This is an entirely fictional account of an on-the-farm pig slaughter in 1950. It’s based on my own experience processing hogs from hoof to terrine, stories from the Rector family, as well as additional miscellaneous accounts of home pork processing that used to be the norm in the rural US.
All black and white pictures were taken in New Jersey in 1944, provided to me by John Chobrda, who says that they’re from “John Kubinski’s farm that was located just between Hightstown and Allentown on what is now The Assinpink WMA, the farm was near where Lake Assinpink is now. The man in the plaid shirt was Joe Nekarda who lived near the American Czecho-Slovak Farmers Club on Rt 130.” The pictures illustrate what farm processing was really like, minus the effort of the women cooking and canning and brining and smoking and processing for several days after. I’m thankful for permission to use these to accompany this story which has little to do with the pictures’ actual origin except to point out, again, how common the practice had been before WWII initiated a global food chain that attempted to replace this multi-millennial old ritual.
The characters are all made up but may have been named for one or more actual people that I may or may not have ever met. It pretends to have taken place in the southern Ohio hills, near Logan, from the point of view of a 12 year old boy.
I woke up that morning, after Thanksgiving dinner, ’cause they started sharpening the knives. I was in the upstairs attic on a cot under a giant quilt my Grandma made, but I could see my breath above me, catching the light from the window to my right.
When I pulled back the quilt it was cold. I looked over at Wenn on his cot, but he was still asleep. I put on the sweater I’d thrown to the floor last night before getting in bed and walked over to the window to see.
Uncle Sonny sat on the grindstone, pedaling while he held the knife against it, throwing sparks. Charlie was just back from the Army, and he stood over a table in a green tee shirt and suspenders wiping a blade back and forth on a steel he held like a sword. Behind him was the great big kettle belching smoke and steam and a tri-pod of big poles straddling it.
I went over and shook my brother Wenn’s shoulder. “They’re getting ready.” He curled and buried himself deeper under his quilt.
I put my pants on and ran down the stairs and out to the kitchen, which was warm and smelled good. Mom and Grandma were cleaning up from breakfast. “The boy’ve already eaten, your father’s off on errands, and we didn’t want to wake you too early, Johnny. You want some pancakes?” Mom asked.
I collapsed at the table in a sulk, stuck my chin in my palms, “I’d’ve gotten up to help!”
“There’s plenty of work ahead today. How about some pancakes.”
“Kay.” I wondered if the pigs were brought up the hill yet. I jumped from the table, “I’ll be back in a sec.” I opened the back door and raced around to the yard where Sonny was now poking at the fire under the kettle. “Are the pigs up yet?” I asked.
“Hush now,” Charlie turned with knit brows. “You’ll wake’m.” He turned back to the line of knives he was steeling. “We don’t need a wide awake hog come crashing through our set-up. All they need to know is we got an early morning snack for them up here.”
Sonny laughed. Neither answered.
Grandpa came out of the barn with some rope and blocks and tackle draped on him.
“Pancakes Johnny!” Mom yelled out the back door.
I wanted to stay, but I wanted something to eat, too. I turned and ran back to the kitchen.
After I ate two stacks of three pancakes, syrup, strawberry jam, and drained a glass of Grandma’s tomato juice, I ran back outside to help. But when I turned the corner I froze.
They’d led the hog up the hill from the pen with a bucket of apples. He was twenty feet away, and he flicked his bristled head over at me and stopped. My heart shivered. Grandpa stood next to it with his deer rifle cocked. The air shivered. I thought I should creep backwards behind the corner, but before I could slide one foot back the old hog look back down at the apples and sunk his teeth into the nearest one.
Blammo! The report echoed off the hills for what seemed like forever, splitting the cold air like cracking an egg. Like braking a big stick, but bigger. Then silence. Then Charlie jumped onto the collapsed hog and lashed one of its hind legs with a rope. He nodded to Sonny who pulled down on a rope through a pulley at the top of the tri-pod, and the hog’s legs lifted straight up. At the same time Grandpa was sawing at the hog’s neck, and the next thing there’s steam coming from the blood gushing out it’s neck while the hog starts twisting and kicking and thrashing and gasping in a rushing bubbly way. Grandpa stepped away with the rifle while Charlie jumped toward the hog, shoved a basin under it’s chin and tried to hold it’s head over it as blood gushed out and the hog kicked, nudging the basin back under its chin with his foot when a jerk pushed it to the side.
