Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
We’ve had a pair of Guinea hogs on our homestead, but now that they have died of old age and their progeny sent elsewhere, we’re contemplating beginning again with Red Wattle hogs. Despite not having any pigs at present, we said yes to a day of butchering at an 1880’s farm maintained by the city of Columbus, Ohio. I thought this would be a good learning experience, but not necessarily an enjoyable one. I was wrong about the latter, and I’d like to share not only what I learned, but also what made it so enjoyable.
Killing: Let’s talk about butchering as it was done when there was more people-power than machines. This sow, who had been the runt in springtime, was now a 270 pound pig. She was shot between the eyes while eating grain, then a knife was inserted deep in her neck to severe a large artery. There was no need to hang her immediately because the heart keeps pumping for the few minutes necessary to “bleed out.”
Scalding: To create cracklings from the skin and underlying fat, the hair must be removed. From this point on, many hands and some strong backs were needed. Reminiscent of chicken-plucking, the pig is put in a wooden trough filled with water at about 155 degrees. Lye is added to help loosen the hair. (Wood ash can also be used, but a larger quantity is needed). The pig is then rolled back and forth in the water by means of alternately pulling two long chains kept tense by a person on either end. When the hair pulls out easily, the pig is drug up onto a slated table where hog scrappers are used to pull the hair out. This is not a leisurely activity, because it must be done while the skin is still warm—a feat in December weather.
Eviscerating: The pig is now hung, head down, by attaching its rear ankle tendons to hooks on either end of a metal cross-bar. It is then hoisted into a hanging position. A ventral cut is carefully made around the anal area and the rectum tied-off to prevent fecal contamination. A vertical incision is then made down the length of the carcass to the neck. Before taking out the viscera, the diaphragm is cut free from it’s attachment to the chest wall. Then all the innards are easily scooped out into the large metal pan below. What a surprise this is--not “blood and guts,” but beautiful organs in the pan and the body cavity glistening with a pearly white lining
Sorting parts: The work-force split then, with a knowledgeable person sorting through the “viscera,” saving some organs, discarding others, and cleaning the small intestines to be used as sausage casing. Others went to work on the carcass, and first removed the head. Next, with a saw, they longitudinally divided the spinal column from tail to neck. The bilateral “hams” became apparent first before cutting down between the loins. The neck was not separated until two men were positioned to receive each side of the carcass, lest there be an imbalance between sides and the entire pig end up on the ground.
Unlike beef, pork doesn’t improve with hanging. The actual butchering would therefore be done the next day. Butchering in the cold, early-winter months prevents contamination from flies or spoilage from heat. Much of the pig on this farm will become sausage, but the hams will end up in the smoke-house. The head becomes “head cheese,” but the brains are fried and eaten separately. The loins, along the spine, are the same meat that can become pork chops. These would be for people lucky enough to eat “high on the hog.” Others are left with bacon from the lower abdomen—or even as “low” as the feet!
I mentioned that this experience was a very good one for me, and much of that came from the strong sense of community I had from being with this group. There were the half-dozen people who were experienced by either working on this farm or by growing up on farms that slaughtered their own pigs. I appreciated being taught, and I relish hearing the memories. One man said that he remembers New Year’s Day as hog slaughtering day when he was growing up. The extended family would all get together to help. “Now we eat and watch football on TV,” he said. I personally have no doubt which would be the better experience!
There were also about ten children present who were totally focused, treated respectfully by all adults, and were wonderful to share with. I find the inner-workings of the body a miraculous thing, and I enjoyed looking through the organs with others and discussing “what they do,” and “where they are in our bodies.” Some children already were quite knowledgeable and others had some interesting opinions! We also talked about “thanking the pig” when we eat, and I was happy to see parents nod in agreement.
That cold day makes it obvious to me why our society finds it difficult to be healthy. Here’s a pig that was raised in the open and fed organic food from the farm—so healthful food is one thing our society lacks. There were also the farmers who work outside to process their food. Exercise as part of daily life is certainly another important ingredient to good health. Perhaps the biggest awareness for me that day is what else our society has lost as we gained ease. Community was a necessity when there was so much work in order to eat. That meant people worked together, shared food, shared knowledge and shared laughter. I’m willing to miss out on more than football in order to regain all these aspects of good health.
Photos by Mary Lou Shaw