(c) Copyright Chuck Bealke, 1996
One of life's little mysteries is why I get lightheaded and woozy if I look at my own bleeding after a cut or other wound but am perfectly at ease during every phase of cutting up hogs. But it has always been so.
My butchering experience came in my mid-teens. Back then in Missouri, to butcher hogs was to really feel the cold - but also to share lots of comradie, gossip, farm tips, history and even a very few fermented drinks. It was usually conducted when it was 20 degrees or colder. I suppose this was for health reasons. If it warmed up into the forties on such a planned occasion, the job would wait until a colder day. Usually the wind would be blowing, and you would end up smelling like a wood stove from the smoke that got in your hair and clothes. Seems like I was the youngest and least experienced the times I did it, so I got to do a fair amount of the grunt jobs. Chief among these was cleaning casings. Before the wondrous age of plastics and the like, sausage casings were made from the pig intestines. Preparing the casings consisted of cleaning out these intestines by hand. Boiling water was used during the final phase, and between the blowing cold wind and hot water, your hands were always red and alternately freezing or hot. From the time the pigs were shot, and the prepared sausage and lard were put away, you had worked from early morning until after dark, but this was in part due to the shortness of mid-winter days. A large part of the job was cutting up sections of the skin and fat into small chunks to pitch into the boiling pot. When the lard had cooked long enough that the pieces of skin (cracklins I think they are called) were all that remained solid in the clear liquid, the cracklins were taken out and drained of the grease before they cooled. I never could eat many of them because they were so heavy. (Still like a much lighter modern grocery store kind, though - especially with a good beer. Like most things that taste good, the stuff must be really bad for your health.)
One of the interesting aspects of the butchering process was the manner of mixing salt and spices for use in mixing into the sausage meat going into the stuffer. The mix used was sort of like a farmer's (or his wife's) signature. Every sausage batch was distinctively seasoned. True, the differences were often subtle, but sometimes they were not. I always thought that a fellow with a good palate could figure out which farm in the area a sausage came from by tasting a cooked up sample. The last farmer I helped in his butchering, Louis Kraus, paid me for my day's work in sausage. He was a fine man and I had expected no pay, as he had done some fine work for my dad on our farm. But his determination to reward my labor was my good fortune, as he sent me off with some of the best flavored sausage I ever wolfed down. It did not take my family long to turn it into fond memories. (We had no place then to store it for long periods, as we had long ago converted the smoke house on our farm to a storage shed.) Most of the family farms in our area west of St. Louis had smoke houses, and much of the sausage from the stuffer went into them until consumed.
When I look back at the butchering process, I remember the huge amount of lard generated. Despite what we think of using lard now, in those days a lot of it found its way into delicious pie crust and other cooking. But even then, a portion was likely saved for soap making. (My grandmother made many a soap batch cut into brick sized brown bars just from leftover cooking grease.) The other thing I remember was that almost every part of the pig was used. It amuses me that my own city-raised kids look upon meats such as souse, tongue or the like as incredibly weird and likely unhealthy fare. To me, these are far healthier, more delicious and less suspicious meats than store-bought hotdogs.
There were other customs related to butchering that still thrived in the '50s in our area. Most of the farmers were German, and most of these still spoke German almost as well as English. Every fall, some churches in our part of the country would hold a sausage supper as a fund raising event, and I volunteered one year to help. For this event I did not help butcher because the slaughtering was done during school days instead of the weekend. So I peeled potatoes and other such tasks for a very long Saturday. But I actually enjoyed the experience because I learned almost as much as I ate from the old timers. They reminisced about old time farming methods, cooking tips passed down to them over the years and suppers and characters past. The meals we helped prepare were truly grand and eagerly devoured. The success of these annual ventures was fueled by long and hard work by many capable volunteers of all ages and both sexes. Those who did not work in the kitchen or dining room at the church/school, stayed home and baked pastries to donate. These ladies had justifiable pride in their work, and their desserts not consumed at the supper found eager buyers.
During butchering season, it was not uncommon for friends to trade sausage for like kind or other goodies. Also, most who slaughtered pigs traded their labors with others who did the same. So every Winter, hog folks got together at each others farms to make sausage. It was bonding, neighborly, necessary and productive. And though I did not join in this until long after we got rid of all our own hogs, I'm glad I was a part of it. .