By LISA BICKNELL
CV&T News Editor
It’s not an experience for everyone, I’ll have to admit, but several members of my family and some friends and neighbors spent most of New Year’s weekend elbow deep in pork parts.
No sparkling champagne or sparkling anything, for that matter, just piles of fresh red meat, sharp butcher knives, plastic bags, and a vacuum sealer.
Yes, it was a chore, but honestly, it was an enjoyable experience, and I’ll explain why a little later.
Here’s how my weekend went down.
On the Friday morning before the New Year began, we gathered at the shed where everything was set up and ready for the big task of butchering eight hogs.
Actually, the work began before. There was the scalding box to get ready, some long low homemade tables to clean, and wood to gather for heating the water in the scalding box.
We rounded up rolls of plastic to cover tables, tubs to hold the few parts of the pig we don’t eat (namely the guts and the squeal), buckets for the livers, sharp knives, knife sharpeners, a rifle and a steady aim.
That morning, a neighbor hauled the hogs to the butchering site.
One by one, the pigs were put down with an efficient bullet to the brain. After each was shot, it was pulled from the trailer and its throat slit so it could bleed out. A few minutes later, the lifeless body was picked up with the tractor and hauled to the scalding box.
A piece of woven fence with handles attached to each end was draped over the scalding box, and the pig lowered onto it. Men on each side of the box held the handles and lowered the hog into the steaming tub.
We joked about using the scalding box as a hot tub on another day.
Holding onto the handles, the guys lower and raise the hog up and down, like someone hand-washing their unmentionables.
After a few minutes of hot bath, the hog was hoisted onto a table built against the scalding box, and three or four people with scrapers immediately begin to rub off its hair.
The body of the hog was soon pink and clean. It was then lifted a few yards away to hang from a large iron bar on the tractor.
With a sharp knife, someone makes a clean slit in the belly of the hog, and the entrails spill into a large tub situated beneath it to catch them. Livers are fished out of the tub of guts and thrown into a bucket for those inclined to want one.
Not me. Not unless my mama fixes it and I don’t have anything to do with the process of cooking it.
With a power saw, the rib cage of the hog is cut into sections, opening up the body cavity so it can be quartered once it’s lowered onto one of the long low tables. There the feet, hams, and shoulders of the hog will be removed, the side meats carved.
Once the carcass is cut into large pieces, it is loaded onto a sheet of plastic in the truck bed of whoever plans to eat it. We make sure to shut the tailgate to keep away any hungry dog or cat.
After all the hogs are killed, bled, scalded, scraped, gutted and quartered, they are transported to another unheated shed where they will be cold enough to chill but safe from predators for the night.
Fortunately, the temperature is near freezing, so there’s not much worry of the meat spoiling.
That same evening, my brothers salt down the hams with the salt-sugar-spice mix that our family prefers.
On Saturday, some of us meet up again for the next round of processing. The middle section of the hog is sawn into pork chops, tenderloins and ribs. The shoulders are cut into roasts. The roasts and side meats are trimmed, the lean pieces tossed into a pile to make sausage later, the fat into another pile for rendering into lard.
We prepare the heads for boiling later. We remove the eyeballs, and one of my brothers saws off the lower jaws to remove the teeth. We also cut off the ears, which are a real treat for the curious dogs milling around outside.
That afternoon, we package chops, ribs and roasts.
Later on, a smaller crew builds a fire under a large cast iron pot, and four of the hog’s heads are placed inside it and covered with water. Once the water boils for a while, the fire is abandoned, and the meat slowly simmers down, then cools during the night.
The next day, the meat is picked from the skulls and bones and is ground, mixed with cornmeal, sage, red pepper, and spices and cooked yet again. The mixture is poured into pans to cool and congeal. My family calls this hogs’ head pudding; some call it head cheese.
I argue to leave the brains and tongues out; last year we didn’t, and although the “puddin’” tasted good, I had little appetite for it.
Call me a wimp if you want to, but I think this year’s batch is better.
