It’s four AM, November, 1945; I am awakened by the sounds of pots and pans rattling downstairs in the kitchen. Excitement is in the air for a five year old boy, who is about to join in an annual ritual for the second time, having become a seasoned veteran at this after reaching the magic age of four last year, when I became old enough to work along beside the adults. Entering the kitchen I am surrounded by the smell of eggs and toast, no meat, too long since the last hog killing day. Mom and Dad are jubilant that that the thermostat is south of 20 degrees with no sign of rain or snow. “You have to hurry with breakfast, kids,” mother, seeming to be in a mad rush, informs us. “We are running late, and your grand daddy will be wondering where we are.”
Too excited to eat, I shovel in a spoonful of eggs, bite off a piece of toast and wash it down with milk, and I’m done; today is the next best thing to Christmas. I hear Dad’s truck backing down the driveway; he is going ahead of us, because he is one of the key players, needed for the very beginning act in this ritual, and act that I will probably never witness. I have only heard how they do it, sometimes a bullet right between the eyes and sometimes with the swift blow of the blunt side of an ax. I don’t like to think about that part. My first sight of the hog is many bits and pieces, large and small, but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.
Still dark outside, we bundle up in heavy hats and coats and load the car with pots, pans, knives, bags, and long thin sausage sacks that mother finished sowing the night before. One of those bags is loaded with candy, one of the highlights of hog killing day. I’ll explain the candy later. Man! Is it ever cold! But that is great! If it were not, the whole thing would have to be postponed.
We are off to the farm, 9 miles east of Shelbyville, near the village of Rowesville, the trip only half way on a paved road takes half an hour. The sun is just rising as we pull in next to Grand daddy and Grand Mother’s two story home. As we unpack the car, I first see half dozen people, mostly women. The men are at the barn, about a hundred yards away, initiating the hogs to their final breaths.
The women hustle in and out of the kitchen and into the back yard where a huge, hemisphere-shaped, black iron kettle sits beside a wood fire that has been burning for some time already. It’s the kind of kettle you see the big bad wolf preparing for the three little pigs. These are connected to one of my favorite jobs, rendering the lard. Tables have been set up everywhere with pots and pans and knives and rags. I don’t get to touch the knives until at least next year, and my older brother laughs and says, “next year never comes”.
One of the men arrives and shouts out gleefully, “Ladies, meat a’comin. Y’all ready fur it?”
Mother, who now seemed the most enthusiastic person in these kinds of gatherings also appeared to be in charge of the ladies, and she shouts out, loud enough so Grandmother, who is nearly deaf can hear her, “Mornin’ Fred. We are ready and waitin. Everythin go okay?”
“Em’s za hard headedest hogs ever I seen. A shot in na head hardly got a grunt, but ole Zeb had broughten along his trusty ax. He says’ we don’t need no gun to kill a hog. Save yur bullets. Anyway, bullets mess up some of finest eatin, brains an eggs’, So Zeb kilt the rest of em one blow at a time. Best lookin hogs I seen in yars. “ Someone said that last year. I get the feeling that they say it every year.
Within minutes a black man arrives pushing a wheel barrow stacked high with huge chunks of meat. Mother rushes over to greet him. “Mornin, John. Looks like you got real load dere.”
“Yas, Maam, Ah sho does, and ain’t tis just perfect hog killin weather?”Glad we didn’t do it yes steady. Is time yes steady it wuz justa raining cats and dawgs. War yuh want it?”
“Dump it on nis table,” John, mother responded, as she began pulling some of the chunks from the wheel barrow.
Standing by the fire to keep warm, I watched as load after load of meat arrived and the men and women surrounded the tables, now covered with meat went to work with knives cutting the big pieces into smaller pieces, and smaller and smaller, until a few pans were piled high with chunks of fat. Each meat carver seemed to have his own custom knife, of which he is particularly proud and which in his opinion was the best, most unique blade in existence. Some were huge, and some had been sharpened so much that the blade had become very thin at the end.
My job was coming up. Mother drug the big iron pot over the fire, and another lady dumped a pan of inch cubed fat chunks into the pot. Mother then pushed a wooden paddle into the meat and began stirring as a loud sizzling noise accompanied by smoke arose from the fat. Within minutes a puddle of liquid formed at the bottom and she handed me the paddle.