Seemed like forever that the hog shook and twitched. Then it slacked. Then it jerked and twitched some more. Slack. Little twitch. I thought it was over, but Sonny kept his weight on the rope, and Charlie held its ear, both staring at the hog like it was going to say something important. Grandpa didn’t move. Then the hog almost liked to get up and run, but its back legs were in the air, and it pawed at the blood muddy dirt and then it stopped and kind of relaxed, slowly slumping like an inner tube losing air.
Sonny let go of the rope and Charlie picked up the bloody basin, turned, and handed it to Mom who stood behind me now, though I didn’t notice when she got there. Sonny emptied the pail of apples and scooped some hot water out of the kettle. Then all three of them scrubbed and splashed the dirt off the hog until it looked better than me on Saturday night.
“What happened?” Wen was beside me, only he was in his underwear and bare feet; behind him Mom walked into the kitchen with the bloody bowl.
“They kilt the hog.” I said, sounding serious.
“The one that ain’t the sow.” I said kinda sharp, like I knew all about it.
“I liked him. He’d let me scratch his ears.”
“Well, you’re gonna like him better when he’s sausage. I know I will.”
“Wenn — get in here and get dressed!” Mom shouted from the kitchen door. Wenn turned and ran back inside.
When I looked back they had the hog almost in the air over the kettle. Sonny and Charlie were taking turns pulling the rope while Grandpa held it’s head away from the fire and the kettle as it slowly raised above the rim. The Sonny, who had the rope in his hands, let it slip a little, then a little more, until the hog was almost all the way into the kettle, at which point some water spilled over and hissed on the coals. Grandpa had a bucket and scooped some water out to keep it from overflowing too much. He set that aside, then picked up a ladle off the table nearby and started pouring hot water over the back legs, which stuck out of the top of the kettle. While he did that, he kept reaching into the water and picking at the hog bristles. After a few minutes he nodded to Sonny who pulled back on the rope and raised the pig again out of the water.
Charlie had gotten one of the wheelbarrows and had that beside the kettle. Grandpa yanked on a foreleg of the dripping hog and guided it into the wheelbarrow. Once it was completely in the barrow he wheeled it over to a canvas they’d laid out and kind of rolled the floppy hog onto the canvas. Grandpa and Sonny came over with these scrapers. (Sonny told me they’re called “Bells” ’cause the kind of look like a bell with a stick on top, only they’re not deep like a cup, they’re shallow like a bowl, and there’s no clappers inside.)
They all started madly working the bells over the hog. I walked over and asked if I could help.
“Bring us a bucket of hot water and a brush. Make sure it’s a clean brush.” Charlie said as he scraped. I noticed Grandpa was scraping the hog’s face and hoofs very carefully.
I did as I was told, though it was kind of hard to lean over and get the water without stepping in the fire or touching the kettle, but I got them a brush and hot water, and Charlie dipped the brush in the hot water and started brushing away the loosed mounds of bristles. I noticed the smooth skin under the bristles was pearly pink, like really nice white leather, only pink.
Everyone stepped back while they flipped over the hog, and started working on the mass of bristles which looked even worse now compared to the smooth skin on the other side. A few minutes later Charlie asked me to refill the bucket of water, which I did, this time using the big ladle to reach in and get the hot water, instead of dipping the bucket. That was easier. As I walked back I realized the canvas with the hog on it was right under the big tree, and there were more ropes hanging right over it attached to the branch I liked to shinny out onto and nap in the shade when it was hot. Then I noticed there were a bunch of metal hooks hanging from other branches.
“Bring me that water, Johnny.” Charley snapped me out of my looking. I brought him the pail, but now the hog was shining, very pale. For the first time I thought it looked naked.
