Philosophers have debated the existence of free will for centuries, and anyone who has ever taken a creative writing class has probably heard a teacher recite the old saw from Heraclitus: “Character is destiny.” The implication, as I understand it, is that much of what we do in life, and therefore much of what happens to us, is foretold by the person we are. And after my recent experience with a bottle of Bandol Rosé and half of a pig’s head—split lengthwise, snout to spine, and tucked furtively into the back of my refrigerator with explicit instructions to L (my wife) along the lines of “Trust me, babe, whatever you do, don’t look in that bag”—I’m beginning to think Heraclitus was on to something.
It began with a recipe, the very last recipe I tackled in a cookbook that I’ve been working my way through, on and off, for several years: the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook. If you don’t have it, get it. Among all the cookbooks by Alice Waters, this one carries the cleanest expression of her vision. The recipes are strictly Slow Food, so don’t expect any 20-minute dinners for the instant gourmet, but you really feel that you’re getting a lesson in a core aesthetic—and not just in the one she’s currently famous for, with its admonition to eat local, seasonal, and sustainable foods. It’s a lesson, rather, in the entire French-Italian-Mediterranean worldview that Alice absorbed in her youth, transmuted for California consumption in her early adulthood, and then proselytized extensively. And no single recipe in the book illustrates this more than the one calling for a lightly chilled rosé: head cheese.
The book is divided by ingredient—vegetables, eggs and cheese, beef, fish—and the very first pork recipe Alice offers, well before her classic roast pork loin with rosemary and fennel, is head cheese. To my mind, this declares a kind of aesthetic intent: Hey, look you guys, I’m serious about my pork thing. But it also sends a message: Don’t ignore this recipe just because it sounds gross.
But it does sound gross, and it does sound a little unnecessary, and for several months, when it became clear that this would be the final barrier standing between me and the knowledge that I had cooked every single recipe in the book, I felt certain I would ignore the head cheese. I even aired it with my wife, after I’d plowed through Alice’s recipes for cold beef tongue salad, homemade pancetta, and boudin blanc, just to be sure I was on solid ground: “I don’t really have to make the head cheese, do I honey?” (“Of course not, sweetheart. Are you fucking kidding me?!”)
But then I was at my local farmers’ market, buying eggs from my favorite rancher—Dave Evans, of Marin Sun Farms—and I noticed a few half pigs’ heads in vacuum wrap. The first thing that happens to a dead pig, as far as I can tell, is that it gets run nose-first into a band saw, splitting it lengthwise from the nostrils right on down to the anus. As a result, it’s not uncommon to see pigs’ heads in this form: perfectly sawn in half, as if to provide a teaching aid for porcine anatomy classes, showing the entire skull in cross-section. And before I knew it, I had one of these shrink-wrapped horrors in my hands, and I was feeling its heft and stroking its contours and thinking about the Bandol Rosé I knew they’d have at the nearby wine shop, and which I’d been dying to try despite the expense, and I was getting this sweaty, sickly, pulse-jumping compulsive feel I get when I’m about to do something I know I shouldn’t do, and it hit me: I have no free will. I have only my own immutable nature, and because my nature dictates that I will not leave a project unfinished or a yearned-for wine undrunk, I simply am going to buy this here pig’s head, buy also that Bandol Rosé—almost certainly from Domaine Tempier, if only because Alice has such a romantic affection for the place—and spend many, many hours transforming the head into a food suitable for consumption with the wine. And then I’m going to bask in the sweet, utterly loving, and yet firmly self-respecting dismissal with which L will declare to me, at the dinner table, that she’s going to stick to the salad. And I was right, because I did all of those things, and the way it played out is another story, and one I will tell very soon.