Things to Make and Do, part 1: Pig Skull (off-topic)
July 1, 2009
I know, I know: a pig skull is not a vertebra, and it’s not from a sauropod. On the other hand, it is a cool zoological object, and every home should have one. I’m going to show you, in glorious technicolour, how I made a pig skull in under 24 hours at a cost of £3 and some silver, using only implements I had lying around.
First, here is the finished article, just so you know where we’re headed:
To get there was a four-step process, which I was comfortably able to do in an afternoon and early evening. It all started as we were driving the boys back from swimming on the Saturday morning, and I stopped in a butcher’s shop in Cinderford to ask whether they had any complete heads. I got a hit straight away: they had a 20 lb pig’s head which they costed at 25p per pound for a total of £5. I ummed and ahed a bit, not because of the price but just because the thing was so darned big; while I was hesitating, the butcher said that, all right, he’d cut off the huge slabs of neck-fat and get the price down to £3. Great: apart from anything else, that made the head portable. So the deal was done, and I brought the only-slightly-mutilated head back home. Here it is on our patio:
Now for the preparation, you need:
- A sharp knife
- A big cooking pot
- A teaspoon
- A Japanese-style chopstick (see below)
- A toothbrush that you don’t plan on ever using again
- An understanding spouse
About the chopstick: you want it to have a fairly pointed end so that you can go poking it in cracks and crevices, so a Chinese-style broad-tipped chopstick won’t do at all. If you don’t have a Japanese-style chopstick, simply visit a sushi restaurant and take the sticks home with you at the end of the meal.
Got your tools? OK, off we go!
Stage 1: defleshing
First, cut off all the excess soft-tissue that surrounds the skull. One reason is just to get rid of it up front so you don’t have to cook it off, but the main reason for me was just to get the head small enough to go in the pot — pig’s heads are big things. You do need a good knife for this, strong and sharp, and a strong stomach. At first it felt pretty icky to be slicing bits off a head, but before long I was sawing away merrily at the lips and I guess all told it took about twenty minutes to reach this stage:
In case it’s not completely clear, that is the head slightly to right of centre — you can see its teeth if you look carefully. To the left is the huge pile of fat that I’d sliced off the head. I could not believe what fat heads pigs have. The amount of actual meat is tiny in comparison: you can see it over on the right. Most of this was little fragments, with the only two half-decent chunks being from the cheeks. I guess they were about two ounces of meat each (50 g), based on the similarity in size to a vanilla McDonalds hamburger.
Stage 2: boiling
At this point, I threw away the fat, put the head in the pan, filled the pan with freshly boiled water until it covered the head, added some washing-up liquid (“dish soap” for you Americans) and left it to simmer for two hours. While that was happening, I fried the meat from Stage 1 and ate it as part of my lunch. Danny (my eldest son) had some; the other two didn’t fancy it.
After two hours, I poured away the hot water, filled the pan with cold water to cool the head, then took it out and started pulling off all the soft tissue. Two hours in the pot had made a big difference, and big slabs of gristle came away neatly from bone. Once I was done, the head looked like this:
Notice the big pile of meat to the right — that’s what came off at this stage. By now the shape of the skull is apparent, but there is still plenty of soft-tissue left. In particular, the big jaw muscles inside the zygomatic arches were impossible to get out at this stage, thanks to a combination of strength and slipperiness. At this stage, the lower jaw could, just, be moved, whereas before it was solid with rigor mortis.
If I were making a movie about zombie pigs, this is the stage I’d film them at.
I took this photo before removing the eyeballs (this is where you need the teaspoon). Turns out that eyeballs are a lot tougher than I’d realised; so are the optic nerves.
Stage 3: reboiling
At this point I didn’t know how many boilings would be needed, but it turns out that the next one was the last. Into the pot it went again, with fresh hot water and washing-up liquid, for another two-hour simmer. When it came out, I drained and cooled it as before, and picked off as much of the remaining flesh as I could. Now the jaw muscles came away easily, and I was able to pull out the cartilage plug in the nose.
Again, there was a surprising amount of meat from this stage, but the skull was basically free of its fleshy encumbrance by this point. I rather wish now that I’d kept the fat from stage 1 and the meat from stages 2 and 3 so I could have piled it all up together and photographed it together with the skull.
By now, the mandible was cleanly separated from the cranium, and it was easy to rub away the remains of the cartilage covering the joint.
Stage 4: cleaning
By now, only small and tough bits of meat remained. Plenty of them could be scraped away using the Japanese chopstick: this was particularly useful for digging around in between the teeth. By far the hardest part of the cleaning, though, was getting rid of the brain and the cranial nerves. The problem is of course that you don’t want to crack the braincase open, and the brain is far too big to come out of the foramen magnum. Apparently the only way to do this is to swirl your chopstick around inside the braincase, then try to scrape the brain out bit by bit. This I did using several methods: I poked the cranial nerves back inside the braincase with my trusty sushi stick, smushed everything up, tried to hook bits out, ran water through the skull from nose to braincase and generally shook that baby around, getting little bits of brain out. This took a while and was, truthfully, not the most delightful time of my life.
But it was well worth it, because by the time I’d done, the skull looked like it does in the photo at the top of this post. And here is a more scientific composite, showing the cranium in five cardinal views:
Folks, a pig skull is a serious piece of kit. What I have here is the foundations of my very own museum of comparative osteology. Everyone ought to make one.
So am I done? Not quite — there is still …
Stage 5: final cleaning
There are a few bits and pieces of meat that I couldn’t get at, either because they were too firmly attached, tucked away in narrow crevices, or inside the braincase where I couldn’t see what I was doing. So it’s time to let invertebrates do their bit. The skull is currently out in the garden, under a bucket weighed down with bricks so a fox doesn’t wander off with it. Hopefully in a few weeks, insects will have dealt with the remaining soft-tissue. Then I can re-bleach the skull in dilute hydrogen peroxide to deal with the likely discoloration, and glue the loose teeth into the defleshed sockets, and then I really am done.
I leave you with a photograph of my two eldest sons, Matthew (9) and Daniel (10), with the partly prepared specimen.