Grandpa had stood up and was lowering a big bar with a hook on either end down to the hog. He bent over the hog’s back legs, unfolded his pocket knife, and stuck the blade through the ankle of one of the legs, wiggled it to widen the cut, then withdrew his blade and stuck two fingers through the same hole. With those fingers he guided the tip of one of the hooks through the hole and out the other side. He moved to the other leg and repeated the process: cut a hole in the back of the ankle, insert two fingers, guide the hook through the hole.
Then, with the feet spread apart and dangling off the ground, Grandpa started poking away with his pocket knife blades around the tail. A few minutes later he said, “Sonny, fetch me a length of twine.” And Sonny brought him a piece of string about a foot long, which Grandpa took and looped around a couple times, then tied it a couple of times.
Grandpa stood up and said, “OK, Sonny.”
Sonny grabbed the rope and began pulling the pig up by the hind legs until it’s nose was about a foot off the ground, swinging very slowly and twisting. Sonny wrapped the end of the rope over another tree limb behind it, and jerked it tight. When he did that I noticed the hogs back was to me, and his tail was hanging straight down his back, and above the tail was a neat hole, like a knot hole in a fence, and out of that hole was the end of the string.
“That doesn’t look very comfortable.” Wenn was next to me again. How long he’d been there I don’t know.
“Not sure he knows which way is up any more.”
I looked back and Grandpa was slicing open the hog, starting right below the tail, following down between the legs to the belly. His arm worked up and down and around, but his head was in the way for a bit until he stepped back and there was a hole in the pig like an open envelope, and Grandpa’s holding a yellow ball with a string attached to it.
“That’s the bladder, Johnny. Rinse it out, fill it with some sand, hang it to dry and you can make a coin purse out of it.” Mom stood behind me with an empty metal wash basin at her hip. I hadn’t heard her walk up.
I didn’t want a funny coin purse, but Grandpa gave it to me anyway. It was warm and slick. He cut the string piece away and threw it to the dog who was lying on the other side of the tree out of the wind. The dog got up and sniffed it, then picked it up in his teeth.
“Pour it out — it’s just pee.” Grandpa said, then turned back to the pig.
I took it to the end of the driveway and tried to pour it, but it barely dribbled, so I squeezed the balloon part and a stream of yellow piss went this way and that until it was nearly empty. I looked up at the sky over the hills beyond, which was getting more cloudy, with the fast kind of clouds, moving like river water, not the solitary puffy clouds you see in the summer. You could see the wind shaking the leaves that were left on the trees across the hillside. Just then on the highway that cut through the hills I saw a car pop into view and it looked like our green ’40 Ford. It was a ways off, so I didn’t hear the engine, but I was pretty sure that was Dad coming home.
I looked back up into the yard and saw Mom next to the hog holding out the wash basin. A whole bunch of stuff was falling into it from the hog’s stomach, Grandpa scooping and Mom squatting down so she wouldn’t tip the basin. Grandpa reached in, sawed a bit, then he lifted a last bunch of stuff into the basin. Mom stood up with it and walked back to the kitchen.
Just then Dad pulled into the driveway and honked the horn as he drove past us to park in front of the house, parking next to Charlie’s shiny new ’49 Ford. He got out, and another man got out of the passenger seat. They both tightened their coats around them as the cold wind got into them and walked over. Dad didn’t say hello or anything, just studied the hanging hog. Grandpa said, “I see you brought Mack The Knife?” They all chuckled, then the other man stepped to the pig and pulled one flap of the stomach back and peered inside. “This one’s been fed well, Frank. Are you going to let me have the bellies as well as the loins?”
Grandpa paused before saying, “Bellies are spoken for; our smoke shed ain’t full yet.”
“Suit yourself.” The man smiled when he turned back to Grandpa, then winked. “And would you look if someone else ain’t got the bladder before I got here, dagnabit!”
