A day of hog killin’ on Southampton farm

Published 9:25 am Saturday, February 16, 2013

by James D. Howell

A large beam about 7 feet high supported by four strong fork-ended oak posts stretches across the front of a work shed in our farm lot.

A large pot has been filled with water and is now steaming at the end of a workbench formed by planking nailed atop sawhorses. A fire has been burning for a couple hours on this cold winter morning; it will be stoked and kept alive most of the day. Excitement is in the air.

It’s hog killin’ day.

Hogs for slaughter have been enclosed in a “fattening pen” for a few weeks and fed a steady diet of grain and grain-based food to add a few pounds and reduce the stronger taste of the meat. Pigs allowed free range will have a decidedly different flavor than grain fed.

Their lard will have a stronger taste, also. That’s really important — all lard for cooking during most of next year comes from processing these hogs. Having a mild, smooth flavored cooking oil for all recipes is essential.

Slaughter hogs are delivered to a holding pen at the end of the work shed; scrapers and knives are sharpened and ready. Gambrels (we pronounce it gambles), strong sticks sharpened on both ends, have been removed from storage and are piled at the end of the strong scaffolding.

They will be inserted at the hamstring of the hog’s hind legs across the heavy beam and support the carcass while it is being gutted, cleaned and butchered. A single shot .22-caliber rifle stands ready by the holding pen to handle the killing part.

A family friend and neighbor joins us today, and adds his hogs to the mix. Extra hands have been hired for today and tomorrow. It’s a very labor intensive two days.

It looks like 15 hogs will be slaughtered — three for our neighbor, one for our hired hand and 11 for our family, the farm’s owner and market. The number varies each year, but it’s usually between 12 and 20.

Hogs are shot one or two at a time, their throats cut and allowed to bleed out in the pen. Their carcasses are dragged into the back of our truck, transported over to and immersed in the steaming pot, one at a time. The almost boiling, hot water makes hair removal easier.

After a short time, the carcass is removed to the workbench, where workers use a scraper (a tool with round metal disk — like ends and a wooden handle in the middle) to remove the rough hair (bristle). A slit is made at the pig’s hind leg hamstring to allow insertion of the gambrel stick.

Workers lift the carcass high enough to fit the gambrel stick across the heavy beam and insert the other end into the other hind leg. Most market-size pigs weigh around 200 pounds.

It’s a struggle to get it all done. As each is hung, another pig begins the process from the holding pen.

Once hung up, a cut is made from the rear of the pig, across the stomach through the ribcage to the throat. A cross cut is made at the throat, completely around the head, baring the backbone.

All innards are removed from the carcass; the stomach and intestines are saved. All else is discarded. The stomach and intestines will become sausage casings and join other parts in the smokehouse for curing.

Dinner (the noon meal) on hog killin’ day is a celebration feast. Family, neighbors, and all hands are fed really well with fresh meat, vegetables, biscuits and desserts. My favorite cake, coconut and raisin, is usually among desserts offered.

The afternoon is spent finishing the slaughter and cleaning up the truck and all equipment. Hot water is dumped, but the workbenches are left in place for tomorrow’s work.

Beds of salt are prepared in a shed room, and stomachs and intestines are given a preliminary wash. The hog carcasses are left swinging on their scaffolding; cold weather is all the refrigeration needed for preservation.

Tomorrow, the carcasses will be cut into rough shapes of hams, shoulders, ribs, side bacon and backbone. Final trimming will be done, with all the fat and trimmings tossed into tubs to be ground into sausage or rendered for lard. Feet, ears and tongues are saved as well.

Work is hard, the hours long and the food excellent.

The day’s end is anticlimactic; the flurry of activity ends and the last truck departs. Nightfall creeps over the fields toward Franklin; our household is settling in for a quiet night.

Tomorrow, as today, will be filled with work, more concerning preservation than killing. Each is necessary on the farm.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at archiepix@kingwoodcable.com