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Monday, October 21, 2013

HOG KILLING TIME

The first time I heard the expression “hog killing time” was in northern Virginia in the late 80’s. I was facilitating a Bible study fellowship luncheon, and posing a question to the ladies just to get the conversation focused.  Given that it was November, I asked them what their Thanksgiving traditions were. The answers were varied, but for the most part they spoke of sumptuous meals, family football forays, and shared spiritual traditions. One lady changed the course of the luncheon topic when she smiled and said, “Thanksgiving, with the extra days off, is hog killing time.” After a minute or so of stunned silence, the ladies piped in with all sorts of questions, and she proceeded to tell us what her Thanksgivings were like.

Virginia has long been famous for its smoked pork and hams, and the procedure for processing this tasty meat has not changed much over the centuries. Open range hogs feasted on all sorts of things, while the domesticated swine’s diet was likely vegetation from the farm or remainders from the kitchen.  In both cases, farmers might alter their diet to corn for a few weeks before they were killed, since it would improve the flavor of the meat.

There are no pictures here of pigs being slaughtered, butchered, or cured. I never recovered from what I had to do to that piglet in my high school physiology lab. Besides, these critters are known to be some of the cleanest and smartest domestic animals. Use your imagination.

Hog killing took place in colonial times from late November through mid December since they needed to be butchered and cured once cold weather could be assured. Even now, with refrigeration, the tradition has remained.

Once the animals were killed, large kettles of boiling water were prepared for scalding the animal, a process that facilitates scraping the hair from the hide. Then the swine would then be cut into pieces that were more manageable. It has often been said that no part of the pig is wasted – enough said!

There are basically two steps to cure meat.
  1. The fresh meat is packed in coarse salt for about six weeks so that the salt can draw out all the water from the meat. The water is discarded.
Peyton Randolph House,
Smokehouse, Williamsburg, Va
2. The meat is then hung in tightly constructed wooden sheds with steep roofs, without windows or chimneys while a fire smoldered for up to two weeks to dry it and give it that wonderful smoky flavor. It will remain there for another two years to age.

One can see smokehouses all over Colonial Williamsburg behind houses. If you were to visit practically any 18th century home, other than a city house, you will probably still find a smokehouse nearby. Smokehouses had to be replaced periodically as the salt and smoking broke down the composition of the wood. You may see brick smokehouses on some estates such as Shirley Plantation, but they also need replacing occasionally due to salt damage.

For those of you unfamiliar with country hams, this is not your canned or grocery store ham. (Smithfield hams or Edwards hams are two well known brands) Let me warn you, take seriously the directions to soak the hams before preparing your meal. Serve smaller servings; say as you would Italian prosciutto.

All these years later, I sometimes wonder if that family in northern Virginia is still spending Thanksgiving killing and processing hogs. If so, there must be some relieved turkeys smiling nearby.



6 comments:

  1. Janet! What a great post--so interesting! It sounds like quite a messy business (LOL), but very necessary. I didn't know any of that--thank you for sharing!!

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    1. Yes, Amber, definitely messy. I love preparing pork and ham dishes, but will gladly let someone else take care of the raising, killing, and preparation. Thanks for stopping by.

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  2. When I was a child, my grandparents killed their own hogs. A little wooden shed behind the house was known as the "meat house", where the hams were kept. They also killed their own chickens, by chopping off the heads, & hanging the chickens from the clotheslines. The chickens would flail, & flap their wings, even after the head was cut off.

    Thanks for the interesting post, Janet!

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    1. My father was raised on a farm so he was well acquainted with this process. I personally love super markets.Glad you liked the post

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  3. Yes, quite a delicate subject for city folk! Growing up on a farm, I saw it all. It's an eye opener for sure! All that talk about the ham is making me hungry. :)

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  4. I know what you mean, Susan. And we have wonderful ham here in Virginia. Thanks for stopping by.

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