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Thanksgiving: A day two pigs would die

I can't really explain my grotesque fascination with hog killin'. Maybe it's my way of denying a sissified, suburban upbringing. Maybe it's the longing of my inner surgeon. Whatever the case, I'm utterly transfixed by the sight of steaming guts slithering from a splayed carcass into a big, metal tub.

For many years, it was my family's Thanksgiving tradition to kill a pig or two. However, in the first few years I would have been old enough to be of any help, my parents skipped the holiday trip from South Carolina to Kentucky. Then, Papaw got sick, and the farm where my mother grew up and the slaughters took place was sold.

Just like that, breakfast tenderloin and Granny's canned sausage passed from tradition to memory.

In all honesty, though, my interest was piqued less by flavors and more by the sights of the slaughter — like the neatly singed entry wound on the hog's head from the .22 rifle of my papaw, Oliver Wilson It seemed such a delicate, little hole for so brutish a task, but a larger round might make a mess — and after all, the objects was to make head cheese, not a "Scarface" sequel.

I was not alone among the grandchildren of Oliver and Leona Wilson in my excitement in festive carnage, though I might be the only one to remember it with reverence. My cousin Kelli Shaver's most vivid memory of hog killin' was of our cousin Kenneth Lee Wilson with a handful of guts chasing his sister, Haley, all over the yard.

There was a simple reason hog slaughter was so closely associated with Thanksgiving: "It was getting about cold enough to kill a hog by Thanksgiving," my Uncle Kenny Wilson recalls. That also explains why pork tenderloin — not turkey — was the traditional holiday fare when he was a kid. By the time grandchildren were chasing each other with entrails, poultry had indeed replaced pork, but tenderloin moved from the Thanksgiving dinner plate to the Friday-morning breakfast table.

If the serving part changed a bit through the years, the killing part did not. It commenced with one of my uncles letting the pig out of his pen and distracting it a bit with some corn or slop so that Papaw could level the fatal shot.

As my Uncle Jack recalls, preparations actually started the evening before, when two, 55-gallon barrels of water were hauled to the slaughter site by a sled and mules. (A tractor did this work by the time I was around, and it also was used to lug the hog from the barn behind the house to a clearing behind a row of outbuildings in front of the house, where the slaughter took place.)

Also gathered was an ample supply of firewood to heat water in a big cast iron kettle, which was hung by a horizontal pole supported by two vertical, V-shaped posts. Later, this kettle would be used to render lard and make lye soap before it was returned to its regular duty — heating water for the weekly washing. Also, a strong horizontal pole had to be mounted between two trees by chains and equipped with a block and tackle. This is where the hog would be hoisted and shaved the next day.

Flickr - PigShoot

The men rose at Thanksgiving daybreak, and the first task was to heat the kettle of water.

"Dad would then sharpen all of the butcher knives and position the sled near the heating water and hoist," Jack said. "When the water reached the boiling point, Dad would take a little, single-shot .22 rifle and slay the first hog to be butchered. He would then slit the hog's main artery in the neck region to drain as much blood from the hog as possible. Then a chain was placed around the hog's hind feet and everyone pulled the slain hog from the hog lot to the prepared sled, where the cleaning would begin."

I can remember seeing a hog skinned —after a few cuts were made and the head removed, skin and fat layers were rolled off the pig, exposing the leaner meat. This was a quick method, as it saved the tedious work of shaving the hog. However, it was not the most common method.

Flickr - Untitled

More typically, dippers were used to pour scalding water over small portions of the hog. That loosened the hair and allowed it to be scraped off with large knives. Care had to be taken not to pour the water so fast that it cooked the skin instead of scalding it. After the hog was completely cleaned, a spreader was put between the hog's hind feet and a hoist was attached through the tendons of the rear leg. The hog was then lifted completely off the ground and the head severed from the body. Any remaining blood was drained.

A typical butchering method was to make the first incision a long cut down the middle of the underside, from crotch to chin, taking care not to slice the membrane that holds the intestines. The second cut freed the large intestine from the anus, then the membrane, allowing the intestines to drop from the body cavity and into the tub. Only seldom did the Wilsons make chitterlings of the intestines, and this typically was the only part of the hog that wasn't consumed or used in some way. Usually, the intestines were simply discarded.