To prepare it, I like to slice the “pudding,” place it in an ungreased skillet and simply fry it for a few minutes. There’s enough fat in the meat that the outside gets crispy and brown, while the inside stays moist and meaty. Sometimes I dredge the slices in flour before I fry them, which thickens the crispy layer on the outside. (Soaks up more grease, I suppose.)
On Sunday afternoon, all the remaining bits of uncooked lean meat are put through a grinder. Some is seasoned to make sausage. We leave some unseasoned to form into pork burgers, which I now prefer over hamburger.
Another round of packaging and labeling follows, and the meat is tucked away into the freezer.
But we aren’t done yet.
Bright and early Monday morning, the crew gathers, and a fire is again built under the large cast iron kettle. Handful after handful of the white chunks of fat are thrown into it to melt.
Thus commences a day of stirring the pot with a paddle resembling a small boat oar.
We have enough fat for two large cookings, and it takes all day.
Lard rendering day is the festive end to the weekend’s work.
That might seem weird to some, but all good country folk know what I’m talking about.
It’s fun to get together and work. There’s a sense of accomplishment with knocking out a big job like that together.
Folks used to do it all the time: barn raisings, corn shuckings, molasses cookings, tobacco cuttings, bean cannings, quilting bees.
All day long, the fire is fed, and we take turns stirring the pot. There’s enough of us that no one should get too tired.
Minutes before the fat is ready to be strained, a handful of baking soda is tossed into the hot grease. Tradition says that keeps the lard pretty and white.
As the last bit of grease renders from the chunks of fat, bits of browned lean meat and skin float to the top. When they have a rattle-y feel, we know there isn’t going to be much more fat to render out of them.
The boiling fat is poured into a crackling press. The fat runs through the press and out the funnel at the bottom of it through a cloth and into a large pot. When the pot is full, it will be set aside to cool.
The bits of browned skin and lean meat that were strained from the lard are pressed. They are called cracklings, are they are a real treat, particularly when hot and fresh.
The cracklings are dumped onto a large piece of clean cardboard on a table. We salt them and snack on them all day long.
Once the lard is cool enough to safely handle yet still warm enough to pour, it’s distributed among jars and recycled coffee containers. We’ll divide it up, take it home and use the lard for frying potatoes, baking biscuits, and seasoning beans.
Cracker Barrell ain’t got nothin’ on us, let me tell ya.
We save some of the fresh lard to pour into a couple of deep fryers. Once the fat is boiling good again, we drop fish filets into one, and potato wedges into another.
It’s almost dinner time. Once the fish and potatoes are fried, we fry turtle meat and onion petals.
“Come and get it!”
All afternoon, while the second rendering cooks, we fry and eat and stir the lard kettle.
It looks like we’ve all moved in to stay awhile, with the tables laden with pots, pans, food, and all the utensils.
Lard rendering day turns out to be unseasonably warm this year, and everyone is running around in shirt sleeves and muck boots.
The kids and dogs mill around in the mud, play in a nearby branch, climb hillsides and run wild like all kids need to do. (And dogs!)
Generations mingle and talk, laugh and share memories.
Sure, we could probably buy pork from the store more cheaply than the four day’s work we just put into our next year’s (or six month’s) supply.
But, despite the work, none of us really want to miss out on the experience, the fellowship, the community we build and renew each year. I’m happy to see our daughters, their significant others and some of their younger friends taking pride in our family tradition.
I’m glad they are interested in the stories my dad and our neighbors share about how it was all done without the benefit of tractors and modern equipment.
The younger generation photographs and Instagrams the process.
I think it’s safe to say we take pride in our culture, our heritage.
Lord willing, we’ll share many more good meals this year. When we eat pork, we will know where it came from. We will know who raised it, and we will know who processed it and how it was processed. We will appreciate the fact that, in order to live, something must die.
That’s the well from which my gratitude springs. We sometimes lose that when everything is purchased from the store, with no connection to the land or the process of getting it to the grocery.
I’ll take our process anytime over factory processed meat from Mexico, China, or even another state.
This weekend has been about much more than butchering hogs. We’ve just spent a weekend making memories, and they will sustain us, just as the meat does.