pot of water. The pot went on the wood stove and satisfied that they were on the right path, the sisters went shopping. When they returned home, they carefully lifted the lid off the pot only to be greeted by a pair of beady eyes staring back at them.

My grandmother, quickly putting the lid back on, looked at her sister and asked “Well…what do we do next?” She was sure that my great-aunt’s mother-in-law (also a Swede) had taught her the recipe.

“How am I supposed to know?” her sister countered. “I thought you knew what to do.”

Both of them, uncertain at how to proceed and decidedly unsettled by the contents of the pot, convinced each other to just throw the head away. Which they promptly did.

And that marks the first and last time my grandmother has ever tried to make headcheese with an actual pig head. Since then, she has used a small pork shoulder, which tastes just as delicious as any of the actual “head” cheese I’ve eaten.

It is made in the same traditional Swedish manner — seasoned with allspice, nutmeg and ginger — though she also adds a packet of gelatin to make sure it sets. Then on Christmas Eve, it’s sliced thinly and presented simply, accompanied only by a small glass pitcher of red wine vinegar and a few plates of pickles.

This, along with being made to translate a whole passage of Swedish in order to locate a bottle of bubble bath, makes being home for the holidays complete. These are the things I’ll always remember.

Swedish Headcheese

A traditional Smörgåsbord favorite, Swedish Headcheese

Olives, pickles, pickled beets, headcheese and red wine vinegar.

Swedish Headcheese


14 thoughts on “Nothing says “home for the holidays” like headcheese…

  1. Wow – working for your gifts – great idea. I’m afraid I never thought of doing anything like that for my kids. Don’t think I’d have had the energy! I love that headcheese is part of your holiday tradition. I ate it as a child without really knowing what it was, except delicious. I love the story about your grandmother’s first attempt at cooking it as well.

    • Oh man. The things she has made us do. The one that was the most funny to me was when she froze a gift card in a coffee can full of water. She thought I would try to chip it out and was so mad when I just ran hot water over it instead. 🙂 I think she spends all year dreaming up devious ideas!

  2. The gift hunt is pure genius and I enjoyed reading your grandmother’s story. I had a grandmother like yours and when she passed away I felt lost and devasted for more than a year. If I may…treasure every single moment you’ll spend with her.
    I would love to try one of your cheesehead 🙂

    • Oh I know! I spend as much time as I can with her and my grandfather. They are both in their mid-late 90s and still feisty as hell! In fact, my grandma, mom and I play an extremely cut-throat game of rummy each time we’re together. That’s a tradition right up there with the treasure hunts! =)

  3. I bought headcheese today, J! Just because you made me want to try it. You would love Kramarczuk’s in Minneapolis–family-owned sausage company/deli/bakery that’s been around since forever. Posting my finds on facebook tomorrow. I’ve only had a bite, but liked a lot. Would be better on a cracker, yes? Wanted to try the spicy version, but they only had “original” in the case. Thanks for the push out of my comfort zone:-)

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