Thanksgiving Day – To most people when they hear these two words thoughts of gathering with family and friends for a wonderful meal of turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, rolls, cranberry sauce, football and an afternoon nap dance happily through their minds. When I hear someone talk about Thanksgiving, I also think about gathering with family and friends, but for a much different purpose.
Thanksgiving, if it was cold enough and it usually was in Comers Rock at the end of November, was the day we killed hogs. I am not sure where that tradition started and I never really thought about it growing up because that was just the way it was. I also don’t remember having turkey for Thanksgiving until I was grown and the hog killing tradition had ended.
So my Thanksgiving morning consisted of waking up to another good breakfast prepared by my Nanny although with a little more haste. The dishes were quickly washed, the table cleared and the kitchen was transformed into a canning and meat packing facility.
Daddy always took the hogs to Henry Jones’ to get them butchered the night before and then went back early that morning to pick up the meat. Mom made sure that he had plenty of clean buckets and tarps to put on the back of the truck to keep the meat clean on the way back to the house.
Everyone knew Henry. He and his family lived around the Horseshoe (what we called that particular country 2-lane road). The drive up to the Jones farm consisted of a turn off of the Horseshoe road and across a small bridge spanning Elk Creek, then a sharp right up a hill on a narrow lane for I am guessing about 3/4 mile or more. It was a pretty farm with a beautiful view that sat on top of the hill with a farmhouse, barn and of course, hog killing shed.
During the fall season there was lots of traffic on that narrow dirt driveway and you always hoped that you didn’t meet someone while you were coming in or going out. I often wondered how many hogs Henry and his family butchered and worked up over all those years. (Note: The term “worked up” refers to preparing the meat for packaging.)
Hog killing day was, like Thanksgiving, a festive time for us. Neighbors would stop by during the day to see how everything was going. “How much did that hog weigh?”, “How much meat did it dress out?” and “How big were the tenderloins?”, were just a few of the questions that were asked. Daddy was always proud to tell how well his hogs did that year.
While Nanny kept preparing the kitchen and starting a fire in the side room’s wood cook stove, the other grown ups got to work cutting up the shoulders and other meat into smaller pieces that would fit into the sausage grinder. Daddy would sprinkle seasoning on each layer of the meat as it filled the bucket. Some of the excess fat was also cut away and put in the lard bucket (I’ll get to that later). To say we fixed a lot of sausage is an understatement. Daddy loved his sausage and could season it just right. Of all the breakfasts that I remember growing up I remember having sausage and sausage gravy the most.
When I was still too young to handle the sharp knives I was the official “pig hair looker”. It was my job to watch out for pig hairs that might have strayed into the sausage or lard buckets. Although it was not a glamorous job like wielding sharp objects, I was still glad to be entrusted with the task. We still laugh about the phrase that we heard Daddy say over and over again while the meat was being cut up…..”Watch out for those dang hairs!”.
My granddaddy’s buddies Mr. Fred and Mr. Walter Robbins would always come and get the hog’s heads. Those heads laying on the tarp was probably the only part of the whole process that creeped me out. Mr. Fred and Mr. Walter would use the tongue, the brains (unless Nanny took some of them and made “Brains and Eggs” for breakfast the next morning), and other parts of the skull that I didn’t even want to know about. They also took the pigs feet and pickled them.
Once the meat was cut up, most of the time just in time for a quick sandwich for lunch, it was time for Daddy to go back to Henry’s to have the meat ground into sausage. Meanwhile Nanny and mom got to work on the big pork tenderloins.
Wide mouth jars were washed and heated while the ladies cut the tenderloins into uniform slices. Those slices were then carefully placed in the wide mouth jars and tamped gently down with a homemade wooden tamper that my granddaddy had made for this purpose. When there were enough jars to fill the canner, a teaspoon of canning salt was placed on top of the meat and the rim of the jars were carefully wiped off to ensure a good seal. Hot canning lids were placed on top of the jars, tightened down with rings and lowered into the boiling water. The canner lid was set in place, the temperature on the stove adjusted and the next step was to listen for the jiggle of the canner as the steam escaped.
Remember the bucket of fat that I talked about earlier? Well, when I finished my “pig hair looker” job the next least favorite one was bestowed on me. I got to sit at the wood cook stove and stir the fat while it melted into lard. I was never sure why the grownups thought I wasn’t old enough to use the sharp knives but thought it was perfectly fine to leave me alone with a boiling pot of fat.
As I stirred, what small bits of meat that were still stuck to the fat would crisp up and float to the top of my lard kettle. These crispies were called “cracklins”. About mid afternoon Nanny would come to put wood in the stove and scoop those bits of meat off the top of the liquid fat. I knew we would have cracklin’ cornbread for supper that night. Meanwhile, I kept stirring.
Daddy usually got back with the buckets of ground sausage before milking time. The buckets were covered and placed out in the enclosed garage to cool until the next day. I finally got to stop stirring lard (a very boring job) and go inside. We always ate a wonderful Thanksgiving supper of fresh pork tenderloin, gravy, mashed potatoes and cracklin’ cornbread with the background music provided by the constant jiggle of the canner and the occasional pop of a successfully sealed can.
I went to bed a tired little girl on those days and I can’t imagine how tired my grandparents and parents must have been. But I knew there was still lots left to do. Tomorrow was “sausage day” when we would patty sausage for frying and canning, cold pack more sausage for canning and even freeze a few packages of, yep, you guessed it, sausage. There were also backbones to package and Daddy had to salt the hams!
Daddy’s salt cured hams could not be beaten but he was very secretive about the way he did them. He even had a small room in the garage that was the “ham room” (where we weren’t allowed to go) but where he would painstakingly work his salt curing magic on those big hams with his secret recipe and hang them up until next year. One of his cured hams would always be taken down and sliced for Christmas dinner.
Even though it was all hard work it will always be a special time of year to me and it sure was satisfying to have all that good meat stocked away for the winter and coming year.
Although I don’t have any pictures of killing hogs when I was little, I found some older ones in some of mom’s pictures. When I look at these old black and white photographs it makes me realize that we had it relatively easy in comparison.
So Thanksgiving will always remind me of “Hog Killin’ Time” and I will always be thankful for getting to grow up with that wonderful family and community tradition.