If the weather forecast for the southern Illinois farm of my youth promised three or four cold and clear days in early February, the work forecast promised three or four days of hot and heavy hog butchering.
Getting ready. The big, exciting event – at least for my brothers and me – began with a bloodless day of ritual preparation.
The tip-off arrived with Jackie, the farm’s main field hand, loading scrap lumber on a hayrack. The old fence posts, broken gates and busted barn boards would be fuel to heat the three, soot-caked kettles needed in the coming days.
Jackie and my father would then tote the enormous cast-iron kettles from the back of the machine shed and place each on tri-cornered stands in the center of the farmlot.
Next, six or eight carcass-holding, single trees were hung in the east-facing bays of the machine shed and rough-cut, oak butchering tables, glistening from years of raw pork fat rubbed into their tops, were brought from a nearby smokehouse.
Enormous knives, with shiny, freshly-honed edges, and a couple meat saws were placed like surgeon’s instruments on another, smaller table. So were a borrowed electric sausage grinder and the farm’s gallon-and-a-half, hand-cranked sausage stuffer.
Here come the hogs. Late that day, a hog-producing neighbor would bring the event’s main characters. Color or breed mattered little to my father; he liked all long and rangy sows.
“More pork chops and more lard in those older gals,” he’d explain each year.
A temporary pen in the machine shed held them until dawn and their demise. Since every hired man’s annual pay included a sliced and diced hog – two if, like my father, he was married with children – butchering on our farm usually meant slicing and dicing and rendering six or eight, and some years, 10 hogs.
Biting the bullet. In turn, that meant the first actual day of butchering was a long day of killing, scalding, scraping, gutting and splitting hog after hog. (We also saved much of the blood to make blood sausage late that first afternoon.)
That night’s supper was, without fail, fried pork brains. And, yes, they were awful, but we kids choked them down in hateful silence.
I broke the silence, however, as a teenager when I bit down on a cracker-and-egg battered brain patty and, you guessed it, nearly cracked a tooth on a flattened .22-caliber slug. It was the last meal of brains and bullets I ever consumed.
Many parts. The really big butchering day was the day after, when the chilled carcasses, hung overnight in the open air, were broken into primals, then sliced in cuts.
Before that act, however, organ meat, jowls and other unsavory slabs went into one kettle to make a meaty porridge we called liver sausage. When cooled, its high fat content held it together like concrete. A second kettle slowly stewed buckets of belly and back fat into lard. Uncle Honey took charge of both.
The lard-rendering fire had to be hot enough to “crack” the fat into lard and cracklings, but not too hot to burn, or embitter, the lard. Honey stirred and stoked the lard and liver sausage into perfection.
In the meantime, the hired men and my father hand-cut and divvied-up all the chops, roasts and steaks, trimmed the bacons and hams, and began grinding raw pork into sausage.
My mother, of course, was everywhere. She made certain the sausage was seasoned just right, dictated how the meat was to be cut, always kept an eye on Honey so he didn’t burn the lard to a crisp or the farm to the ground, prepared the sausage casings, and, in her spare time, cooked and served every meal.
Supper supply. The most special was supper that meat-making day: the freshest pork sausage possible, mashed potatoes and sauerkraut.
Afterwards, washtubs of chops, roasts and sausage were brought to the dimly-lit basement where an assembly line of wrappers, tapers, markers and haulers soon delivered the meat to one of our two deep freezers.
Then, until the following February again brought good butcherin’ weather, we lived high off the hog of our hard labor.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)