The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Butchering Day

By John W. Stoneberger © 1992

Issue: January, 1992

As a country boy growing up there were many days in the year that were special. Christmas, Easter, first and last day of school, Children's Day at church with singing and dinner on the grounds. Molasses making was always fun, and butchering day was one of the good ones.

It's hard to realize now that 90% of the people used to make their own living by preparing their own food. Now only four percent of the people do.

During the years of the Great Depression, with the help of a big white horse named Bob, we made our living on a one horse farm and pork was our main source of meat.

We would determine how much hog feed we could afford or raise in preparing butchering a year ahead. At this time some family incomes were less than two hundred dollars per year.

We had a one horse turn plow and if we could grow an acre or two of corn, when it got to the roasting ear stage, we would pull enough to feed the hogs twice a day, chop up the ear in the shuck in small pieces and the hogs would eat everything.

We would start doing this in July and this would save money, plus carrying feed from the store. For large hogs, you would get your pigs soon after butchering time for next year, but Spring pigs would do if you fed them well. A man and his wife could get by with one hog, but most families liked three or four to butcher.

Sometimes meat would get scarce and in October we would butcher a very small hog if we thought it cool enough to cure the meat. This was always a treat to enjoy early in the season. We shared this with neighbors. As a rule, it only lasted until about Thanksgiving, our real butchering day.

It took a week or so to prepare for butchering day. We would take the horse and sled to the woods for at least one half cord of good dry hardwood.

For small hogs, we sometimes used a fifty gallon barrel to scald in, but for large hogs, you had to have a scalding pan or vat and this we would have to borrow from a neighbor.

You must have at least two thirty-five gallon cast iron kettles, a lard press, sausage grinder, about four scrapers to take the hair off, a 22 rifle and at least 6 butchering knives.

Preparing the butchering site you would want it real close to a good spring or stream, because it takes lots of water to scald and wash with. First you would dig a trench to set your scalding pan over, then put two lengths of old stovepipe on one end of the trench so it would pull a draft on your fire under the pan. The temperature of the scalding water is important and old timers knew how to do this with a test of the finger. You draw your finger through the water two times and if it is so hot you can't go three times, it is ready and the temperature is about 160 degrees.

The horse sled, about 18" high, is parked beside the vat to be used as a work table to take the hair off the hogs after the scald. Two men handle the hogs in the hot water with two chains. After about a 5 minute scald of rolling and turning the hog, he is rolled out on the sled to remove the hair as fast as possible.

From the sled the hog is moved to a tripod gallows where he is hung with the tendons to his hind feet. At this place he got his final cleaning and the head, entrails, liver and lungs removed.

Remember, it's at least freezing cold and cooling starts in the meat, a part of the butchering process. Meat cannot be trimmed until cold. At the time a man is working on the hog on the gallows as the second hog is being scalded. You have to have two strong tables, usually made with saw horses for legs and new lumber or clean butchering board tops.

The first hog is moved to one of these tables to start being cut up into hams, shoulders, sides, backbone, spareribs, with everything going in a proper place like fat for the lard, lean meat with no skin for the sausage, head meat, heart, tongue, kidney, spleen, and liver for the pudding meat.

One man is usually recognized as the top butcher, who is extra clean, he shows his skill by the neat way he trims the meat and supervises the many processes.

Everyone's help is needed on butchering day. If you are big enough to roll a peanut you will be given a job - chunk up a fire, get a fresh bucket of water from the spring, run an errand to the house, get a pan or bring a knife.

When the last hog is on the gallows the worst part of the job is over. No one likes getting up at four thirty in the morning, killing and scalding hogs. The temperature is more comfortable at this time, so take off the galoshes, and jacket, wash your hands and help with the better part.

Hog heads must be cleaned. To do this job a stake about three feet long is driven in the ground with the sharp end up. The head is set on the stake with the snout up. Here you "rescald", scrape and shave until all is clean. Then it is moved to a heavy table where it is cut in half with the knife, starting at the mouth, moving toward the neck.

