By Fred McCoy
The Chesapeake When the trees have lost their leaves and when the rabbit hounds were running and bugleing in the frosty morning air, it meant that the time was approaching for that important day; the day the hogs would be butchered. It was usually near Thanksgiving.
The men, that day, were up early, the fire was roaring in the barnyard.
Old pieces of iron were being placed on top of the fire by men using pitchforks.
The glowing hot iron later would be dropped in the large barrel of water, set at an angle, with a few boards in front and its mouth covered by several guano sacks.
The “plow point” or other type of glowing hot iron was dropped into it to make it hot. Yes, this was a real operation, a tradition on Maryland farms and one which the writer performed up until the year before last.
When I was young, the men, at first light, had begun the task of butchering and scalding the hogs. The hair had been scraped off and they had been gutted by early morning and were hanging on make-shift scaffolds, losing their animal heat in the cool air.
In the afternoon, if they had chilled sufficiently, they were placed on boards spread on saw horses were they were cut up in appropriate pieces. A large iron kettle was hanging over a fire and the fat, cut in small squares, was thrown into to it be melted into lard.
In more recent years at St. Gabriel’s this job had some slight changes. It took place around Christmas week.
We always bred, raised, fattened and butchered our own hogs, cured our own hams and bacon and made our own sausage. It was purely a family operation.
It always amazed us to hear city folks and people from other areas refer to hogs as pigs.
Pigs are sucklings, shoats are weaned and growing swine. Hogs are butchering size, either gilts-female or barrow castrated males. Boars are “unchanged” males used for breeding purposes and sows are mothers who give birth to pigs.
Just a few years ago, during Christmas week vacation, one of our sons brought home from college, several classmates. After seeing our hogs, they offered to help in butchering, something they knew nothing about.
The next morning proved to be a good day and we butchered two hogs for home use.
One of the college boys was so amazed that he wrote a description of the event for an English assignment.
He described me as an old man, who raised a rifle and fired striking the hog between the eyes and then grasping a long knife, grabbed the animal as it fell, turning it on its back and while straddling it, thrust a long shining knife into its throat, then pulling it out dripping while a red fountain shot in the air.
Well, that was a good description, but my children had witnessed it so often, it was nothing unusual, but for the college boys from the city, it must have been quite a shock.
In recent years, several of our children and some grandchildren helped on “hog-killing” day. The little ones were sent to the house for this and that, one to get the gambrel sticks that were kept from year to year.
They were made of white oak or hickory and sharpened so as to slip under then tendons in the hogs back legs to hold them apart while they were being gutted.
The older helpers were used to dunking the hogs into the very hot water and then to scrape the hair off.
We loved to have the first pork loins from our corn-fed hogs and let nothing go to waste.
The brains were used along with the feet.
The children loved the liver and heart but I kept the kidneys for myself.
My wife would make me the best kidney stew and I kept it all for myself.
Many cuts of meat were frozen in the deep freeze.
Of course, the bacon and hams were cured and it was another year before the hams would be eaten.
The “old hams” of mine were considered to be excellent, even by such experts as Miss Hope Swann of Gravelly Hills and some said they were as good as Mr. Foxwell’s of Leonardtown.
This winter there will be no hog-killing at St. Gabriel’s and the tradition will die.
(This article originally appeared in the December 1988 edition of the original THE CHESAPEAKE)