American History & Genealogy Project
Hog Killing Day on the Farm Circa 1930
HOG KILLING DAY ON THE FARM CIRCA 1930
The hog has been domesticated by man since at least the stone age in Europe. The animal has traditionally been the mainstay in food for the poor: the hog has many piglets, eats almost anything –especially the garbage that is left from other animals. They forage for nuts and berries and edible roots and graze on grass. Their habit of consuming almost anything with any food content earned for them a reputation as being “unclean” and the use of pork food products is still forbidden by some religious groups. In the bible Jesus cast out devils and had them inhabit a herd of swine-and the swine jumped to their deaths off a cliff.
The hog was brought to the new world by some of the earliest European settlers and they came across the country as the pioneers moved west with their families. The wild boars called razorbacks that are often mentioned in early pioneer literature were offspring of domesticated hogs that escaped into the woods. In the South, pigs were especially useful as they could almost fend for themselves with acorns and other wild fruit trees so plentiful in the woods.
What follows is a description of what took place on farms in 1930’s where hogs were butchered and the meats and other products were preserved for use during the whole next year. The routines and the recipes for preserving foodstuffs had changed very little in the nearly 300 years that Europeans had been in the Natchez territory. This was to change dramatically with the advent of electricity and the many options for freezing and preserving foodstuffs that electricity brought. In rural Mississippi the Rural Electricity Administration, spearheaded out of the TVA project was the source of this change beginning in 1946 just after the end of WWII. While in Franklin County there might be a few families that butcher their own pork, this is just as a sideline and not a matter of survival.
In the last 20 or 30 years there has been a push to grow leaner hogs with less fat content. However, in the olden days FAT hogs were desired for slaughter because the meat would be tenderer but also because the fat was rendered and used for cooking lard for the whole year. I was in my teens before I recall seeing any kind of commercially produced shortening at my home. We had lard made from pork and we had butter made from cows’ milk.
So, with the use of lard in mind, hogs that were to be slaughtered for meat were usually put in a separate pen for a month or so and fed corn and other food to increase their weight and particularly their fat content. At time of slaughter the hogs averaged from 500 to 600 pounds. Since this was the major meat used all year, hog killing day usually included the butchering of at least three and more likely 4 or 5 hogs and it was a hard day’s work involving not only my family members but also some 10 or so other people, usually the tenant farmers who came to work and took home a generous supply of fresh pork as their pay. My father was a good butcher and when the tenant farmers killed their hog my father and mother usually helped them as well.
Usually hog killing day was in December; my first memories of the day were always in conjunction with preparations for Christmas. There was also some belief that hogs should be killed at the right time of the moon, usually when the moon was on the increase. The weather had to be cold enough to keep the meat from spoiling until the curing process could take place--; we often spoke of “having a spell of cold weather”. Franklin County usually had a few brief spells of cold in November and then a much longer spell in December and January.
Prior to the day, many preparations had to be made. A scaffold made like the A-Frame supports that children’s swings are hung on had to be built. (This is like a carpenter’s horse.) It had to support the weight of at least two big hogs and be tall enough for the hog to swing by the feet and have the head be off the ground. Our wash pot, used weekly to boil white clothes, was washed out and filled with fresh water. This three legged pot was about a yard wide and probably 30 inches deep, and sat about 6 inches or so off the ground. Firewood was stacked around it ready to be lighted early on hog killing day.
Supplies were collected and equipment checked. Knives were sharpened, the meat grinder was washed and set up to make sausage and every big cooking pot and crockery bowl was washed and ready for use. Fire wood for the outside kettle and the indoor stove was stacked neatly nearby. The gambrels –sticks like a rolling pin sharpened on each end-were laid out to use to put in the tendons of the hog’s hind legs. This wooden stick was attached to the rope on a pulley and the hog was hoisted upon the scaffold with it.
The smoke house was cleaned out, the roof shingles were checked for leaks, and the inside rafters were cleaned and checked for strength. This house, a frame structure about 12 x 12 feet, had a dirt floor with an indention in the middle of the floor where a fire was built after the meat had been seasoned and hung. The roof had an easement between the rafters and the sides of the building for the smoke to escape. Hard wood, usually hickory, seasoned at least for a year was used for the fire. Hams, shoulders, sides (bacon meat) and ribs were all seasoned and hung from the rafters which were about 6 or 7 feet off the ground.
