Food memories and folkways have always been so important to me that they almost seem to sear my soul. Yet, were I forced to give pride of place to a single recollection of wonderful eating, it would be associated with hog-killing time in November.
Let me make it perfectly clear that I’m no expert on the subject. Although I’ve been involved in cleaning, butchering, and freezing a few wild hogs during my adult years, my acquaintance with hog killing when it involved domestic pigs ended somewhere around the time I reached my teens. Up to that point though, hog killing was an important annual occurrence, and in the fond vaults of memory it remains a big deal.
Grandpa Joe raised hogs for the whole clan. All of his children who lived locally—Daddy, Uncle Hall, and Aunt Emma—would pool monetary resources and buy a number of shoats early in the year. Normally there would be one or two for each family, along with a couple for my grandparents. Grandpa took care of feeding and fattening them in a hog lot at the lower end of his property. Pigs are veritable eating machines, and with the notable exception of cucumbers, they are omnivores, not only willing but eager to consume anything. The oft-used phrase, “eat like a hog,” reflects simple reality. At Grandpa Joe’s, they enjoyed a decidedly varied diet. Almost all table scraps and leftovers went straight from the house to the hog lot, with leftover bread and egg shells being exceptions. The chickens got those. Inferior garden produce, surplus vegetables, and even weeds were likewise part of the diet which eventually produced pork. Grandpa’s pigs ate mighty well, and that was especially true in late summer and early fall as the “fattening up” process got into high gear.
I often helped with feeding, and Grandpa could almost make a game out of pulling purslane and red-rooted pigweed for feed, carrying inferior pumpkins to fill troughs, and of course offering plenty of corn. As a most welcome sidelight to the fattening-up process, Grandpa could always be counted on for tales of the glorious days when the American chestnut had not yet been devastated by blight. He told of earmarking hogs to identify their owners and then turning them loose, in late summer, to forage on their own. As mast began to fall, those free-roaming pigs dined sumptuously. According to Grandpa, while acorns were important, it was chestnuts which gave the meat delightful taste and “rounded them off” in inimitable fashion. About when chestnut mast was gone it was time to catch the pigs, feed them plenty of corn for a short period, and take advantage of the first cold spell to butcher the coming year’s primary meat supply.
This usually happened in late October or more likely November. Grandpa had an uncanny ability to read signs and predict when the weather was going to be right. At that point a Saturday would be set aside for hog killing. It all began with a hearty breakfast well before daylight, and soon thereafter Grandpa personally executed the hogs. It was a somewhat gruesome but quick, efficient process, and he made a point of never letting hogs see one of their brethren die. Whether it was true or not, he firmly believed that doing so would taint the meat of the rest of the pigs. He would funnel each victim to a boarded off section of the lot where it was invisible to the other pigs and kill it with a point-blank range shot to the brain from his .22 rimfire rifle. Perhaps because mountain boys of my age and that generation were one part poacher, two parts bloodthirsty, and completely educated in the realities of the cycle of life, I found the process fascinating.
Once all the hogs had been killed, a whole succession of steps, with everyone pitching in to fill their assigned roles, followed in rapid-fire order. The first steps involved gutting the hogs. They were attached to a gambrel, hoisted aloft with the aid of rope and block-and-tackle, and left hanging from a sturdy limb or hefty piece of sawed timber (on the order of at least a 4 x 4). The “getting ready” process also involved scraping the hair from hides with serious, repeated applications of boiling water which had been heated in a massive cast iron container. Once those preliminaries were completed, the hogs were skinned. From that point forward it was an assembly line-like process.
Meat from one pig after another filled numerous wash tubs and dish pans while other receptacles held up with organs, fat, prime meat, skin, and the like. A second cast iron pot, atop a separate fire, then came into play. I don’t recall Grandma using the cauldrons any other time of the year, although before my time they had diverse uses such as making hominy, preparing homemade soap, or for washing clothes. At hog-killing time though, the second pot was for rendering fat into lard.
Working up hogs lasted from daylight until well after dark, and in all honesty I’m sure there were many details I don’t recall. I do, however, vividly remember what counted most in the mind of a greedy-gut boy—the end food products. There may be finer meat than pan-fried fresh tenderloin served with biscuits and milk gravy, but if so I’ve never eaten it. As I’ve heard mountain folks say, “Anything better, God must have reserved for use in Heaven.” Mind you, I wouldn’t turn aside from a mess of fresh backbones and ribs, stewed until the ribs are so tender you can chew the marrow out. Likewise, cholesterol considerations notwithstanding, anyone who has never eaten cracklin’ cornbread made with slow-ground corn meal using fresh cracklin’s or those which have been canned in lard has lived a life of culinary deprivation.
Those were grand days, a time when pork was a staple of mountain life for folks as it had been for generations. Anyone who has given much thought to the area’s traditional food ways, consumed their share of Smokies victuals, or researched traditional regional fare realizes that historically, pork has been the high country meat of choice. Hog killing was as much a part of the annual farm calendar as laying-by time or Christmas. Performed the old way, raising and butchering your own pigs increasingly belongs to a world in which we no longer reside. Yet, I have to believe that anyone who was an integral part of the process gained a fuller understanding of precisely what was involved in the transition from live animal to food on the table. I know I did, and the resultant insight and appreciation for the good earth and the entire nature of the human food cycle was something you won’t gain from a grocery store shelf or a meat section display.
Reprinted with permission from Fishing for Chickens: A Smokies Food Memoir, published by The University of Georgia Press.