“It’s hog-killin' weather.” That once was a common way to describe a time of sharply, persistently cold weather. That sort of weather is now uncommon and the descriptor even more so. During the decades when farm families depended on that which was provided by their fields, flocks and the natural environment, the sentence made perfect sense. Harvesting their hogs for meat and lard to last most of the year required cold weather and hard labor.
Cold weather was necessary to keep meat from spoiling. Lacking electricity for refrigeration and storage, people relied on January’s arctic blasts. Man-handling the hogs' carcasses of 200 to 300 pounds meant hard labor.
Preparation began in advance. Animals to be butchered were selected, moved into a pen and fed plenty of corn to “clean out their system.” Wood for the big boiler and wash pot was brought to the site. The 60-gallon boiler used to wash clothes, make syrup and scald hog carcasses to remove hair was filled with water the day before. Knives and a hatchet were sharpened and cleaned. January days are too short to get the job done unless everything was ready as soon as it gets “light enough to see good.”
Killing was simple — a short-range 22-caliber rifle bullet into the brain, even a sharp hammer blow, followed by slitting a neck artery to drain blood, an important step in preservation. Four strong men moved the carcass to a low platform at the rim of the big boiler in which water had been heated to just the right temperature to loosen the hair. Too cold or too hot would “set the hair,” making it necessary to shave the skin. They worked fast, pulling hair with bare hands or scraping it with dull knives or designed scrapers. One end of the carcass, head or tail, was immersed until ready for cleaning on the platform and then the other end was slid into the boiler. It was heavy work. The water was hot, but clothes soaked in it soon cooled because of the chilled air.
The next step was to take the carcass to the hog gallows, a sturdy post with dual cross arms near the top on which carcasses were hung, up to four at a time. Here a skilled butcher removed all internal organs into wash tubs, separating parts that were to be used from the rest. Not many things were discarded. An old saying goes that the only things that escaped were the hair and the squeal, but that is an exaggeration.
After carcasses had been washed down with cold water and wiped with clean cloths, they were moved to a butcher table, preferably located in a spot sheltered from the wind. Armed with sharp knives and hatchet (maybe a light ax), the butcher separated the parts to be cured — hams, shoulders and middlings — leaving spare ribs and backbone. He removed from all parts as much fat as possible to be rendered into lard and some lean pieces to be ground up and made into sausage.
My father, noted for his skill as a butcher, liked sausage both fresh and smoked. When cutting up his own meat, he usually dedicated a shoulder cut up into the sausage meat collection.
The meat to be cured was rubbed liberally with salt and placed in a big meat box, each layer separated from the next with a worn sheet or fresh pine boughs. It remained there for several days while the salt drew out liquids, mainly water. Then it was hung in the smokehouse and smoked for days with slow burning green hardwood limbs of the preparer's choosing — hickory, oak, sweet bay.
Women did not escape this hard labor and cold. They had the worst job, “ridding chitluns.” The small intestines (“chitterlings”) were used by some as food after serious preparation, but the main use was as sausage casings. First, the contents had to be emptied (ridding them of partly-digested food) into a tub or bucket. Then they were washed out with hot water. Next, they were turned inside out with a wooden rod and the exposed inner lining scraped with a dull knife and rinsed in cold water. Recall that the weather was cold and few country women wore pants back then, but they borrowed britches from male family members to wear under layers of dresses and coats.
Women also rendered the lard. Smaller quantities were cooked in the squat fat wash pot. The other option was to clean the big boiler thoroughly and use it. This work was not difficult, but it could be tricky. From start to finish, the cooking fat had to be stirred constantly with a wooden paddle lest it stick to the metal and scorch, potentially ruining the lard. The fire had to be hot enough to keep the fat bubbling but not so hot as to scorch it. The brisker the boil the more active the stirring. When the cooked-out “cracklins” floated at the top, they were skimmed off and the lard was strained into special lard cans, the family’s cooking oil for months.
Sausage making was an important near-final step. Cuts of meat set aside for that purpose were fed through a hand-turned grinder. Salt, peppers and selected spices were mixed with the ground meat to taste as determined by samples fried on the spot. An adapter on the grinder transformed it into a stuffer, pressing the sausage meat into the casings prepared earlier. Some of the sausage would be eaten fresh in the near future and the rest smoked for later consumption.
At the end of the day, those who had helped were paid with pork. Backbone, spare ribs and sausage were wonderfully good to eat, but would not “keep” and were obvious good payment. Many people also enjoyed less coveted parts, like livers, hearts, heads and cracklins. Daddy often threw in a pork shoulder because the work was hard and hog-killing weather was cold.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.