LIFE IN THE HOLLOW
Photograph by Jerry Murley
THANKSGIVING IS HOG KILLIN' *
by Jerry Murley
Usually it would be early morning when the wooden trough with the tin bottom was hauled into the small, fenced lot by the road. The trench beneath it would be dug before Thanksgiving so that when the cold front moved in a fire could be stoked up, the trough placed lengthwise over the fiery ditch and the stove pipe wedged between the earth and trough at one end for ventilation.
This time the day started out too warm and sunny for anyone to think about hugging, tugging and slicing on fat ugly hogs. I had made plans for an expedition to the old resort at Prim Springs, thinking I'd gotten out of my holiday obligation to assist with the killing. But around eleven I got word that a cold front was coming and Milton was on his way to Paul's place (the Franklin brothers' home farm) with a gilt and four barrows weighing approximately four hundred pounds each. Paul had already started the fire under the six-foot trough and filled it with about two and a half feet of water. Bob had taken the rest of the day off from his job in Nashville and was headed home.
Bob and I put on our jeans, flannel shirts, sweat shirts, sweaters and overalls, pulled on a couple pairs of socks and stepped into our boots and were down at Paul's by twelve-thirty. Not ten minutes later Bob was behind the narrow corral with a .22 rifle pointed between the eyes of an irritated Hampshire. The first shot didn't down him, and they all winced in expression of the hog's pain. Milton and Paul started complaining about their old leaded-up rifle, as Bob took aim again and quickly shot him down the next time. Then Paul jumped to the hog's neck and cut a deep X in it, reaching his knife deep into the throat to sever the jugular vein. The blood of the hog spurted out on Paul's hand and commenced to become a slush on the ground around the head. They scattered hay to soak it up. The hog kicked about for a minute or two and stopped. Captain got a bucket of hot water and poured it on the hog's hindquarters; when there was no reaction from the hog they pronounced him dead.
With scalding water Paul washed the blood from the neck and face. Then the five
of us – one at each of the front legs, one in the middle, one with the tail and one with the two back legs – heaved it over into the water, lowering it with two chains which were attached to the work platform on the other side of the tough and running underneath the hog.
Once the hog was in the water, Paul jostled it over and over while Bob and Milton turned it with hooks and at the same time tugged furiously at the hair. As soon as the hair could be pulled off over the entire body with uniform ease, Bob and Milton took the ends of the chains from Paul and pulled the hog up onto the wooden platform. With businesslike intentness Paul, Bob and Milton hurriedly scrubbed a metal scrapper over the body trying to get off as much hair as they could before the animal cooled. Captain and I did the same thing, though less effectively, with our hands by pinching at islands of black and white hair. After it had been scraped and rinsed off, Bob cut the skin of the hind legs and hooked the tendons of each at separate ends of a yoke-like device; he then attached the device to a pulley on an overhead track. Meanwhile, Paul took off the head with a knife and a double-edged ax; this action could not be delayed because when the hog was pulled off the platform, by way of the track extending out into the barn lot, its snout would have dragged the ground.
Once the hog had been hoisted up by the legs, its front legs were gently pulled off the work platform. The hog was pushed to the end of the track and washed down again with a bucket of scalding water and shaved clean of all remaining hair with sharp knives. After the hair had been removed, the body was washed off with a hose. Meanwhile the head, which had been soaking in a tub of water to wash off the remaining blood, was lifted out and set up on the fence.
As Paul and Bob started setting up to shoot another hog, Milton made a long incision up the belly of the hanging hog. First he freed the intestines and swept them into a tub, which he gave to a neighbor who rushed them home to have the chitlings cleaned. Then he cut out the lungs, heart and liver, all in one piece, and handed them to me to drape over the fence.
We had trouble killing the second hog too; so Milton asked a neighbor to fetch his son and his son's rifle. With the swifter, surer shooting the hog killing process moved on with assembly-line routine and amazing neatness.
The last two hogs were Bob's. When the first of Bob's hogs had been killed, Bob took the place of the more experienced dresser, Paul, and tried to shortcut the washing off of the face and neck before the dipping. As he finished he made an impeded step toward the tail and tripped on the front legs, falling down by the hog in the day's blood. No one needed to stop laughing and go help him up, though; he jumped up as fast as he could to make short the derision produced at his expense. As we were scraping hair, Paul and Milton taunted Bob about his performance and the skimpy face-washing job he'd done: "Look here at this hog; it's the worst one yet. See all the blood and hair left on the face. Somebody better go get a razor to shave the face of Bob's pigs."
When all five hogs had been shot, scalded, scraped, decapitated, strung up and gutted, they were allowed to hang for an hour or so while the heads were being split and the brains removed. After the meat had cooled a bit and the remaining blood had drained, the hogs were carried one by one to another work platform to be blocked out into hams, shoulders, backbones, backstrips, ribs, side meat and sausage trimmings. At about seven, as we were moving the last hog, Bob, who was lifting the front legs of one of his hogs, tripped again and tumbled to the ground with his hog on top; that time we did have to stop laughing to fetch Bob and chide him about cavorting with his pig carcass.
The first day was finished at eight when the flat wagon loaded with meat was pushed into Paul's newly completed garage for the night. The only thoughts from then on were for a hot bath, a good hot dinner and the warm, thoughtless sleep which was certain to be disturbed by dread of the five-thirty alarm to come in the morning.
After breakfast Bob and I fattened ourselves with layers of clothing, adding other insulated pieces to our hog-killin' wardrobe to meet the 19 degrees soon to greet us outside. We rubbed some lotion into our hands to protect them and by six were saying good-mornings inside Paul's garage.
Immediately Paul started trimming the hams and shoulders, and Bob and I started cutting lean meat from fat to make sausage. We sliced the strips of lean into one-and-a-half inch chunks and made a pile of them in the middle of the table. Between the freezing and numbing of the fingers and toes, the thawing out once or twice by the kitchen stove, and lunch, Milton, Captain, Bob and I cut up all the sausage and started cubing up lard, while Paul finished trimming the meat with a saw and salted the hams.
After a big lunch we all reluctantly struggled back into our extra clothes and went back out into the cold to finish cutting up lard. By three the lard was cut, Paul had seasoned and started grinding his sausage, and Bob was mixing up his recipe for a hot sausage only he would be able to eat.
Since Paul wouldn't work on Sunday, the meat had to be put up in the smokehouse or wrapped for freezing before we could call it a day. As usual I was to leave on Sunday, so I'd have to wait awhile for my initiation into the mysteries of rendering, smokehouse doings and the preparation of headcheese. But that was all right by me; besides, this particular year wasn't the best for a novice to be inducted into the entire ritual, for this was the first year the others had had to go it alone without the master, Cousin Joe. He had been the repository for all the recipes and techniques followed in the hog killing process down through the years, but he was gone. That didn't discourage me, though, because I knew that neither his passing, nor the exhortations of dieticians, nor the debasement of slaughter rites in packing houses, could ever keep the Franklins from killing hogs come next Thanksgiving.
*Previously published in PINCH, 1978, Memphis, TN. (Written by G. D. Murley, Jr.)