SUBSISTENCE FARMING IN THE MOUNTAINS
It is also interesting to me that my wife, Candice, who grew up in rural Wisconsin on a small family farm often had to pick dozens of chickens which her parents raised by the hundred and killed and sold them to their fellow workers at a factory in Milwaukee. She also got her first job in a duck slaughter house while in high school and picked ducks which were dipped in liquid wax after slaughter to simplify the picking process.
Killing the hog was the first and one of the most important parts of the process of slaughtering a hog since meat tended to taste bad if the hog did not die quickly and cleanly. It is widely believed that the fear and excitement of being badly shot would cause the hog to exude large amounts of adrenalin and other hormones which caused the bad taste. Most people I knew in Knott County preferred to shoot a hog with a 22 rifle, usually a magnum long rifle. If the shooter was good and the hog was not excited, one shot usually sufficed. My father preferred to kill the hog with a single blow to the forehead with a 22 ounce framing hammer. He would pour a small amount of feed on the ground in front of the hog, step up beside its head as it began to eat and swing one quick, heavy stroke with the hammer. His hogs would always simply crumple up and he would immediately grab a razor sharp Old Hickory butcher knife from his pocket to cut the throat and bleed the hog. The dead hog would then be placed on a wooden platform, such as a corn sled with the sides removed, for scraping. Two, three, or sometimes four people would scald and scrape the hog as rapidly as possible with each person, usually men, scraping a particular area. Ears, feet, and the face are usually the hardest parts of a hog to scrape because of the folds and lines which tend to hide the hair. When both sides of the hog were thoroughly scraped, it was time to hang it, gut it, and cut it up. We used a homemade tripod with a cross member with two steel hooks which went in slits behind the tendons above the hocks. The tripod was made from long poles heavy enough to handle a weight of possibly half a ton. These tripods were very similar to the tripods which constitute the beginnings of a Native American tipi frame. The tripod would be laid out on the ground beside and above the hog and the sliced hocks would be hooked to the cross member. Then two or three strong men would take one leg and slowly bring the entire tripod and hog upright to a hanging position. It was usually necessary for someone to stand on the ends of the two legs which were opposite the one being lifted in order to avoid slippage and dropping the hog. As small farm tractors became more common in Appalachia, it was also more common to use a welded steel pipe hog hanger which was attached to the three point hitch on the tractor which removed a lot of the truly physical labor from the operation. It was also not uncommon for people to use chain or rope hoists in the aisle of the barn or workshop to hang a hog. The next operation after the hog was hung was gutting and the most important part of that job was to perform it without slicing the intestines since leakage of manure would severely damage the flavor if it happened. There was also usually a good sized amount of fat in the body cavity which would be removed at this time and sent to the house for lard making with other fatty scraps when the entire process of cutting the meat was complete. We would always immediately send the heart, kidneys, spleen or melt, and lungs or "lights" to the house for cooking as the first meal from the hog. We usually saved the liver for a later meal of liver and onions which I still love but rarely eat today. We never ate chitterlings and I have still never done so although I am now willing to try them. I just haven't had the correct opportunity. The intestines would be the only portion of a hog which we would not utilize. But that first meal of the organ meats was and still is the best part of hog killing time to me. I dearly love the "lights". I have been able over the last several years to find a couple of places where I can arrange to get lungs or "lights" from people who slaughter their own hogs. Even though it is illegal to sell pork lungs because of the fact that trichinosis bacteria sometimes resides in the lungs, it is possible to find them in a few back road locations. If they are properly cooked to an adequate temperature, the likelihood of disease transmission is low. And, to bolster my beliefs about eating pork lungs, the television exotic food expert, Andrew Zimmern also eats pork lungs regularly. Another of my favorite meals is pork brains fried with eggs which were also often cooked on the hog killing day as well. I also dearly love good homemade souse made with an old mountain recipe which includes the entire head and feet cooked off the bones and then mixed with pickles, spices, and sometimes extra ears since quite a bit of collagen is needed to help the souse to set up in a firm loaf. The last really great souse I have eaten was made in 22 Holden in Logan County West Virginia by an old African American woman who was nearly 90 at the time in the late 1980's. She was a close friend of a woman with whom I worked and made the souse as a favor to me. I bought a couple of hog heads and she made the souse for half of it. It was the best souse I had eaten since the death of my mother in 1970.
