November is for Hog Killin’

I got wind of the hog killin’ in October through several friends, and wondered if I would be invited.  This is just my kind of thing!  I thought, and hastily send e-mails and offers of treats if I could please be included.  As time went by and the date drew near, it became clear that there was no shortage of help needed; not only would we be killing and processing three yearling pigs, but we were doing it outdoors in the rain.

The hostess seemed at first excited, then intimidated, then downright panicked.  She admitted that she was trying to recreate an event from her childhood that had, in all likelihood, caused her great emotional turmoil at the time.  Having grown up on a farm in North Carolina, she watched her parents navigate numerous days like we would face, and they had seemed to know just what to do!  She laughed as she admitted that part of her anxiety was based on playing both father and mother; that is, assembling the equipment and running the thing (father) and cooking, cleaning and hosting out of town guests and children (mother).

My role was clerical – find and buy the items needed to wrap and freeze the pig parts, and try to line up tents, knives and cutting boards.  And bring bagels.  After consulting with the good butchers at the Organic Butcher, it became clear that we wanted freezer paper (which has a waxy side and a matte side) so that the meat could be wrapped and frozen to best advantage.  Ziploc bags were also seen as necessary to protect the wrapped meat from getting wet as it was iced down in coolers; because of the warm-ish temperatures, the hogs did not chill before we processed them, so we had to get them immediately on ice.  I packed my knives, a cutting board, some aprons, my camera, raingear, water bottle, and a sturdy boyfriend armed with the same.

When we arrived with bagels (rather late, I admit) the hogs had been killed, but just recently.  The two pink piggies from Polyface were ready to go; their caregivers complained of their acorn-abetted corpulence and their piggy petulance, culminating in an attempted bite on the hand that fed.  Hmm.  “It’s SOOO time for them to go,” the hostess said with a sigh.  “It’s sad, but true.”  On the fateful day, they were shot in the head, slit from stem to stern (their tails looking like stems, and stern maybe being short for sternum?) and gutted, bled out into 5 gallon buckets, then hoisted by their hind legs from the bucket of a tractor.  Hamstrung, you’d call it.  Within sight of their wooded oak lot, the pigs were scraped of their hair (scalding was out of our reach that day), cut down the backbone (using a SawzAll, if you must know) and then cut into primal cuts on a plank table.  Their blood was mixed with flour, eggs, salt and parsley, then sluiced into casings and simmered in cheesecloth to make blood sausage, which we ate on fresh bread with dijon mustard (some folks also may have sipped cognac, even though it was well before noon).  The blood sausage was delicious, dark purplish red like liver, and as smooth a consistency as I have ever had in an animal product.  While it did have the mineral tang of liver (or blood, I suppose) the mustard complemented it perfectly.  I felt very French.

Throughout the day the rainclouds and sun fought for control, sending us scurrying for shelter and then seducing us into taking off our gear.  Gusty winds and spitting downpours made the lard-fire difficult to start and challenging to maintain, but the fire brigade built a wall, found a tarp, went for dry wood, and prevailed over the elements, eventually manouever-ing the iron cauldron over the fire for the slow rendering of lard and cracklins (the former being the purified fat from the pig, suitable for cooking and baking; the latter being the tiny pieces of meat that are suspended in the fat and thus turn into nature’s original bacon bit).  Meanwhile, under the tents the piggies were gradually being broken down into more recognizable cuts; pork belly, loin and tenderloin, ribs, chops, ham…there was talk of scraping and cooking the head, but I could never figure out what the outcome might be.  All hands took turns trimming lard and seasoning and grinding sausage under the tutelage of the Sausage King of Charlottesville (no names here); he casually sipped Corvoisier on the rocks while wielding his grandfather’s cleaver, eliciting the butcher’s praise “That’s beautiful.”  And so the pink piggies turned into food.

The third piggy did not go gently into that good night.  Whispers throughout the day warned of two bullets, still wiggling, brain-dead but moving.  I thanked the Agents of Death for taking that drama on my behalf.  This third piggy was of the famed Ossabaw Island family, a distinct and isolated population from Ossabaw Island, GA which is descended entirely from Spanish hogs brought to that area nearly 400 years ago.  Because of their concentrated genetics, these hogs are smaller than most, but are able to put on fat at a greater proportion to their body weight than any other hog.  Her name was Bonnie, and she was the more devilish of the dynamic female duo Bonnie and Clyde, fattened on acorns and peaches, whey and grape lees, romaine lettuce and empanadas.  While her death was not quiet, her meat was beautiful, smaller in proportion that the pinkies, and darker in color, but with a distinct ‘lumpy’ quality to her fat that bore little resemblance to the vast, smooth expanses of our larger specimens.  I believe her rear legs were turned into prosciutti — if all went well, perhaps we’ll be eating it in 18 months.

Other products!  Coils of sausage in casings (original French recipe, with garlic, salt and pepper; ‘chorizo’ with red pepper, paprika, hot sauce, and anything else red; and garlic and black pepper with Rausse Cabernet Sauvignon); large, coarse pates covered in the net-like caul fat (mercy me, I mistook mine for a meatloaf and botched it good); lots of lard; cracklins; lots of loin, tenderloin, ribs of all shapes and sizes, rib roasts, chop roasts, and regular old roasts; pork belly and bacon.  Cleanup at the end of Day 1 was a bit grisly, with 5 gallon buckets full of head, feet, skin and miscellany; our host kindly buried the evidence somewhere on the property, and we joked about biodynamics.  The wondrous intern filled a cooler with hot water, and we scooped out bowlsful to mix with cold water from the pump, along with degreaser and dishwashing liquid for cutting boards, knives, bustubs, grinder attachments, and buckets.  For good measure we doused most items with strong bleach water in the fading light of the day, eager to finish cleanup before the sun went down.

In addition to bagels (my weak, weak contribution) the ladies in the ‘neigborhood’ rallied and put together one of the best spreads I have seen in a long time.  Our host made french onion soup, redolent of sherry and bay and dark as night; an epic minestrone graced the stove, complete with lentils and bones and pasta and every vegetable in the world; a crockpot of homeraised and made chicken and dumplins was decimated (by me) along with fresh bread, fresh Jersey butter (yellow as a dandelion), two cheese boards featuring local aged goat cheese (possibly illegal, certainly delicious) and beautiful, exotic cheeses of unknown origin looking stately and mysterious and drooping deliciously in the warmth of the house.  Hot apple cider.  Blood sausage.  Local wine a la Rausse, Blenheim and King Family.  Starr Hill beer.  French brandy.  Aged single barrel bourbon.

Around the fire (and the fire’s fort made of singed tarp, a rickety windfence, a flagpole, some twine, and what appeared to be a hurdle) we marveled collectively about our Charlottesville-area community.  We are country enough to kill a pig, foodie enough to process it ourselves, worldly enough to cherish such European presentations as blood sausage, headcheese and rillette alongside lard and cracklins, and hippie enough to grind flour and bake bread for the occasion.  If the death of an animal can be justified by our appreciation and consumption of it, then I for one would like to testify that those three pigs offered sustenance for my body, my brain and my heart.  Thank you.


~ by a local notion on November 23, 2008.

2 Responses to “November is for Hog Killin’”

  1. Please let me know when you are going to slaughter again, If I can I will fly out from San Francisco to join, sounds great. I am in all the same stuff

  2. hooray lisa. your writing delights me. love to you and yours

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