Grass leaves from a plant my parents called “bear grass” which grew wild were used to hang the meat. This plant, a member of the Yucca family, had long leaves with threadlike veins which made the leaves super strong. A leave was threaded through the tendon of the ham and shoulders and through a hole punched in on end of the sides and then tied around the rafter for the smoking or curing process. It was essential that air could circulate around each piece of meat so care had to be taken with the hanging. Sausage stuffed into casings like long ropes were draped across the rafters.
On Hog killing day, everyone was up before dawn; the fire at the wash pot was started, a mule was hitched to a slide to bring the dead hog to the scaffold, and the killing began. The hog was hit in the head with a sledge hammer to kill it. The hog was immediately rolled on the slide and brought to the scaffold area; the gambrel was inserted in the back legs and the hog hoisted up on the scaffold with the head hung down. The throat was cut so that the blood would quickly drain from the body, leaving the meat clear and red and cooling down the body as quickly as possible. The hog’s head was removed and saved for processing later.
The boiling water in the wash pot was used to scald the pig’s skin, making the hair easy to scrape off readily and leaving the skin of the pig smooth and clean. The hog was then opened down the underbelly and the inner organs were removed. The main frame of the hog was rinsed down with cold water and the meat left hanging to allow for fast cooling.
While the carcass was cooling, the work of sorting out the entrails and making the special products began. The wash pot was cleaned up again and readied for use in rendering lard from the fat. The first fat removed from the underbelly was sometimes called leaf lard because it came out if sheets of fine layers and was very white and pure. This lard was processed first because it made such good shortening for cooking cakes and other delicate dishes. This lard was cut into cubes and put in the iron pot over a slow fire; it was stirred almost continually to keep the cubes of melting lard from scorching and giving the lard a “burnt” taste. As the lard melted the liquid was ladled through a cheesecloth lined strainer into storage buckets. We stored our lard in gallon tin buckets which we bought in 50 bucket cartons. We also stored our molasses in these tin gallon buckets so we had them on hand every year. There was very little residue from the rendering but it skimmed out of the pot and put aside for cracklings.
The second round of rendering fat included scraps of fat and skin and had a slightly off white or light tan color and the residual meat left after the rendering was firmer and crispier. The skin made especially good cracklings. After the cracklings had cooled, they were ground up with the coarse blade of the food mill, stored in a stoneware crock in a cool place to be used for seasoning vegetables. They were especially prized for use in cornbread.
In total, there would be from 10 to 20 gallons of lard rendered, depending on how many hogs were killed, and what part of the fat meat was used for other uses such as sausage.
Souse or Hog’s head Cheese:
The brains and tongue were removed from the head, the snout discarded and the rest of the head, along with the tail, the heart and the feet with the toes removed, were placed in a heavy pot and boiled in water until tender. When the meat was cooled enough to handle the meat was removed from the bones, cut in small chunks, seasoned with salt and pepper and vinegar to taste. The tongue was boiled separately until tender and when the outer skin had been peeled off, it was chopped and added back to the meat being prepared to make Souse. After seasoning, the meat was packed into a mold (a loaf pan could be used; we used a round stone crock) and covered with the liquid in which it had been boiled. We used a plate with a flat iron on it to press down the meat into the liquid to form a firm loaf. The liquid, when cooled was a firm gel which held the bits of meat together. The loaf could then be sliced for sandwiches or cold servings. Somewhat like chittlings, eating Souse was a learned delight!
Claig Claiborne, the famous cook, in his New York Times Recipe Book has a recipe for head cheese which involves some 20 ingredients with various spices that were not available to pioneers including cloves, celery, white wine, bay leaves, peppercorns, nutmeg among others. However, if you want to make head cheese today, you might want to consult his recipe for suggestions about spices, etc.
Sausage was made from about 1/2 lean and 1/2 fat pieces of the hog. The amount made depended on how much of the meat was left to be cured as fatback or sides of bacon and varied by family uses. The meat was first cut in thin strips that would feed into the food grinder and seasoned with salt, pepper, sage and whatever special herbs a particular family liked. The taste of homemade sausage varied from family to family depending on whose recipe was used. The fat and lean had to be fed into the grinder together; the fat would choke down the grinder and the lean, without the fat, tended to be tough. Listed below is a recipe with proportions that you might use if you are interested in making pork sausage today.