It turns out this was Mr. McKenna who owned the butcher shop in town, come out to help Grandpa with the pig. It took me a minute to realize he was talking about me, but by then Dad and Mr. McKenna were headed into the house, and Grandpa turned back to the hanging hog. “Johnny, grab ahold of those ears, would you?” He said to me, so I set the empty bladder down on the table with the knives, and Grandpa bent and started sawing at the neck. After a few strokes the head jerked up in my hands and suddenly the hog was looking right at me — I didn’t even notice how heavy it was ’cause it was looking me in the eye.
“You can set that over on the table there; we’ll take care of it later.” Grandpa told me, and I did as he said. Then he started sawing down the middle of the hog from the top. When he got near the bottom he had me hold one of the front feet so it wouldn’t keep moving with the saw. And suddenly the hog was in two pieces hanging from the tree, swaying in the cold wind.
Grandpa rinsed off the saw and set it on the table next to the head, then patted me on the shoulder. “Let’s go inside and get something warm to drink.”
When we got inside Dad and Mr. McKenna had coffee cups in their hands, and Mr. McKenna was laughing and teasing my Mom and Grandma. They weren’t looking at him while they worked cleaning and cutting the innards, but you could tell both were smiling at his jokes. When Mom saw me she said, “Johnny are you in the way, or are you helping the boys?”
“He’s been a good sport,” Charlie said, sitting in the corner with a coffee cup of his own.
“Well you send him inside if he’s underfoot. Wenn’s in the parlor, got his nose in a book again, and Johnny can join him if need be.” Mom poured hot chocolate from a pan on the stove into a mug and gave it to me, then went back to her work.
I sipped from my cup — it was good and milky — and everyone else sipped from their cups. Then Mr. McKenna said, “Make sure you add the pizzle to the scrapple to help these boys grow up strong.” And everyone laughed and it went back to the way it was when I walked in.
A few minutes later Grandpa stood up, put down his mug, and said, “Well, that hog ain’t going to butcher itself.” The other men stood up and then filed into the hall to grab their coats.
I followed them, but Mom put her hand on my shoulder and turned me around. “I don’t want you in the way or handling a knife, you hear? We could always use your help here in the kitchen…”
“I won’t get in the way,” I shook off her hand, then ran to get my coat.
Grandpa, Charlie, and Mr. McKenna cleared the table of everything but the head while Sonny and Dad tipped the kettle off its stand and dumped all the water out, which ran down the driveway toward the road like a steaming river in Hell. Then they propped it back up on the stand. Sonny joined the group at the table while Dad took a bucket over to the hand-pump, filled it, dumped it into the cauldron, then went back to the pump and repeated this. After the first bucket went in, Sonny brought the head over by one ear and dropped it in the caldron as well.
Once everything was clear from the table, and the knives and saw had been set up on a saw-horse nearby, they all walked over to the two hanging halves of the hog. First Grandpa reached into what had been the belly on one of them, up near the hip, fiddled with his knife a bit, then started yanking some white stuff off together in one long pull. He used the knife to separate the bottom from the ribs, then crumpled it up and held it out to me. “Johnny, hold this while I get the rest of the leaf lard.” He did the same thing to the other half, handed it to me, and told me to give it to Mom.
I had to kick on the door cause the warm fat filled both my hands. Mom opened the door and grabbed it from me. “Oh good,” was all she said before closing the door on me.
When I circled back Sonny and Charlie were just setting one of the halves on the table. Dad was now stooped over the fire below the cauldron, scraping the ash away from the coals, then shoving some more kindling under. The wind blew the smoke and ash away from his face, and pretty soon a yellow flame poked out from under the cauldron.
All the men except Dad (who tended the fire) had their sleeves rolled up around the table, knives and saws in their hands, hacking up the hog. Below the table was a wooden trough where they’d throw hunks of meat that they cut from different pieces of the hog. Bones and skin were tossed into the cauldron which was starting to steam.
“Johnny!” Charlie called out to me from the end of the table. “Help me take these bacons out to the smoke shack.” I walked over and he handed me a big square of meat with the skin side to my arms. It felt warm and limp and heavy. Charlie took the other one and led me behind the barn where the shack stood with its door open. Charlie opened the wooden lid to the big cement tank in there which was now empty, and put his down in the bottom. I moved to put mine in there and he waved me away. “Hold on.”
