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More Southern Food
November 15, 2011
After the hogs had fattened themselves up during the spring, summer and fall, they were slaughtered during a weather-dependent period that ran from late autumn to early January, depending on the geographic area. The outside temperature had to be cold enough so that the meat wouldn’t spoil before it was used or cured but not cold enough to make the people doing the work miserable.
Hog-killing time was a social event as well as a time for work. Children stayed home from school, and neighbors came to help with the work and enjoy the fresh meat. While the men and older boys worked, children played together and the women caught up with news of new babies, brides and local goings-on as they prepared the midday dinner for the workers.
Work began at first light to maximize the available daylight. The hogs were killed, usually by a cut to the throat, and then dipped into huge kettles or barrels of boiling water to loosen the bristles, which were scraped off with a knife, sometimes on a door borrowed from the house.
After scraping, the hogs were hung by the feet from a tree limb or a timber frame and gutted. Hams, sausage, side meat and bacon were smoked, cured or both and were destined for consumption weeks or months later. The liver, neck bones, backbones, tenderloin, tongue, ears and tail were eaten in the first few days after killing day. The jowls were cured and saved for New Year’s Day to be eaten with the traditional field peas and collard greens. The head was used to make souse, a carryover from Elizabethan England. Almost every part of the pig was used, even down to the feet, which were pickled. Even the hog’s bladder was washed, scalded and blown up for use as a ball in the days before store-bought toys.
Excess fat, especially the leaf fat that surrounded the kidneys, was cooked down and rendered into lard, which was used for frying and baking.
In the days before home refrigeration, any type of meat not consumed within hours after the animal was killed had to be preserved by one of four methods: smoking, salting, drying or curing, which was a combination of the first three.
Two methods were used for curing pork—wet and dry. In the wet method, meat was soaked in a brine (sometimes referred to in early texts as a “pickling”) solution of salt, sugar or molasses and saltpeter dissolved in water. In both wet and dry curing, salt did the majority of the preservation work, with the sugar or molasses added for flavor. Saltpeter (potassium nitrate, for the chemically curious) assisted with some antimicrobial duties and improved the color of the meat, adding a more natural-looking reddish hue.
After the hams and shoulders had been removed and set aside for dry curing, the trunk of the hog was cut into pieces and immersed in a barrel filled with brine. The ribs were sometimes removed and reserved for smoking and curing to make bacon and then brined for preserving.
The salt solution penetrated deep into the cells of the meat and did an effective job of preserving it from bacteria and insects. The resulting brine-cured meat was referred to as salt pork, side meat or middling meat and is composed of the fat from the hog’s belly and sides, usually containing one or more streaks of lean. Salt pork is often confused with fatback, which is also belly fat but is not salt cured.
The side meat was stored in the family’s pork barrel and removed as needed as the nine months to a year between hog-killing times passed. The family with a full pork barrel was happy and secure; this gave rise to two American slang terms still in use today. When politicians allocate government funds for projects in their home districts that will make their constituents happy, the money is referred to as “pork barrel” funds. And if someone has run out of money or times are hard, they are said to be “scraping the bottom of the barrel.” This expression stems from the fact that (especially in colonial and antebellum days) salt was scarce and expensive, and none was wasted. When a pork barrel had reached the end of its days or when times were hard, the salt was scraped from the bottom and sides and reused. It wasn’t as desirable as fresh salt, thus the negative connotation of “scraping the bottom of the barrel.”