The jawbone must be clipped with the wood axe. The tongue is taken out and the bottom part is sent to the smokehouse to be cured as jowl. The top part is skinned back to the eyes, where the nostril bone is chopped out. With an axe the head bone is split down through the center, the brains are put in a dish, the eyes, ears and snout are removed. Now the top piece of the head is ready to be put in the large kettle to be cooked for pudding meat.

Dinner was usually served about 11 o'clock. With an early breakfast, we were really hungry. Golden fried tenderloin and liver with brown gravy was always a special on butchering day, along with hot bread, vegetables, pickles, apple or cherry pie, jams and jellies, plenty of milk, apple cider or coffee. Mama always served two tables - one group had to watch the kettles as the others ate.

The heads were the first thing put in the pudding kettle to cook in a rapid boil so the meat would turn loose from bone, later the tongue, hearts, kidneys, and last the livers that require less cooking. About 1:00 pm a second treat of food for the day would be laid out on one of the butchering tables, when the pudding meat had finished cooking. Someone would slice real thin a piece of boiled liver, heart, kidney, tongue, spleen, etc. Everyone was welcome to taste all the different parts to see which was best. Many children did this for the first time.

As the main parts of the meat were trimmed out, like hams, shoulders, sides, they were carried to the smoke house. The backbones and spareribs must be prepared by using an axe - the bones were chopped to table size pieces.

One person checked the sausage meat to remove any skin or too much fat and reduce the large pieces so they will go into the sausage grinder. Boys loved to show off their strength by turning the hand crank grinder, as a girl or woman fed the meat in the grinder. Remember folks, there was maybe 50 pounds of sausage per hog, so they would be grinding for hours! The traditional seasoning for sausage is red pepper and sage. After the sausage was ground, seasoning was added and mixed, then the lard press with a special plate was used to press the sausage into casings made from the small intestines of the hogs. The casings are backed up on the spout and one person controls the shape and size of the sausages as a second person turns the handle of the press. A gallon at a time can be put in the casings.

A cast iron kettle is used to render fat into lard. The fat is cut into small pieces about an inch square and added to the kettle that is cooking. The lard must be cooked slow to render the most . You pour the hot grease through the press until it gets full, then turn the press handle down to a snug pressure that gives you a cake of cracklings about 2" thick in a gallon container. A small hog will make about a 50 pound can of lard and a large hog about two cans. Often we would grind the hot cracklings to be used in making crackling cornbread.

About the time lard is being rendered, the pudding meat has finished cooking and the kettle set off the fire to cool so all the bones can be taken out and the meat cut up into pieces small enough to go in the sausage grinder. After the pudding meat has been ground, it is put in gallon stone jars and one half inch of hot grease is poured over the top for a seal. Then the jar is set in the cellar with a clean table plate on the top for a lid. Pudding will keep fresh like this for a year or more.

The pudding kettle is put back on the fire with the broth. All the slivers of bones are removed, and it is brought to a boil as cornmeal, salt and pepper is added. When the mixture gets thick, it is set off the fire and you have delicious scrapple or pon hoss. If you like it extra rich, a half gallon of ground pudding can be added to the broth as it boils. The next couple of days there would be more work to do making souse, canning meat, making soap and cleaning up.

It was always a pleasure as a boy to harness old Bob and hook him to the sled to go borrow butchering equipment from a neighbor. It was light work for a horse and he seemed he enjoyed the trip. I felt a special joy ridding the big horse in the fresh air of the beautiful hills and giving the folks a generous mess of meat when I would take the equipment home.

Butchering day was a work day but a wonderful day of good food and fellowship. Old timers told tales of humor and history that was very interesting. Butchering day gave us a fresh sense of security knowing we had a good supply of meat for next year. We could sell extra hams for twenty cents per pound, to buy shoes to wear to Sunday School or pigs for next year. With six or eight hundred pounds of meat in the meat house during the Depression years, you would think "butchering these fine hogs is the way to be healthy, wealthy, and wise, because this meat in the meat house is like old wheat in the mill..."