I came within ax-handle length of hog butchering only once. And that was enough for me.
My grandparents lived agrarian lives and they carried over many of their habits to their small acreage in southern California, where they raised chickens and rabbits for their table. I, on the other hand, grew up in the shadows of a land-grant university. The cows in the Dairy Science barn were like zoo animals, their slobbering tongues licking me when I offered them an apple on our infrequent family outings. The university’s pig barns smelled bad and I didn’t like to go there.
And I tried not to correlate these living, breathing animals with the slabs of cellophane-wrapped flesh in our local Safeway.
So, no, my meat did not come on the hoof.
That changed one morning when I was in the Peace Corps. I woke to wails frightening enough to send me deeper under the covers. I thought of the screaming woman behind the shower curtain in “Pyscho.” It sounded like murder to me.
That day, my rural Paraguyan landlords slaughtered a pig right under the window of my tiny wooden shack. I watched the men lug the pig about ten yards from the place where the women dressed it and scrubbed off its hair. Three or four men then rolled the slippery body, looking for all the world like a giant maggot, into a deep rock-lined pit, hot as Hades. The day ended with the smell of roasting flesh seeping from the ground and a drunken feast for a fifteen-year-old girl celebrating her quinceañera.
All this came back to me when I read of the death of iconic Southern author Harry Crews.*
Mr. Crews, a brilliant writer with a bent toward the bizarre, sported the words “How do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mr. Death?” tattooed on his right arm. He grew up in Bacon County, Georgia, the son of poverty-ridden sharecroppers, and wrote unflinchingly of his brutal childhood in A Childhood: The Biography of a Place.
One of the things he describes is a hog butchering in the coldest part of a south Georgia winter:
It was a bright cold day in February, 1941, so cold the ground was still frozen at ten o’clock in the morning. The air was full of the steaming smell of excrement and the oily, flatulent odor of intestines and the heavy sweetness of blood – in every way a perfect day to slaughter animals. I watched the hogs called to the feeding trough just as they were every morning except this morning it was to receive the ax instead of slop. …
The air was charged with the smell of fat being rendered in tubs in the backyard and the sharp squeals of the pigs at the troughs, never from pain. Animals were killed but seldom hurt. Farmers took tremendous precautions about pain at slaughter. It is, whether or not they ever admit it when they talk, a ritual. As brutal as they sometimes are with farm animals and with themselves, no farmer would ever eat an animal he had made willingly suffer.
Crews tells in plentiful detail how his family and their neighbors killed the hogs and prepared the various cuts of meat. But the most disturbing story he relates is how he as an eight-year-old child accidentally got flipped into the boiling grease because the children were playing a version of “Crack-the-Whip” and he was the last one in the line. He only survived thanks to the quick thinking of a man named John C. Pace.
Hog butchering took place all through the world, anywhere that people appreciated the efficient conversion of grain to meat by the pig’s sturdy body. In the Appalachian Mountains, too, and of course in Virginia, early colonists prepared country hams that soon ended up on English tables in London, as well as on their own.
I think we can learn a lot from accounts like this passage from Crews. Of course, it would be nice if every sharecropper’s child grew up to write about hog butchering; then we would have more than one degree of freedom, one observation.
Culinary memoirs, of which a profusion now exist, promise to be every bit as valuable to culinary historians as diaries and journals.**
For more on hog butchering in Appalachia, see Volume I in the Foxfire Book series. There’s also The Pig: A British History, by Julian Wiseman (2000). Please take a look at Dr. Peggy Shifflett’s books – The Red Flannel Rag and Mom’s Family Pie – she grew up in rural Virginia and knows of what she speaks.
And here’s a video from the French Culinary Institute on how to break down a pig carcass into cuts useful in French cuisine:
Try a recipe from Food & Wine for Pork Rillettes
*Mr. Crews, a creative writing professor at the University of Florida, died March 29, 2012, in Gainesville, Florida.
** I have a list of over 250 of these memoirs, most published in the years since Ruth Reichl, the former editor of Gourmet magazine, published Tender at the Bone.
© 2012 C. Bertelsen