He opened a garbage can and dug a scoop out, full of rock salt, and threw that on the bacon he’d just placed there. I looked up and saw two other hams hanging in the back of the shack, and a bunch of chunks of bacon, one of which had been cut into, showing the white and pink interior against the glossy brown skin.
“OK, now yours.” I put mine on top, and he threw another big scoop of salt over that. “The hams’ll go on top.” He said, and put the lid back on.
We went back to the group that was finishing up the second half. Mr. McKenna had a big white apron on that was now pink in spots. He was the only one who talked while they worked, telling jokes most of the time, but telling them what to do next.
Charlie motioned me over again and handed me a whole ham this time. It was not as floppy, but also warm and smelled like metal and grass. I followed him to the smoke shack where we put those hams on top of the bacons and then packed it all with lots more salt, then the lid, and then a big rock on top “to keep that damn dog out of the meat,” Charlie said.
We walked out of the shack and it was snowing. It seemed like it had gotten darker, and looking back at the house past the barn, that the gang of men around the table were working by the light of the glowing white house. The snowflakes were heavy, making white spots on the ground where they fell.
When we got back to the dooryard, the pig was all gone, the cauldron was steaming so heavy you couldn’t even see the water when you looked into it. Sonny and Charlie were carrying the tub of meat into the kitchen, and everyone else was washing and wiping. “Johnny,” Dad said, “go bring us an armload of wood out of the barn.” They were the first words he’d said to me since he got back.
As I headed out to the wood pile I heard Mr. McKenna say, “I doubt you’ll be heading to Columbus tonight…”
“We’ll see,” Dad responded.
Once everything was washed and put away outside, and the wooden table moved back to the side of the house where we sometimes ate lunch, we all went inside. As I stripped off my coat and boots I saw Wenn reading in the parlor — he had an empty mug of hot chocolate next to him, which was strange ’cause Grandma didn’t usually let us eat in the parlor.
I went into the kitchen to see what was doing — Grandma had her meat grinder screwed onto the edge of that wooden tub they brought in, and she was feeding meat into it as Mom cut it into small pieces for her to grind. So as the big pieces of meat in the tub were taken out, they were replaced by the pink strings of ground meat. Every so often Mom handed Grandma half an onion, which she fed into the grinder, which made a sound like a burp. When Grandma looked up and saw me standing there, watching, she said, “this is how we make sausage.”
“Sausage!” I thought and said at the same time. I loved Grandma’s sausage. Usually we ate it out of a canning jar; I’d never seen it before that. Then I heard a commotion in the front hall, and turned to see Mr. McKenna counting out five dollars and handing it to Grandpa. “Nice hog you grew,” he said. “You should grow a few more next year and I’ll buy whatever you can’t eat.”
“We’ll see,” Grandpa said. “They get expensive when you have to buy grain to feed. This one ate all the apples we could bring him, and those were free, that’s why he and his brother were so fat. If I keep more than two of the sow’s brood next spring they’d have to share, then all we’d have is lean meat and bones, and who wants to eat lean meat?”
“Nothing worse than lean pork,” Mr. McKenna laughed. “It’s like chewing on a hemp rope. And what’s the use of killing a hog without the lard?”
Charlie walked in, put on his coat, and said, “I’ll drive you back to town Mr. McKenna.”
“You better get right back,” Grandma shouted from the kitchen. “I have a feeling this snow ain’t letting up.”
“He just wants to show off his new car,” Sonny shouted from the parlor where he now sat in his suspenders next to the radio.
After they left I realized I really needed to pee, so I ran out the kitchen door to the outhouse out back. When I returned to the house we all sat in the parlor listening to the radio while the sound of Grandma’s meat grinder going round and round played from the kitchen. The weather reports talked about snow through the night, and I figured we weren’t going home, otherwise we’d have been packing up by then.