After the hog was gutted, it was usually split down the back with a meat saw and then quartered. From that point on, the meat could be cut and dealt with indoors. Some, especially the side bacon, might be salted for long term preservation. At times, people would also smoke hams and some bacon. Before electricity was common and freezing took over, a lot of meat was smoked, salted, and canned. I still know a few people today who can some meat, especially venison. Personally , I never liked canned meat. It always seems to come to the table a bit overcooked because of the initial blanching process during canning. Once the meat was all properly stored in one manner or another, it was time to clean up, rest, and eat that kettle of fresh organ meats along with potatoes, sweet potatoes, shucked beans, biscuits, gravy, cushaw and some kind of pie or cobbler. Hog killing day was always a day of hard work, good fun and fellowship, and great food. It was usually a part of the entire holiday season from Thanksgiving to Old Christmas and it was an integral part of life in the mountains of Appalachia.
Now it seems like a good time and place to tell a few of my favorite hog related stories. As I mentioned above, a lot of them are related to buying, selling, or killing hogs. My father frequently would buy and sell hogs, especially pigs, if he got a deal on which he could make some money. Once when I was about 12 or 13, he had bought an entire litter of pigs from somebody and eventually sold most of them to a neighbor who lived about two or three miles away across a ridge and down a hollow. Neither the neighbor or my father drove and part of the deal for the pigs was the offer for Daddy and me to drive them through the woods to the neighbor's house on a Saturday when I was out of school. At the time, my father was nearly 80 but was still in good shape and the climb up to the ridge and the six mile round trip walk in the woods was not an extreme work out for him. We got up at the crack of daylight and fed the pigs so they would not be running to and fro in a hunt for edibles. Then we set out to deliver them. The initial trip was not too bad and in a couple of hours we were coming off the ridge toward the neighbor's house which was the last in the hollow. When they heard us coming, the neighbor came out and opened the gate on his hog lot and we drove them in. He paid for the pigs and then said "the old woman is cooking breakfast in there and you all ought to come on in and eat with us". The house was a small place built of small to medium poplar logs and heated with wood and coal from a nearby coal bank. We went inside which seemed to surprise the wife who was working on breakfast over a large wood burning step stove. In addition to the three children who were in my same general age range, there were about a half dozen dogs and a cat or two in the house and several of them had taken up residence near the stove since it was a frosty fall morning. The woman immediately began shooing them out and one or two small dogs and most of the cats actually ran between the cracks in the logs to escape. My father had already declined breakfast outside but he had done as he often did with me in such situations and said "that boy might eat though. He can eat just about any time." I looked the house over and suddenly realized that the ceiling was not complete and the joists were actually made from small poplar poles and right over the table was an apparent pigeon roost judging by the excrement on the logs. It appeared that the birds were able to enter the house around the eaves and judging by the log joists they were allowed to regularly roost right over the table. I rapidly declined but the woman kept insisting that we eat. She already had a large skillet of eggs fried and on the table. She was working on a large skillet of gravy and shortly took a large pan of big and actually pretty good looking cat head biscuits out of the oven and knocked them out of the pan on the bare table. A few rolled along the table and one or two even hit the floor where the dogs and cats had been. She quickly swooped them up and threw them back on the table right under the pigeon roost. She then invited us both to sit and eat and we both claimed to have eaten just before we left the house which was true. But I do not think either of us would have eaten unless we had been nearly starved. I will always remember how hard we both worked to avoid eating food on that table although I still today have several fond memories of most members of that family. And I would also like to say that I mean nothing negative about the conditions in which they were living. Every member of that family worked every day of their lives and they were doing the best they could with what they had at the time.
