My dad is pragmatic, humble, and massively talented with anything related to woodwork and construction—a true carpenter by birth, if not profession. As I’ve settled into my own hands-on craft, cooking, I especially enjoy when ours cross paths. We talk knife-sharpening technique, the best wood for cutting boards, and more controversial stuff like when Microplane shifted from the business of filing wood to grating Parmesan. My dad likes to say that my world (the kitchen) steals most of its best tricks from his (the workshop). I can’t really argue with him—it’s pretty hard to cut T-bone steaks without a band saw.
A few months ago our worlds collided in the name of collaboration. I drove the hour from Boston to my childhood home in Westford, Mass., and joined my dad amongst the sawdust and fluorescent lights of his basement workshop. Twenty years ago we’d have been drawing up schematics for a me-sized pine wood derby car, or cutting dowels for a CD rack. This time around? A mount for a boar skull.
I should back up. About a year ago I traveled to upstate New York with a few fellow Test Kitchen cooks and shot a wild boar. You can read all about it here. Since then we’ve been doing some serious cooking, curing, and sausage stuffing—necessities when you kill a 400-pound animal and promise to use it all. While the other fellows tended to simmering pots of ragu and debated fresh versus dry-cured sausage, I had another project to attend to. I was preparing the skull for what those in the know call a European mount. Get those taxidermy-inspired images of dead plastic eyes and rubber tongues out of your mind: The European mount is the minimalist’s method of preservation. How does it work, you ask? Read on.
STEP #1 REMOVE FLESH
My first move was to cut and scrape as much flesh as I could from the skinned head. When I’d done all I could with my hands and knives, I did some research on how to remove the rest (including a web of concealed tendons and, of course, the brain). I found a plethora of inventive—and completely hands-off—methods: toss it onto an anthill, into the ocean, or under a milk crate in the woods, and wait. Leaving all of the dirty work to hungry bugs and fish felt like the (natural) way to go, but my Boston apartment offers little in the way of these resources. I instead went with the cook’s option: simmering. A few hours in a very large stock pot at a gentle simmer was enough to melt the elastic connective tissue, separate the upper and lower jaws, and give me full access to the many nooks and crannies of the skull. It also loosened many of the teeth.
Test Kitchen Tip #1 Always pass your skull-simmering liquid through a fine mesh strainer to catch any teeth that slipped out during cooking.
Test Kitchen Tip # 2 Keep abandoned teeth in deli containers labeled “upper jaw” and “lower jaw,” and you’ll thank yourself when it comes time to reassemble.
Simmering had left me with a relatively clean skull, but I still had plenty of odds bits to remove (including the brain) using tweezers and the sink sprayer.
STEP #2 MAKE IT WHITE
Ask most hunters, and they’ll tell you a European-mounted skull should be pristine white. To this end, and at the recommendation of many sportsmen’s blogs and websites, I gave the jaws a second simmer in water spiked with Borax. Borax breaks down and releases surface fats while also starting the bleaching process. Like a tube of Rembrandt, the Borax boil got me a few shades lighter, but it didn’t finish the job. For that I’d need many months of direct, bleaching sunlight (think skull abandoned in a desert) or a quantity of hydrogen peroxide and 24 hours. I opted for the latter.
I started with a professional-grade 30-percent solution of hydrogen peroxide but actually ended up diluting it down to about 3 percent (the same strength as the brown bottles at the drugstore). An overnight soak followed by a thorough air-drying left me with a significantly whiter specimen. Not celebrity-teeth white, but I was satisfied.
STEP #3 PLAY DENTIST
I have to admit that I love any excuse to use epoxy. Squeeze two innocuous gels into a trough, mix thoroughly, and in moments they seize into an impermeable resin! What’s not to love? I’m left feeling like a scientist from the future, and it only cost me $4.99. To boot, just like in a video game, you get to choose your skill level—can you mix and apply in 60 seconds? 5 minutes? Oh, you need a full hour? Given that I’d never before replaced boar tusks and teeth, I opted for the 5-minute epoxy (medium skill level) and bundled it with a tube of Krazy Glue. Back home I spread out some newspapers and got down the business of arts and crafts and dental reconstruction.
Krazy Glue proved ideal for the smaller teeth of the upper and lower jaws, filling in the gaps left by dissolved gum tissue and locking them firmly in the place. I turned to the epoxy for the larger, heavier tusks.
STEP #4 CONSTRUCTION
So far my hunting adventure had taken me from upstate New York to the Test Kitchen to the craft table and now, finally, to my father’s workshop. I wanted a plaque that would reflect the rugged New York woods where I’d shot the boar, and so we searched for a piece of wood with some character. We settled on a slightly bowed, rough-hewn slab of cherry wood, framed with bark and gnarled with a split.
We first sawed the board into two and passed the pieces through a planer to give ourselves a flatter, more even surface with which to work.
Next up: assembly. We did some dry fitting to ensure we had the right angle for the platform and sufficient strength to support the weight of the skull. We then treated the wood with mineral oil—for both protection and a bit of lustre—before securing the skull to the board with some strategically hidden wires. Finally, we created a French cleat on the back of the upright board for easy wall mounting.
We were close to finished, but there was one last addition that I had to make. On that cold early spring afternoon that we’d butchered the boar, I’d been singularly obsessed with finding the fatal bullet, the nugget of lead that so easily felled the enormous animal. When we eventually found the slug, mushroomed near the front shoulder, I marveled at how something so small could inflict so much damage. I shoved it into the pocket of my hunting vest along with the shell from which it was fired.
I now drilled a shallow hole in the platform board and inserted the reassembled bullet. There it would stand sentry—a reminder to me of where this all began.