Somewhere in the Blue Ridge Mountains, in the cold gray light before dawn, a long metal scalding pan filled with fresh creek water slowly comes to a boil. With the sunrise, the age-old tradition of butchering hogs has begun. This ritual, which was so much a part of the early mountain culture, is now just a dim memory in other parts of the country. But in the smoky ridges of Virginia, the winter custom goes on. Fewer of the younger generation now know the art of butchering, and indeed, there is an art to it.
In my immediate area, members of the Patterson and Henderson families continue the practice, making sure the butchering technique is carefully passed down to the children and grandchildren. The late Maynard Patterson of Sherando said he learned the annual ritual at the knee of his own father, Charles H. Patterson, and then passed the tradition down to his own son, Dickie, who then passed it on to his son, Jamie. Robert Henderson, the son of Bobby and Katie Henderson of Love, learned to butcher at an early age and is shown in this month’s Backroads column with his father rendering down lard. He and his cousin, Ronnie Henderson, continue to share the work of butchering.
“Hog killin’ time,” as the native mountain people typically called the month of December, is when a large group of neighbors gathered together at each other’s homes for the express purpose of turning the hogs they raised all summer, into winter meat for the family. Hams, bacon, sausage and more were made from the animals that were butchered. The project required many able hands to get the work done, and everyone pulled together to help each other. Families were larger a hundred years ago, so raising six or more hogs per family was common. Pork seemed to be the number one source of meat for the mountain people and among today’s natives, that continues to be so.
Weather played a big part of when butchering took place. In years past, by Thanksgiving or the first week of December the temperatures were sufficiently cold enough for the process to begin. But in the last several decades, those months have had warmer weather and butchering had to be postponed until sometime in January. I’m not an authority on global warming, but I remember the winter of 1980 when our deep pond was frozen hard enough for a dozen people to ice skate on it Thanksgiving night.
For those who have never seen hog meat worked up, this article is not meant to offend, but to show firsthand how the meat is prepared for curing, canning, or freezing. It gives a step-by-step process that will no doubt bring back memories for those who have been a part of this necessary winter chore. Raising hogs was a give-and-take proposition whereby a man fed the hog for six months and, in turn, the hog fed the man for six months. Another thing that has changed over the years is most people no longer keep a sow hog and raise a litter of pigs at home. They just go to the stock market and buy a large hog right before they intend to butcher. This alleviates a lot of work throughout the year, taking care of the animals. The weight of a hog has also changed when butchering is intended. The optimum weight on a hog is somewhere around 250 pounds but the old mountain people preferred an animal with more weight on it; sometimes keeping them upwards to 600 pounds before butchering.
The first thing that must be done is to kill the hog and cut its jugular vein so the animal can bleed out. Dickie Patterson explained, “To make a quick and humane kill, imagine a cross between the hog’s eyes and ears in the center of the forehead and that’s where you want to shoot.” Once the hog is dead, it is loaded on a truck and taken to a wide wooden table with a galvanized scalding pan set up on one end. A constant fire is kept burning under the pan and water temperature is vital to the process of scraping off the hair. If the water is too hot, it will “set” the hair into the skin, making it nearly impossible to remove. When this happens, the hair must either be shaved or singed off with fire. If the water is too cold, the hair won’t come out at all. The optimum temperature for scraping is around 150-155 degrees. Today the water temperature can be regulated with a thermometer but in years past it was a hit-and-miss type of thing. Most men had a knack for knowing when the water was just right, but it was a chancy operation, at best.
When the water is at the correct temperature, the carcass of the hog is lowered into the scalding pan on ropes until the hair starts to come off, usually in around five minutes time. The hog is turned over once so both sides will scald evenly. The feet and ears are the first things cleaned as the hog is lifted up on laid on the flat table. Then several people armed with a round metal scraping tool with a wooden handle begin stripping the hair off the body. One of the best things used to remove hair was the old zinc canning lids. The angle of the lid was perfect but the high temperature melted and curled the edges after one or two hogs.
When the scraping is done, the hogs are hung upside down on gambrel poles and washed down with hot, soapy water, getting them as clean as possible. They are rinsed several times and scraped again with the back of a knife until their bodies are pure white. Lime or ashes are sometimes added to the rinse water to help bleach the skin and aid in the removal of any remaining hair.
The head is removed and put into a separate pan where it will be cut up and boiled down for the making of “pon-hoss,” that heavenly dish made from meat broth, cornmeal and the cut-up organ and scrap meat from the hog.
A wheelbarrow is then pushed under the hog to catch the entrails when the animal is opened and the heart and liver are saved for the pon-hoss or pudding meat, which is another tasty byproduct. Many people don’t realize that pork chops are nothing more than the loin meat with the rib bones still attached. The hog is then halved and taken off the pole to a clean wooden table where it is blocked out. First, the lard fat is taken out. Then the fish meat (a smaller loin on the inside cavity) is removed. The ribs are taken out next and finally the shoulders, hams, and side meat are trimmed out and put in the meat house where they will be sugar or salt cured and aged to perfection. The remaining meat and fat are put into large tubs and ground up to make sausage.
In earlier years people accomplished every step of the butchering process, including rendering down the lard, in one day. Today, with so many having to work full-time jobs, the process can go on in increments over a week or more. This one animal did more to keep the people of the Blue Ridge in food than any other, with little waste. Or as Dickie Patterson says, “We use everything on the hog… but the squeal!”