Some memories are just naturally sweeter than others, and a favorite of mine is of butchering days. Just about this time of year when the temperatures are still below freezing and the hogs are fattened up, my grandparents would declare it was time to butcher.
Butcher. Now that really is an awful-sounding word. And no, I really don’t have the heart for the slaughtering part. What I particularly liked about this event was that it brought the whole family together. There were five kids in the family and all their kids. We would all gather at my grandparents’ place and everyone had a job to do.
The men would do the slaughtering and cut up the meat. The women were in charge of wrapping and labeling packages and all of us kids were the gophers; get this, get that, put that away, wash this up. If it sounds like a lot of work, it was. But it was what I would call “fun work.” The day was filled with lots of laughter, lots of kidding, lots of work and play, and lots of mouth-watering treats.
One of my favorite parts was when they tried out the lard. I know, no health-conscious cook today would ever think of using the pure fat from the hog known as lard. I think just writing it adds at least 10 points to my cholesterol level! But after hours of cooking down the fat in the butchering kettle there were little crispy, tasty tidbits of pork left in the kettle affectionately known as “cracklins.” They were the original pork rinds and all of us would keep snacking on them until we had full-blown bellyaches. But oh, was it ever worth it!
Uncle Harold, my bachelor uncle, was always in charge of the smokehouse. I can still smell that heavenly aroma seeping through the cracks of that old shed. Actually, it was quite a process getting the meat ready to smoke.
Hams, shoulders and slabs of bacon were rubbed down and coated with a sugar and salt cure for days before they were actually smoked. He always made a mixture of salt, brown sugar, red pepper and salt peter and made sure the meats were fully encased in the rub. The idea was to draw the blood away from the bone and “cure” the meat.
Then the meats were hung up and a smoldering fire was built in the smokehouse. Uncle Harold insisted that no wood would do except hickory. We carried it in by armloads morning and night. The meats were usually smoked for a little over a week. You know how addicting the smell of bacon is when it is fried, well imagine a smell just as enticing for over a week!
At the end of butchering season everyone would divide up the hams, bacon and other meats and that night we would feast on fresh pork chops, tenderloin and side pork. You just can’t buy meat like that today from a store.
Home butchering is about as good as it gets, but people are always trying to improve on old staples. Aside from the old breeds like Durocs, Hampshires and Yorkshires, new heritage breeds are emerging such as the Red Wattles. The new breeds are supposed to have superior traits like less prone to disease and superior flavor.
Nonetheless, I still have a soft spot for the old familiar breeds. They still make the best cracklins and you just can’t improve on perfection.