For dinner we ate blood cakes and apples, plus Liver And Lights with onions and cabbage, which is not my favorite. The lights are OK — they don’t taste like much with the burnt onions around them — but when the liver gets burnt sometimes it makes me want to retch. Then Mom told me if I cleaned my plate she’d cook me one of the sausage patties they were canning. I didn’t need to be told twice.
The next morning I woke up to the wind howling battering the attic walls and windows, and it was freezing and still dark, so I curled up tighter under my quilt. It seemed to hardly get light, and when I got up and scraped at the frost on the window all I could see was snow going sideways. Instead of going back to bed I got dressed and slipped downstairs where Wenn was already sitting next to the wood stove. “What time is it?” I asked.
“Eight o’clock.” Mom said from the kitchen. “I’m surprised you could sleep through the racket the wind is making.”
I walked into the kitchen to see empty dishes — I’d missed breakfast again! On the stove was a big pot of bubbling cornmeal, and in the wooden tub was a pile of cooked bones and meat. “What’s there to eat?” I asked, wondering if it would be something from that mess.
“I’ll make you a plate of hash and eggs once you’ve washed up.”
I moved toward the kitchen door.
“You’re going to need to put your coat and boots on to go to the outhouse,” Mom said, holding the door closed with one hand. “And take a shovel to open up the path, ’cause the snow fills it right back after you clear it.”
It seemed to take forever to get to the outhouse in the wind and through the snow, and I even had to shovel my way back to the house! When I got back and finished brushing my teeth and washing up, Grandma was back on her grinder, putting all the cooked meat and stuff through it, which Mom would pick up out of the tub and drop into the cornmeal. “What’s that?” I asked.
“Scrapple,” Mom said as she stirred. I liked scrapple, better than plain fried mush, but when I looked back into the tub I saw the white pig skull sticking out with a few meat bits clinging to it. Yuck, it’s made out of the head! Suddenly I didn’t feel like breakfast…I turned and walked back to the parlor where Grandpa, Dad, Charlie, and Wenn were sitting. “Where’s Sonny?” I asked.
“He’s getting more wood in the barn. Your Mom and Grandma are using a lot of wood to put that pig away.” Grandpa said.
We spent the morning reading and talking while Sonny kept loading the stoves with firewood; even so, I kept my sweater on ’cause it hardly seemed to get that warm. At noon Grandma came in and asked what we wanted for lunch.
“Sausage!” Wenn and I shouted, and we got our wish, endless patties with biscuits and gravy and no vegetables!
After lunch at two o’clock we tuned into the Columbus station for the big football game against Michigan. Everyone thought it would probably be cancelled because of the weather, but when we tuned in the OSU band was playing the Buckeye Battle Cry, and the broadcasters said the game was on. It sounded like the broadcasters could hardly see what was happening on the field, especially ’cause they couldn’t see the yard markers under the snow. But it hardly mattered — both teams punted almost every time they had the ball. OSU scored first when Bob Momson blocked a punt deep in Michigan territory, and OSU managed to kick a field goal from the six on fourth down. Then Michigan got a safety when they blocked a punt and the ball rolled through the end zone. It came down to the end of the game, when Michigan blocked a punt with 40 seconds to go, and then one of the Wolverines found the ball in the end zone. Michigan won 9-3.
We were all sad when the game ended, but then Grandma walked into the parlor and asked what we wanted for supper.
“Sausage!” Wenn and I cried. Everyone else laughed, but we got our wish again. Those were the best sausages I ever ate.
3 thoughts on “Sausage!”
Best sausages I ever ate. Seems like it was only yesterday.
I now am jonesin’ for sausage. I want it. I must have it.
New York Times Magazine “The Lives They Lived” (Dec. 26, 2010) has a remembrance of Jimmy Dean (popular entertainer + sausage entrepreneur):
“Every fall he and his grandfather made sausage in a washtub from one of their hogs and put it in jars so they could have meat in winter”. A recipe for Jimmy Dean’s Sausage Pinwheels at nytimes.com
Jimmy’s autobiography is called “Thirty Years of Sausage, Fifty Years of Ham”.