One of the by-products of butchering hogs is lard, which is used for everything from cooking, seasoning cast-iron skillets, making lye soap and waterproofing boots for the winter. And don’t forget the “cracklins,” which is what is left after the fat has been boiled off the skins. Cracklins were then broken up and put into cornbread batter, giving it a crunchy texture and flavorful taste. Lard was an essential part of the mountain diet long before cholesterol came into the picture. The dietary difference between then and now is that humans do not work as physically hard as the older generation did. People now go to offices and sit at computers all day. Our grandparents got up from the table and went to the fields and forests, doing backbreaking jobs from sunup to sunset.
My first introduction to rendering down lard came in 1982 when neighbor Katie Henderson called and asked if I’d like to come down to take pictures of her husband Bobby and son Robert who were boiling down the fat in the side yard in a large kettle. Always on the lookout for an old-time story, I headed down the mountain with my camera.
Bobby explained that the first step in the rendering process is trimming the fat off the animal after it has been slaughtered. It is then cut into manageable chunks and put into a large container, such as a galvanized washtub. A large iron kettle used for this purpose is wiped clean and set up off the ground so a small fire can be built under it. When it begins to heat up, “leaf” fat is added. Leaf fat melts right away, so there is grease in the bottom of the kettle when the chunk-size fat is added. The chunks are stirred as more wood is added to the fire to keep a constant, steady heat. The fat, much like apple butter, has to be stirred continually with a wooden stick in order to keep it from burning. It is very important to keep the fire even and not to fill the kettle too full or a grease fire can occur. If the fire flares up and the boiling becomes too rapid, the fat can boil over, igniting the fire like gasoline. For this reason, the lard-making process is always done outdoors. If the cracklins are boiled too long, it makes the finished lard dark. The idea is to watch the kettle’s contents until the fat pieces themselves begin to bubble, turn golden brown and make a rattling sound. Sometimes slices of raw potatoes are placed in a little wire basket and put into the boiling fat because it is thought they make the finished lard nice and white. Plus, once the raw potatoes are brown, they make a tasty treat while stirring the kettle.
Three hours into the process, the cracklins are ready to take off the fire. To the open top of a large lard tin, several layers of cheesecloth are clothespinned to the rim. The tin is then submerged in about three inches of water while the fat is being pourerd into it or the bottom will burst. With a small pan, the liquid fat is dipped from the kettle and poured over the cheesecloth. This catches any sediment or stray cracklins, and strains pure liquid fat into the lard tin. The leftover cracklins are then deposited into a pillowcase spread over a five-gallon bucket to drain. When the lard tin is nearly filled to the top, the cheesecloth is taken off and attached to another empty tin and the process is repeated until all the liquid and cracklins are in their proper containers.
When Bobby asked if I’d like to try some of the warm cracklins, I was surprised at the taste, which is much like that of store-bought pork rinds, only more flavorful. Since the hide is fried along with the fat, cracklins tend to get hard once cool, so a metal meat hammer is used to pound them down into smaller pieces when they are ready to put into cornbread. About a half pint of crushed cracklins put into a pan of skillet cornbread is about right.
When the liquid fat sets up, the pure white lard can be used in a variety of ways. Spooned into a smaller container, it can be refrigerated or frozen so it won’t go rancid during the hot summer months. If lard is kept too long it develops a strong flavor, which can ruin the taste of whatever it’s used for. Years ago, people took their fat to be rendered at the Stuarts Draft cannery, where it was put into metal cans and sealed. In this way it could be stored indefinitely.
After rendering the lard, the iron kettle would be wiped out and coated with fat until it was ready to be used again. This would keep the kettle from rusting if stored in an outside shed.
Even though in today’s culture not as many people use lard, the tradition here in the mountains continues year after year. No matter what the medical reports say, potatoes fried in lard or biscuits made from the pure white fat taste better than anything that’s supposed to be good for you!