Cold enough to kill hogs

Published 5:59 pm Friday, March 8, 2024

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By Janet Morris Belvin

As I write this in late January, it’s been really cold these past few days here. For the last week the temperatures haven’t climbed above 31 degrees.

The cold has reminded me of a story my father used to tell many years ago. He said an old mountaineer sat down in an air conditioned car for the very first time, took a deep breath, and said “Whew! It’s cold enough to kill hogs in here!” For years, until I actually participated in a hog killing, I didn’t know what that meant.

But back in the 1980s, I was living on a farm in Sunbury and my parents, Dr. and Mrs. Frank Morris, lived on a farm near Eason’s Crossroads. The acreage had been in our family for generations but now is a part of the beautiful Merchants’ Millpond State Park. To me, though, it will always be Mama and Daddy’s farm.

On those acres where so many of my ancestors had lived, Daddy raised chickens, geese, turkeys, goats, ponies, and hogs. Daddy was not the first to raise hogs there. He often told me the story of how one of my ancestors had had some hogs to get loose and swim through the millpond adjacent to the Morris farm to an island. There the hogs had given birth to pigs and the name “Hog Island” was given to the birthplace, a name which still survives today.

Occasionally, Daddy called me into service to help him on the farm – gathering eggs, weeding or digging potatoes in his garden, or being a “surgical assistant” while he did what he called “trimming pigs.” But the busiest I ever was on Daddy’s farm was on hog killing days. The recent cold snap has called those days to mind.

On one bitterly cold day in January, 1980, Mama and Daddy had had five hogs killed so of course I went to their house to help. Hog killings were becoming something of a rarity at that time so quite a few neighbors and relatives came over to participate in the fun. Leon and Randolph Umphlette, Gene Riddick, Joe Buck and Roger Lane are five whom I recall popping in for a bit to watch and help.

For most of the morning, I was outside under the shelter cutting the skin off and trimming the fat from the meat for sausage. Daddy, my uncles Tommy and Thurman Morris and Mr. Ed Walton were sawing off the hams, shoulders, and sides. My sister Jerry Hester, Daddy’s cousin Golden Brinson, and a woman who went by the name of “Little Bit” and I were at the sausage table. There we scraped hair from pig’s ears and feet. Holding the feet after they’d been scalded in hot water was eerie. They felt exactly like human hands. Daddy gave away these parts plus the hogs’ heads, brains and other parts we didn’t care for. That was the example of “eating every part of the pig but the squeal” as the old saying goes.

At that point, the fat we trimmed was cooked in a large black kettle over a wood fire to render lard. When the fat pieces were nice and brown, we scooped them up and poured them into a clean pillowcase to strain the grease. Then my Uncle Desmond used a wooden squeezer to squeeze the grease from the “cracklins” (the cooked fat.)

By that time, Daddy had returned from getting the sausage ground at Gramp Eure’s (now known as the Tarheel).

Then the work in Mama’s kitchen began where we shaped the meat into sausage patties and wrapped them carefully in waxed freezer paper. We also put up the roasts, spare ribs, pork chops, tenderloin and backbone.

Behind their house there was a white painted smokehouse where that evening Daddy would take the hams and shoulders he’d cut and lay them carefully in a trough on the ground. There, he salted them and then strung them through the shank with heavy gauge wire and hung them from the rafters above. Finally a well-banked fire in a hole in the dirt provided the smoke that would enhance the flavor of the meat.

For weeks afterward, those hams were suspended, dripping grease onto the dirt floor. Long after my father was gone and no hams hung in the smokehouse anymore, I could open the door and smell that wonderful aroma. Immediately I’d be transported back to those cold days of hard work beside my Daddy and Mama and so many friends and relatives.

I was a young girl then and not used to such hard work so I remember complaining at the end of the day that my arms and legs ached! I couldn’t imagine then that I’d remember such hard labor with such affection. But the memories made that day are some of my fondest recollections. And I’ve give just about anything for a slice of my Daddy’s ham right about now.

Janet Morris Belvin is the author of Southern Stories from the Porch Swing, The Refuge, The Bookshop on Beach Road, and Sycamore Hill [available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and elsewhere] and lives in Virginia. Her next novel will be out this fall.