If you get queasy at the thought to killing animals, prefer to not know where your meal came from, or just want to buy your meat on a styrofoam platter wrapped in plastic, this post is not for you. Here in the mountains, cool weather first brings on hunting season, then hog butchering.
Our initiation into this tradition began when we hired a local farm family to enclose our screened in porch and then build a garage after we moved to our cabin full time eight years ago. Though we were “city people”, during these projects they decided that we might be useful for more than income from a job. As they finished the dining room with fall approaching, the senior member of the family asked if we might want a hog.
We had learned that “yes” was the answer to any invitation, regardless of whether we knew what we were committing ourselves too. We could figure out the details later by asking another neighbor who is the high school ag-teacher (and understanding of city people). So, that first year, we found out the date and time, bundled ourselves in as many layers as we thought we needed, which was too few, and headed a few miles up the road. We have been back each year that we have been home on that date.
Butchering actually takes two days. On Friday, while we are at work, slaughtering occurs. By Saturday morning at around 6:30 a.m. when we show up with a crock-pot of potatoes and ham, the hogs have been scalded, shaved, gutted, beheaded, and hung. Though we do not need our meat packaged on a styrofoam platter and wrapped in plastic, we do prefer to meet it when it looks like something in a butcher shop. Usually about half a dozen or so families join together for butchering, each bringing some covered dish, baked items, etc. You do not have to worry that you missed breakfast by starting early.
Several working groups form from those gathered. At the table will be those who cut the meat. At one
end of the table are those who will trim off the skin, separate the fat for lard rendering, meat for sausage, and bones for slow cooking into pudding to make into scrapple (also knows as ponhaus by the Pennsylvania Dutch). The sausage grinding crew is at the other end of the table. Several others assist those who make the various cuts of meat by packing them into each family’s coolers, or vacuum sealing at a side table. Once the process starts, half-after-half of hog comes down from the tender hooks.
There are plenty of hands to fill in gaps when someone needs to have a cup of coffee and doughnut, take out buckets of fat or bones to add to the boiling pots, or slip up the bathroom. There is also plenty of time to converse, catch up on the year, or tell a joke.
Hog butchering is as much about gathering with neighbors and friends, as it is about stocking up on pork chops, sausage and bacon. By mid-day, the last half goes through the process and into the deep freeze. Everyone helps to clean up the table, wash the tools, and put out the lunch spread (well, at least the Marthas, as the Marys are off chatting elsewhere). Soups, chili, more ham slices, and baked goods fill the table. While this may be my
conjecture, this seems more of what the early Thanksgiving meals might have been like. Work and fellowship.
While at Colonial Williamsburg over Thanksgiving, one of the programs that we attended was at the Great Hope Plantation. The interpreter talked about hog butchering. Several cliche phrases made much more sense. “Living high on the hog”. The upper cuts of meat (chops or tenderloins, hams, and shoulders) are all on the top of the hog. These went to the plantation owner and his family. The rest of the hog (ears, jowls, feet and knuckles, ribs, fat back, and chittlens) was given to the slaves and indentured servants. The interpreter joked that what was once the cast off meat (ribs and bacon) are now considered prized items.
Also, most plantation owners allowed their slaves to grow their own gardens and have a few hogs, which they tended to after their days in the field. Hogs and butchering was a tradition from this era. Furthermore, raising a few hogs was a tradition for most homesteaders here in the mountains. Fall and winter were the months when families and neighbors gathered with their hogs for butchering. If you drive around the back hollows, you can still find the root cellars and smoke houses from days before electricity and refrigeration. These small structures are usually stone or block basements, half recessed into a hill, with a small wood structure above it.
We do not smoke our bacons and hams (yet). When we return home after the lunch feast, I take the bacons and ham into our root cellar. All of the exposed meat and bones gets a covering of “sugar cure”, which is really a certain grind of salt with seasoning mixed in. For authentic cured ham, we would let this stand in the root cellar for about 2 months, with periodic checks to apply more salt. The salt draws out the moisture and preserves the meat. Come spring, we would brush off the salt, wrap the ham in newspaper, place it in a pillow case and let it hang in the garage. The longer it hangs, the closer you get to Italian prosciutto. No need to refrigerate it until you cut into it. We have gone to a milder curing process. After about three weeks, when my knuckles have recovered from a cold day of butchering, I bring in the bacons and ham for hand slicing, vacuum sealing, and freezing for the year.
In conversations with co-workers and clients who grew up in this region, many reminisce about growing up on farms and butchering between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Most no longer carry on these traditions, either because they no longer live on farms or because the generation which valued producing their own food has passed. For now, each fall we look forward to stepping back into the 18th century.
Sausage: 44.5 lbs (garlic, country, breakfast, bart’s, Italian spices)
Ribs: 7, 1.75 lbs packages
Chops: 14, 2.25 lbs packages
Shoulder Roasts: 4, 2.75 lbs packages
Ham Roasts: 2, 4 lbs packages
Ham: 18 lbs (plus 5 lbs bone for soup)
Bacons: 2, 7 lbs each
Jowls: 1, bigger than you want to eat
Liver: 8 lbs cooked for pet stew
Processing Time Today: 12 hrs
Bedtime: about 15 minutes from now