Contributed by Sara Miller, Historic Village Program Administrator
Ah, the holidays! November and December are always exceptionally busy as we prepare to celebrate the holidays with family and friends. Gifts need to be purchased, food needs to be purchased and prepared, and travel preparations need to be made if needed. There always seems to be more that needs to be done than there is time to do it. The months of November and December were quite busy on the 19th century farmstead as well. It was a time for family and friends to gather and enjoy each other’s company, but this merriment was for a much different reason. It was butchering season!
We are lucky today; when we want to serve ham at our Christmas dinner, or bacon for breakfast, we just go to the grocery store and pick some up. We can then store it in our refrigerators and freezers until we wish to use it. 19th century farmers were not so lucky. Pork was the mainstay of the family’s diet throughout the winter and it was imperative that there was enough to last. Therefore, butchering day was extremely busy. Every member of the family participated and it was not uncommon for friends to come up for the day to help out. A word of caution the remainder of this article will detail (with the assistance of photos) the process of meat preservation from butchering to curing, smoking, and storing. If this is something that may make you uncomfortable I recommend stopping here. Now, let’s take a look at the excitement of butchering day!
Berkshire hogs are a heritage breed of hogs which were first introduced in the United States in 1823. They are black in color with white points and considered a medium sized pig. Hogs were allowed to fatten until mid-November when the weather began to turn cold. This was perfect butchering and curing weather. The morning of butchering day began earlier than most for there was a lot to do. The youngest members of the family would carry bucket after bucket (roughly 50 gallons worth) from the well to a trio of kettles. Fires would be started under these kettles in order to get the water scalding (not boiling however). It would be another child’s job to stay by the kettles and watch the water making sure it was hot enough.
Meanwhile, the men would be out in the pen killing the hog. The most humane way to do this, and therefore the method most used, was to shoot it in the head right between the eyes. Once the hog was shot, it was bled out and all of the blood is collected in a barrel for use in blood sausage. When the water in the kettles gets hot enough, it is transferred into a barrel positioned at the end of a table, the scalding trough. The hog is brought over and plunged into the barrel of scalding water. This loosens the hair follicles and allows the men to then scrape the hair off leaving a smooth, white hog.
Next, a gambrel stick is inserted in the hind legs around the knee area and the hog is hung on a pole. The hog is thoroughly cleaned and then the butchering begins. The head and organs are the first things removed and set to the side. It is then cut in half and placed on the butchering table to be further cut up. Nothing was ever wasted! The hooves were made into pickled pig’s feet, the head made into souse, the organs and intestines were used for stuffing sausage meats, stomach casing was used in sausage making, the reproductive organ was used to grease buck-saws, bristles were used in plasters, the gall bladder was used as a salve to treat frost bite, and the fat was rendered into lard. Everyone took part in preparing the various parts of the hog.
Once all of the butchering is completed, it is time to begin the preservation process. Since there were no home freezers, all meats had to be salted or cured in order to be kept. Dry salting was a very common method which required eight pounds of salt, two pounds of brown sugar, and two ounces of saltpeter for every 100 pounds of ham or shoulder meat. This mixture should be evenly rubbed throughout the meat so that there is roughly a 1/8 inch coating on the meat. The curing process needs to be done in temperatures 40 degrees or below which is why November is prime butchering season. Next, the meat is placed in a cold place (usually just placed in the smokehouse) to cure. A ham is expected to cure three to four days per pound, and should be re-salted after the first week.
After the proper curing period, the meat is then smoked. The smoking process colors, flavors, and dries salted meats. Most importantly, it creates a barrier between the outside air and the meat which inhibits rancidity. If you look at the photo above where the meat is being salted, the ham on the far right is an example of an already smoked ham. The outside of it is a dark brown and is often very hard. This is that barrier which inhibits rancidity. When this piece of ham is to be eaten that outer coat is cut off and the ham must be eaten in its entirety for now the air can penetrate the meat and it will no longer keep.
Smokehouses were typically built of a wood-stone combination and were very simple in their construction. Once the meats were hung inside (they were generally hung from the rafters), a fire would be started using only hardwoods which would produce smoke but not an immense amount of heat. It is imperative to keep the temperature inside between ninety and one hundred-ten degrees. If it is too cold, the meat will freeze and the smoke will not adhere. Therefore, it is not preserved properly and may become rancid. If it is too hot, you end up cooking the meat not smoking it. Since this was such an important part of the preservation process, it was the job of the oldest child to watch and tend the fire twice a day. After three to four days of smoking, the fire is allowed to go out and the meats are wrapped in paper for storage for the winter. If done properly, this meat will last the family until the early summer months.
I would like to thank Tom Enedy, who is a living, breathing encyclopedia of information, for helping me research this and grasp a better understanding of the butchering process. He is also responsible for sending me pictures I could use, so thank you for that as well. A thank you also goes out to Genesee Country Village Museum and their staff and volunteers who do a yearly hog butchering demonstration. The pictures in this blog are from their event over the years.