The sights, sounds, and smells of our annual hog-killing are among my very early memories, predating our getting electricity and continuing through my growing up years. We would nurture three or four pigs from birth for many months and into the chilly fall days of late October or November after the first heavy frosts had robbed our trees of their leaves.
Numerous preparations led up to hog-killing. These included setting up a big black cast iron kettle near a pile of firewood about fifty feet west of our screened-in back porch. The kettle required two people to lift it, being about thirty inches in diameter, two feet deep, and with three short and thick legs on the bottom to stabilize it. Mother was in charge of rendering the fat trimmings into lard and, after that, making an annual supply of lye soap that she would use to do our laundry in the years before an electric washer and store-bought laundry detergent. While she was in charge, we all took our turn stirring the chunks of pig fat with a long wooden paddle, roughly the size of a canoe oar, while trying to shield our faces from the extreme heat of the fire. These operations took many hours, spread intermittently over two to three days.
Earlier preparations included Mother making about twenty-five sausage sacks out of heavy white cotton cloth with her foot-treadle Singer sewing machine. The finished sacks were about twenty inches long and, when filled with sausage, about two and a half inches in diameter.
Shortly before the pig slaughtering, Daddy would buy a pickup load of sawdust from Jake McWhorter’s sawmill and unload it in a pile inside the north end of our smokehouse. This smokehouse was old and tightly built, about eighteen feet long, ten feet wide, and with a sloping roof between six and seven feet high. It sat in our back yard about twenty feet from the northeast corner of our kitchen, with a north-south orientation, perfectly placed to provide a screen between our kitchen and dining room windows so that our outhouse to the east of the smokehouse would be out of sight from those windows.
My parents also bought several 25-pound bags of salt and placed them beside a wooden box inside the smokehouse door for curing various cuts of pork. This salt-box was roughly the size of a card table with sides on it, about three feet square and thirty inches high with a heavy wooden lid.
After the slaughter, we all pitched in processing the carcasses into various cuts. My parents and Nolen Robert did the cuts that required more physical strength and I helped with sorting the cuts, trimming off fat, and feeding strips of meat into the hand-cranked sausage mill to grind the meat into a big aluminum pan. Mother added sage, pepper, and salt to the mix and stuffed the sausage into the cloth bags she had made, leaving some extra fabric at the top to allow for a string to be tied around them before being hung in the smokehouse.
While all this was going on, we spread a layer of salt on the bottom of the box, then a layer of hams, shoulders, or bacon meat that we called sowbelly, then a layer of salt and another layer of meat, and so on until all the cuts for salt curing were in place, topped off by a final layer of salt.
The sacks of sausages were hung from the rafters in a group away from the salt-box. Daddy then arranged a layer of sawdust about three inches deep under the sausages for smoking to begin. The texture of the sawdust was dense enough to do a slow burn without igniting, while producing a lot of smoke.
As the days of smoking the sausages went by, the sausage bags turned from white to a light golden brown to a darker brown. While this was going on, the meat in the salt-box was curing, something that took several weeks. After that, we would remove the salt-cured cuts, run a piece of baling wire through the hocks of each of the hams and shoulders and through the corner of each slab of bacon meat, or sowbelly, and hang them from the rafters for smoking for several more weeks.
In trying to figure out why my early memories of this smokehouse are so prominent, even more prominent than my memories of the actual hog-killing, it’s clear to me now that in my early years my parents shielded me from the actual slaughtering. Nolen Robert’s six-year head start on me meant that he was much more involved in the blood and gore than I was, but I caught up with those experiences as I got older. By the time I was in junior high I became a full participant in the actual slaughtering.
Part of the allure of the smokehouse was no doubt related to my enjoyment of smoking tobacco. I liked the smell of smoke, especially from Daddy’s pipe tobacco. I liked going to the smokehouse when Mother told me to go get a sack of sausage, or a smoked ham or shoulder. The smell was almost magical, beyond my limited vocabulary to describe it. I liked, and still like, the smell of smoked meat decades after I abandoned smoking in my youth.
Over the years as I have traveled the Southern states of the U. S., I have found extra pleasure in occasionally finding country-smoked ham or country-smoked sausage on breakfast menus such as at the Loveless Cafe in Nashville. When I happen into such delights, the memories of our hog-killing, the boiling pots of fat, the grinding of sausage, the hanging and smoking of the sausage, hams, shoulders, and bacon all come to mind.
The memory also comes back when I put chunks of hickory or mesquite on our gas grill in Texas and that great smoky smell rises up and coats our steaks, chops, or chicken. That smell also gets on my hands and arms and face, and it permeates my shirt. This is always a pleasant smell to me, invoking my happy days in the smokehouse. Walking into a great barbecue joint, especially the ones with a light cloud of smoke shrouding the tables and the diners, also brings back my memories of our smokehouse.
So in a sense, our smokehouse flavored my life. The thought of it makes me hungry, so soon after lunch.