Hearts, kidneys and livers were usually saved, however. So were the brains, snout and jowls, which were cured and eaten like ham. Sometimes the hooves and feet were saved; sometimes they were not.

Once the innards were disposed of, "Then the good parts came out, the ribs and tenderloin, which we would make for the Thanksgiving dinner," Jack told me.

As my Aunt Ina Wilson notes, this was only the start of a few days of hard work.

The hog was washed thoroughly, inside and out, and put back on the sled, which by this time had been covered with cardboard.

Oliver would then separate the hog into cuts of hams, shoulders, bacon and fatback. The tenderloin is located on either side of the backbone cavity. Fatback is hard fat that runs most of the length of the back. Some of the fatback was removed and used separately for cooking; some was rendered into lard or soap. According to Foxfire Vol. 1, which seems to closely describe the butchering process my family used, the two sections of rib cage were removed by slicing the mesentery between the outside of the ribs and the inside of the "middlin' meat" — fat from the pig's belly and sides. Each section came out as one piece.

The shoulders and hams came off next. The thick side meat remained and could be made into country bacon if cured and smoked, although the Wilsons did not typically prepare the meat this way. The ribs followed and were placed on a chopping block and cut into 2-inch sections and put aside to can, along with the backbone, which was cut apart at each vertebra. Hams, shoulders, jowls and other cuts were trimmed. The fat and scraps are separated, with the parts containing both lean and fat used for making sausage and the parts containing all or nearly all fat used for lard.

Often, more than one hog was slaughtered. (Two were killed on the Thanksgiving days I can recall.) If that was the case, the process would begin again.

Butchered meat was taken into the smokehouse immediately and usually left to cool overnight. "Oliver would do a final trim on all of the cuts and cover them with curing salt," Jack recalled. Sometimes the hams were sold or traded for goods or services; the rest became the family’s meat supply for months to come. The "smokehouse" was also a bit of a misnomer because the Wilsons seldom smoked their meat. Usually, it simply served as a dry, cool place to hang their salt-cured meat. The cool air outside and shade of the smokehouse provided refrigeration while the meat absorbed the salt. Because it might take a few weeks for the meat to fully cure, slaughtering was a wintertime task. When the family needed the meat to eat, it cut off what it needed, washed off the salt, soaked it overnight and then cooked it.

Meanwhile, outside the smokehouse, the kettle water was kept boiling over an open fire and the scraps containing the most fat went inside. A big, long-handled wooden paddle that resembled a boat oar was used to stir. As the fat began to render out, it was skimmed from the top and strained through cheesecloth into 5-gallon buckets.

This is lard.

The process usually took several hours, and the stirring was constant to keep the contents from sticking to the pot. Nonetheless, it held the kids' attention, my Aunt Ina said, because of the material caught in the cheesecloth — cracklin, or instant pork rinds. When the family had all the lard it needed, lye was added to rendering fat to make laundry soap. This was powerful and potent stuff, usually reserved for cleaning clothes made thoroughly nasty from the sweat and grime of field work, Ina said.

Leaner scraps were run through a grinder. Sage, salt and pepper were added, making sausage. In later years, Oliver would go to the IGA grocery store before a hog killin' and get a sausage-seasoning mix to be used instead. Using the old wood stove that was moved to the wash house after the family purchased an electric range sometime in the 1940s, the sausage was cooked in patties about the diameter of canning-jar lid. The cooked patties were then dropped inside and some grease poured on top. The jars were then turned upside down, and the hot grease helped seal the lids.

The meat around the head got cooked down to make head cheese. Jowls were cured and eaten like ham or bacon. The family sometimes set aside a chunk of pork fat, which was always kept around for stripping tobacco. That process would turn your hands black, sticky and nasty, Uncle Kenny said. Coating your hands with the pork fat helped that a little, although only a little.

"As you can see, very little went to waste," Jack said.

Want to give it a try this Thankgsiving? You might have a difficult time finding a hog at this hour, but if you have one handy, you can follow the instructions in this 1959 USDA guide, from which the attached photos of the slaughter are taken. It features some interesting departures from my family's method of slaughter, partciularly the scalding step, where the pig is more or less dunked head-first into a half-buried trash can.

Everyone has their traditions, I suppose.

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