Winter was the big time for killing hogs when cold weather was an aid to preserving the meat and when hogs were fat. When a cold spell that promised to hang on a few days blew in, it was time was time for butchering—time to put away the year’s supply of meat. Usually a neighbor or two came in to help (Pete Hall was always there, and I remember Mel Lipscomb helping us on at least one occasion.), and they received a parcel of fresh meat for their helpfulness. Early in the morning on butchering day the big black wash tub was filled with water and a roaring fire built under it. A scalding barrel (a sixty-gallon drum) was set up nearby, the back end slanted into a shallow hole at about a twenty degree angle and the open end low and convenient for receiving the carcass of the slaughtered animal. Slaughtering was done by a blow on the head with a sledgehammer or by a twenty two rifle shot to the head. Either way, the downed hog received an immediate knife stick to the jugular vein, and the throat was cut from ear to ear. This allowed the blood to drain freely from the body and made for a less bloody dressing later on. With a man at each hind leg, the porker was dragged to the scalding barrel and heaved in, headfirst, hind legs protruding slightly.
When the water in the pot reached the right temperature, not quite boiling but scalding hot, big bucket-fulls were heaved into the barrel, dousing the carcass. We turned it rapidly and rolled it about (hind legs serving as handles) so as to give all parts a good exposure to the hot water. Only the extreme rear portion missed this hot bath, as it protruded from the barrel.
During the scalding process there was a frantic snatching at patches of hair, from moment to moment, to determine at just what point the hair began to slip well. Water not hot enough was ineffective; too hot, it set the hair; underexposure failed to loosen the hair and overexposure would set it. Both timing and water temperature required careful judgment. You have to put the water at about 145 degrees. One year we put in four sprigs of pine tops and three tablespoons of soda to make the hair slip easier.
When the hair slipped easily, carcass ends were exchanged in the barrel. A bit more hot water was added (Sometimes a hot stone, heated over the hot coals in our fire, was dropped into the barrel to reheat the water), and the rear end was soused and doused in the hot bath until the hair slippage on that end was just right. At this point, the whole thing was hastily pulled from the barrel onto boards or a sheet of tin, to keep it out of the dirt, and we set to scraping it with our knives. Scraping had to be done in a hurry, for, once cold, the hair set. If the skin started to cool, we put a burlap bag over the carcass and poured scalding hot water over it to reheat the hair before it set. When timed just right, the hair and the outer layer of skin yielded well to scrapers’ knives, leaving a beautifully clean and white carcass.
After the hog was scraped completely, it was then gangled. Gangling is where you cut through the skin of the back of the leg and pull the tendon out so you will have a place to hang the hog by. Slits were made in each hind leg at the hock (gambrel), between the bone and the big tendon, and the sharp ends of the gamlin stick inserted in each. The gamlin stick, about two feet long and sharpened on both ends (shaped somewhat like a singletree), served to stabilized the carcass and hold the hind legs apart, an aid to dressing (disemboweling). With a rope attached at the stick’s center the carcass was hoisted, head down, by means of a pulley (most often by manpower alone) to a scaffold or a tree limb and anchored at just the right height for dressing. We placed a tub under the hanging carcass, and Pete Hall, with a sharp knife, laid open a thin seam down the abdomen from the anus to its throat. Then, beginning at the anus, he opened the belly, very slowly, placing one hand carefully inside to hold back the entrails. (A cut or torn gut would allow the contents to spill out and contaminate the flesh it touched, to say nothing of the terrible odor.) On male hogs, he carefully cut away the genitals and tied them, giving particular attention to the urinary track to prevent spillage.
He cut the insides and let them fall into the tub below. Liver, heart, lights (lungs), and melt (sweetbread) were removed and we set aside the intestines to be trimmed of fat for lard or soap grease and cleaned for sausage casings. (We saved everything but the squeal.) Chunks of liver and melt quickly found their way into buckets for supper, some going to the neighbors.
In the meantime we doused the hanging carcass with clean water and rinsed it free of blood. Then we took it to the basement and placed it on a table of thick, heavy boards, where Dad cut it up. I have a vivid memory of the big beautiful hams he so expertly cut out, running a knife around the bone to make way for handfuls of curing salt. Shoulders were separated, being prized right next to ham, and the head and feet were removed and sent to the kitchen, where Mother chopped up the ears, tongue, and trimmings. She mixed this mess with spices and vinegar, and packed it in a crock where it would set for several days to make souse, or headcheese. Sometimes, but not often, Mother pickled the feet; and sometimes we used the scraps and trimmings for sausage instead of souse.
Dad used a regular wood ax to chop the ribs loose from the backbone and cut them into chunks just the right size to season a pot of turnips and greens. If you save the backbone, you scrape it down, and then you cut the tenderloin, or backstrap. I wanted the tenderloin and backbone out of mine. We stripped the spareribs from the belly portions (called middlings, or side meat) for dinner. When they were fried brown and served with milk gravy and hot biscuits, they were delicious.
We cut a great deal of the fat away from lean portions. The fat was rendered into lard. The lean meat for sausage and fat parts for lard were separated as we cut the meat, so when we got ready to stuff the sausage all we had to do was to grind the meat and stuff it. The lard was put into the tubs and allowed to cook on an open flame. We scraped our own casing and stuffed our own sausage. Hams, loins, shoulders, and middlings were salted heavily and let set a day or so. When all the parts had been cut, we rolled them in sugar cure. We then place it on a board with the skin up so that it can drain overnight. The next morning we rerubed the meat and hung it up so the wind could dry it out. Later, they were resalted, sometimes with a mixture of saltpeter, and packed away in wooden boxes, which Dad made and which he called meat boxes. After some time, perhaps about two weeks, we removed selected portions from the salt pack and hung them over a slow smoldering hickory fire from which rose a pungent smoke that completed the curing process.
Thus, our meat supply for the year—hams, loins, shoulders, middlings, and sometimes sausage—was cured and at hand for our sustenance throughout the year. The reason pigs were the staple for meat in those days was that there wasn’t a good way to preserve beef. Without freezers, the primary way to preserve beef is to dry it, and that was not convenient. We did butcher one old milk cow when I was a kid. Dad built a wooden window box above the ground level in the basement. We left the basement window open, and the beef stayed frozen most of the winter. The meat was tough, but we sliced off pieces of it and pounded it with the edge of a plate and then pan fried it. The meat ("cubed steak") got sweeter and sweeter as we chewed it—and we had to chew and chew. I really liked the beef (for a change). We bred our milk cows to Hereford bulls because the calves brought more when we sold them for beef or veal. (We did not butcher our own except on the one occasion when we butchered the old milk cow.