Second Look: Pâté

Food Features
Second Look: Pâté

I grew up in New York City, where pâté came in a fancy jar from Payard or on a plate from Balthazar, if it was served at all. But I’m marrying into a French country family; my future mother-in-law, Claudine Chenuet, grew up in a family of 14, where whole hogs were regularly butchered in the courtyard, and every last scrap was emulsified with fat into true, country-style pâté.

While Claudine didn’t inherit her parents’ recipe, she did start making pâté at home over 10 years ago, when her husband’s uncle, a cook by trade and a hunter by passion, gave her his secret recipe. The tradition nevertheless appears to be sputtering in France nearly as quickly as it’s picking up in the US.

Kathryn Tomajan of Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley says that their pâté and terrine classes regularly sell out. “Once they take a class, we find students excited to try it at home,” says butcher Sam Ramirez. “They ask a lot of questions about sourcing offal, fat, heads, and other things that go into the pâtés.”

Shelley Wiseman of The Farm Cooking School in New Jersey says that their pâté course is quite popular as well. “People are apprehensive,” she says. “And they generally find it easier than they expected.”

But there’s no need to go the route of an organized class. Hannah Kirshner, of the blog Sweets & Bitters, began making chicken liver pâté at home eight years ago on her own. “It was much easier than I expected,” she says. “After the first time, I didn’t need a recipe.”

Indeed, chicken liver is a popular first-time pâté, according to Camas Davis of the Portland Meat Collective, who calls it the “gateway drug” of pâté making. Most recipes call for very little liver as compared to butter, cream, or cream cheese – often half as much – which makes this a palatable first attempt.

“It’s actually quite delicious and mild, and then (people) move from there into terrines and pâtés,” says Camas.

Julie H. Case also started with liver pâté. While the recipe was more complicated than she had expected, she soon got the hang of it.

“It has since become quite easy for me, although I admit that sometimes my pâtés are, well, let’s call them low-country pâtés,” says Julie. “Maybe I should be glad that pâté has such a reputation for being difficult to make. It lets me impress people.”

But chicken liver as a gateway pâté seems a bit backwards when you consider both the general American aversion to offal and the fact that most pâtés, from rillettes to country-style terrines, actually contain little to no offal at all.

Claudine says that she has never used offal in her pâté. “I’ve got a liver someone gave to me in my freezer,” she says. “They told me to either mix it with the muscle meat or just make a liver pâté. But I haven’t tried it yet.”

Her nonchalance is revealing; while pâté may seem scary at first, it is no more difficult or fancier than meatloaf — if you believe Camas and Mark Bittman — especially when you’re only making one terrine.

But as I learned watching Claudine, in France, making pâté isn’t just about one terrine, or even several. While when she first started, she made a terrine or two at a time, she has since obtained a professional grinder, and her recipe involves a 24-hour marinade, nearly an hour of grinding the meat, and three hours in the sterilizer, not to mention the hour it takes just to bring the water to temperature.

“During the week, when you’re going to work, it’s not possible,” she says, of the task that has become relegated to Sundays.

But this is not disheartening for Claudine, for whom pâté has a purpose: wasting no scraps, and the long storage of meat. After all, she only began making it herself when hunters in her village began giving her game – a few pheasants for a Christmas terrine, a leg of wild boar, or, more recently, a whole deer that someone accidentally hit with their car.

“We never refused, because we knew we could make pâté with it,” she says.
Claudine isn’t even sure she would make pâté if she didn’t have hunter friends. “I already have to buy the pork belly or neck,” she says. “I don’t know how much the boar or the pheasant would cost at the market, but I think that game meat is rather expensive.”

The country origins of pâté hint at its lack of popularity with the newest French generation – my fiancé has neither the interest nor the time for inheriting the family recipe -, but the fact that pâté has been so long maligned in America may be the key to the increased interest, albeit not in the same quantities.

“Making a pâté has caught on, not making a lot of pâté,” says Camas. “I think that canning meat is a little bit scarier to people here in the States. But there certainly is an interest in making it at home.”

Of course, the fact that it’s inexpensive and sustainable helps. Hannah says that one of the things she likes best about her pâté is how cheap chicken livers are: “I save them from whole roasting birds and collect them in the freezer until I have enough,” she says.

Professional butchers agree. “We are a whole animal butcher shop,” Sam says, “So making pâté and terrines gives me the satisfaction of using all the scrappy bits and doing honor to the whole animal.” And Camas says that even butchers who are not doing whole animal butchery find that it’s a good value-added product, given its increasing popularity.

Even so, some pâtés are a bit overwhelming to American kitchens and palates, such as headcheese. Claudine’s recipe includes boiling the head for three hours in a savory broth before slowly picking off every last piece of meat. The meat is placed in a terrine dish and covered with the broth, which will gel and set.

Camas says that at many of the pig butchery classes offered by the collective, headcheese is merely mentioned in passing. “Oh, by the way, you could take the whole head and cook it down, and have this beautiful, gelatinous headcheese,” she says. “We usually have at least a third of the class who’s really excited to take the pig head home and try it, and then we’ll also say, in the same vein, ‘Oh, and you could throw in the hearts!’”

Pâté in America has certainly evolved from its early incarnations, such as the one Julie recalls her aunt concocting from grocery store braunschweiger, mayonnaise, and garlic whirred together in the Cuisinart, and any apprehension is quickly overcome with a bit of patience.

“Even when you screw it up the first time, or the second time, or sometimes if I’m not paying attention, I still screw it up, it’s a great little science experiment,” says Camas. “And then you realize that the reason it tastes good is not just what’s in it but also how it’s made and how it binds together. I’ve always really enjoyed watching that happen.”

Emily Monaco is a born-and-raised New Yorker based in Paris. After many years of trying, she has come to the conclusion that she will likely never be French. She writes about her experiences with Franglais and food on her blog, Follow her on Twitter @emiglia.

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