“Don’t let anything stick to the bottom,” she reminded me.
“I know,” mother, I replied impatiently, waiting for her to get out of my way so I could get on with my job.
Now comes the best part of the whole day. As soon as we had arrived I began admiring the bowls of candy sitting everywhere, just like Christmas. It seems that when people are rendering hogs they get a greasy, unpleasant taste in their mouths. The candy is placed around to help deal with that. I had been staking out the best bowls and was sensing that “awful greasy” taste in my mouth even before the meat had arrived.
Just to make sure, it didn’t get too bad I had already moved one of the best bowls over near my iron pot, and as soon as I began paddling the meat I took a piece as a preventative measure.
The puddle of lard got deeper and deeper and various ladies continued to arrive with more chunks until eventually the pot was three quarters full. Some of the chunks began turning brown and they concentrated at the top. Mother came back, praised me for doing such a good stirring job, and placed a lard stan (a big, shiny, cylindrical, five gallon can beside the pot. She began her refresher course in dipping out the lard, which irritated me a bit, since I already thought of myself as an expert at this as well as taking out the “cracklins”. “Cracklins” are fried, golden brown, crispy chunks of fat, some still having skin and hair attached. Some pieces were like Lays pig skins. And Man, they sho is good “eatin”, especially when still almost too hot to put in ones mouth’ and they especially went good with the candy.
In today’s world it is hard to imagine a five year old stirring 10 gallons of boiling lard over an open fire, let alone dipping out the boiling grease with a saucepan. During the day we would fill five or six five gallon tubs with lard, pouring the clear, hot liquid through a cloth filter. Within the hour, the liquid would begin turning white as it cooled into a soft solid. Southerners cooked everything in lard. They even added it to just about everything, like green beans, corn bread, pies, cakes, and icing.
By the time the lard was rendered it was lunch time. Several tables had been set up in the house to accommodate everyone. I was a bit puzzled as to why all of the blacks sat at a table outside, especially since grandmother was serving them the same thing we were eating. This was the only segregated activity of the day.
After lunch the work continued. Hams and shoulders had been buried in salt, and chunks of lean meat were piled high in pans. My next job was grinding and packing sausage. This time, the chunks of meat were combinations of lean and fat meat. My brother Perry and I took turns, one cranking the grinder while the other pushed the chunks into the hopper, each of us trying our best to outdo the other. The piles of sausage went into a big tub where eventually just the right amount of fat and seasoning were added. Adding the seasoning always led to a discussion. The kids wanted almost no pepper, while the grownups wanted loads of black and red pepper. A compromise led to creating both types of seasoning.
My older sister, Martha Gene and mother began stuffing the sausage into the hand sown bags. The same operation was going on at several tables since it seems that more than one family was involved in this operation. I never figured out how they decided which meat belonged to which family. I do remember that the black families were happy to take some of the bits that other people thought unedible. A huge tub of guts, skin, feet, and god awful looking stuff had been separated largely for them, although there always was at least one white guy who would claim, “Them hog balls and chittlins (chitterlings are cooked intestines.) is fine eatin.”
Hams and shoulders were covered with salt and packed in a large wooden bin where they would remain for a few days before being hung by wire hangers from rafters in the “smoke” house. The smoke house was the only building on the property that had a lock on it, including the house itself, which was never locked, even when they came to town. Apparently, the smoke house was considered the only building containing something important enough to steal. Only one time all those years, did I ever hear of anything being stolen from the farm, even though it would have been easy pickings, even to break into the smoke house, which happened once. When the hams were hung, they were rubbed with a yellow colored compound that was supposed to keep flies away. That didn’t always work, and occasionally, a section of a ham would be carved away because it was full of maggots.
A few hams would remain hanging for an entire year and were saved for special occasions since aging added to the flavor. Although aged hams were an expensive delicacy and would have brought in big bucks, my family never sold any of them. Apparently eating “country” ham was the one extravagant luxury that was proudly reserved for the family.
By the time the day ended, I had eaten enough candy to keep a good taste in my mouth until Christmas.