It's Thanksgiving. Can I watch you butcher your hog?
(Note: This blog post is adapted from "Wilson Grub," a family cookbook I wrote in 2015. I'm sharing it here because, well, it's Thanksgiving and I crave Granny's canned sausage. Click here if you would like to download the cookbook.)
I can't really explain my grotesque fascination with the slaughtering of hogs. Maybe it was my way of warding off the sissification of my suburban upbringing. Whatever the case, I was transfixed by steaming guts slithering out of a splayed carcass into a big, metal tub. I was curious to inspect the neatly singed entry wound on the hog's head, where my papaw, Oliver Wilson, had aimed his .22 rifle. It seemed such a delicate little hole for such a brutish task, but a larger round might make a mess — and we wanted to make head cheese, not "Scarface.”
I was not the only of the Wilson grandchildren excited about the annual Thanksgiving slaughter, though I might be the only one who remembers with reverence. My cousin Kelli Shaver's most vivid memory of hog killin' was our cousin Kenneth Lee Wilson chasing his sister, Haley, around the yard with a handful of hog guts. There was a simple reason hog killin' was so closely associated with Thanksgiving: "It was getting about cold enough to kill a hog by Thanksgiving," my Uncle Kenny Wilson recalls. That's one reason tenderloin was the traditional holiday fare on the ridge where he and my mother grew up in a three-generation household. Turkey had replaced pork by the time Oliver and Leona Wilson had grandchildren running around their farm. Nonetheless, a hog was slaughtered most years when I was little, and tenderloin simply moved from the Thanksgiving dinner plate to the Friday-morning breakfast table. I must admit, the first time I saw a hog slaughtered, I had a hard time eating that breakfast. I looked at tenderloin on my plate and thought of a tub of blood and guts. Let's just say I eventually came around.
It does a person good to lay eyes on the processes that bring food to the table, whether it's catching a fish, harvesting a crop or killing a pig. It gives you an appreciation of what lost its life so you can sustain yours. It also helps you understand that lifting the fork to your mouth is the least of the exertions necessary to nourish your body.
Butchering a hog is indeed hard work. 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 it would lower its head to eat, exposing it for Papaw’s 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.) Lots of firewood was also gathered. That was needed to heat the water in a big, black cast iron kettle that was hung by a horizontal pole and supported by two vertical, V-shaped posts. After the slaughter, 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 secured with chains between two trees and equipped with a block and tackle. This is where the hog would be hoisted and shaved the next day. 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 more or less 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. 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. The hog was then lifted completely off the ground. The head was then severed from the body, and 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.
But 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 describes a butchering process that seems to closely resemble my family’s procedure, 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 pork. 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 the remaining fat to make laundry soap. This was potent stuff, usually reserved for use in 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 to make 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 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 — a step in preparing the crop for market and a process would turn your hands black, sticky and nasty. Coating your hands with the pork fat helped that a little, although only a little.