Ingredients: 4 pounds of fresh lean pork
4 pounds of fresh pork fat
1 ½ tablespoons salt (or to taste)
2 teaspoons fresh ground black pepper
1/4 to one teaspoon of cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons of crushed dried Sage
While tastes have changed and there is an effort to cut down on fats, a great reduction of the fat meat used will leave the lean meat dry and after cooking tough and chewy, somewhat like beef jerky. At our house, for years Olar Weatherspoon seasoned our sausage and she liked sage and red pepper so our sausage was “spicy”.
The sausage could be made into patties and used immediately for cooking. However, most of the sausage prepared was usually placed in casings ( 8 or 9 foot long ropes of round sausages about 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter) and draped over the rafters in the smoke house to be smoked and cured along with the hams, shoulders and bacon sides.
The casings used were the small intestines of the hogs. These were washed and scraped—an intestine was placed on a flat hard surface (we had a cutting board we used) and a dull knife was scraped across it. This removed the fatty tissue in and around the intestine, leaving a tough, almost transparent sleeve. This would be washed thoroughly. The meat grinder had a sausage stuffing attachment which looked like a six inch funnel. The big end fit onto the meat grinder where the ground food came out and the other end tapered down to a round hole about 1 inch in diameter. The casing was carefully eased onto the small end of the sausage stuffer. When the meat began to come out, it was forced into the small cylinder which fed the ground meat into the casing. If handled carefully, this tubing could be 7 or 8 feet long and it was tied off on each end after preparation.
Hog brains are covered with a thin, strong membrane and have veins through the middle. Scalding water is poured over the brain and the membrane can easily be pulled off and the veins removed. What remains is a slightly gray crumbly mass which looks a lot like scrambled eggs. In fact, the only person in our family that ate brains was my father and he liked them cooked scrambled with eggs for breakfast.
I am sure there are other recipes for cooking brains but I don’t have them.
Hog liver is a bit grainier and a bit more fatty than beef liver but it can be cooked very much the same. The connecting membranes should be removed leaving only the tender liver. Slice the liver very thin (no more than 1/4 inch thick), salt and pepper to taste, lightly dredge in flour, and sear quickly on both sides in fat in a very hot skillet. Serve immediately. Some people sauté onions in the hot skillet in the shortening used to fry the liver; some people make a flour roux brown gravy. The one thing to remember is that the longer liver cooks the tougher it gets!
Tripe and Chitlins:
Tripe is the stomach of the hog. It has an inner lining that is peeled off and it is cut into strips and cooked very much like chitlins. It is a rubbery muscle and has to be cooked by boiling for a while to become tender enough to eat.
After par-boiling until tender, the tripe can be seasoned and fried or used in various ways. Campbell Soup sold a “Pepper Pot” soup for years which was made with tripe; a number of people still use it to make soup which is somewhat like vegetable soup with tripe as the meat.
Chitlings are the intestines of the hog. They are washed thoroughly, cut into pieces and boiled until tender. Like tripe, this boiling stage gives off a strong, distinctive odor which can permeate your house; you might want to move this part of the preparation outdoors where the cool weather will quickly dissipate the odor. Chitlings, after par-boiling, can be used to fry, or to make various recipes. My mother cooked these once a year for my father and his friends and as I recall made dumplings with some just like with boiled chicken. Others with a stronger stomach will have to furnish additional recipes for use of tripe and chitlins.
Because the entrails were considered the less desirable parts of the hog, these were given to the slaves and the traditions connected with soul food have continued with chitlins as well.
After the meat had cooled down, the hams, shoulders, and the sides of bacon and fatback were all rubbed with salt, black pepper, and salt peter and prepared for hanging in the smoke house. Sometimes hams would be cured with brown sugar and if so, they would be put in a wooden box covered with corn shucks to “ripen” before being put in the smoke house to cure. After smoking for a period of time (this varied by the family and the recipes used for curing- but it could be a week or two or a month or so) the meat was left to hang in the smoke house until it was used. Some hams were carefully wrapped in clean cloth and left to “cure” for a year or two.
Contributed by Kate Mullins
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