Once I went with my father to buy some pigs from the great Eastern Kentucky Auctioneer Ivan Childers at his farm near Hindman. We got there and I remember being impressed by the quality of the house, the barns, and the farm in general. I already knew who Colonel Ivan Childers was but this visit to his fine farm was another key part he played in influencing me to want to be an auctioneer. We bought a pair of pigs from him and fed them to killing time just as we always did. I do not remember being on his farm again.
Buying pigs and separating them from the sow could be a dangerous task if they had not already been weaned. I remember going somewhere with my father once to buy pigs and the owner had a sow with several pigs in a wire fenced lot behind his barn. She was lying down nursing the pigs when we arrived and my father chose two sow pigs without going inside the pen. Then he turned to the seller to ask how we were going to get them away from the sow. He had a son who was about 14 or 15 and said "this boy can jump over there and pull them off and have them out of there before that old sow even knows he's in there". I remember thinking at the time that I sure did not want to be anywhere near that old sow when he grabbed the pigs and caused them to squeal. But as quick as a flash, the boy jumped over the fence, walked over to the nursing pigs, grabbed the two my father had chosen by the hind leg with one in each hand, and turned in a gallop for the fence. As soon as the first pig squealed, the sow lumbered to her feet with a malicious snort. The boy was running toward the fence at full speed. The pigs were squealing bloody murder with every breath and my father and the seller were waiting to take the pigs from the boy. As he reached the fence, the old sow was gaining speed and getting closer with every step. The boy threw both pigs over the fence and, miraculously, my father and the seller caught and held both as the boy put a hand on a fence post to jump the fence. But just as his rear leg left the ground, the old sow caught up and grabbed him by the loose cuff of his pants just as he went airborne. The boy was still able to make a clean jump and clear the fence. But the old sow had a bulldog grip on the pants leg and as the boy sailed over the fence she locked her feet and the pants ripped all the way to the crotch leaving the boy standing on the safe side of the fence nearly naked but unhurt.
One of the most influential events in my entire childhood happened in our barn one hot summer day when my father and I were building a hog pen in the end of the shed row. It was probably either July or August and the barn was hot. Flies were attempting to eat us and carry the bones home for the children. The shed row was covered in about an inch of thin, runny cow manure. I was about 14 or 15 and Daddy was nearly 80 but he was in pretty good shape for a man his age. We were building the pen out of rough mill slabs which were irregular in width and we had pre-cut them for a length appropriate to the height we wanted the pen to be. I was hot, tired, lazy, and insolent with the typical teenage insolence which leads one to believe he is smarter, better, stronger, and generally in all ways the superior of any adult alive. We got down to the last board and had a space about 6 inches wide left and all our slabs were about 8 to 10 inches wide. Daddy turned to me and said "hand me that slab over there and I'll see if I can make it fit". I snorted "that slab won't fit" but handed it to him. He was squatting in front of the hog pen which most men his age could not have done. He took the slab, placed it over the empty space and hit it once or twice with the hammer and then said "it ain't going to fit is it". I said, "I told you that damn slab wouldn't fit." It was the first time he had ever heard me curse and it was clearly understood that I was not supposed to curse. He immediately spun on his heels and hit me with his closed fist in the chest and knocked me over into the cow manure in the shed row. To be honest, he probably pulled the punch. But I still went down like a shot and had to cough to catch my breath. He immediately stood up, reached out and took my hand to pick me up and said "now don't ever let me hear you say that again." And that was the end of the entire episode and the only time he ever hit me in his life. I have always been happy to tell that story any time anyone begins a universal attack on physical discipline. I think it was one of the key formative incidents in my childhood. It taught me a lesson I have never forgotten and gave me a new respect for my father which still lasts to this very day more than 45 years after his death. Corporal punishment has a place in the family. It can be productive if used appropriately and it should never be universally banned.
These hog killing stories and other related to raising hogs have been interesting for me to relate to my audience. I hope it has been informative and interesting to you as well.