A couple Saturdays ago, I made my way out to Primrose Farm to observe a traditional hog butchering. Gruesome? Yes. Interesting? Very. I came away with a great deal of fascinating information and a better understanding (and appreciation) for the just how food gets from the farm to the table.
A SHORT HISTORY
Pigs (Sus scrofa) originate from Asia, also where the earliest efforts of hog domestication can be found. The pig’s short gestation period (only four months) and high yield of offspring at one time (a sow can produce upwards of 12 pigs in one litter) made the animal a profitable and reliable one for producers. Pigs arrived in America as early as 1539 when early explorers arrived from Europe and quickly flourished amongst the rich vegetation of the new land. Skipping several hundred years ahead,* the pig remains a core component of the American diet because of the pig’s ability to quickly convert corn into meat. In many ways, the American pork industry is tied to America’s love affair with corn, the consumption of which is a topic of recent discussion/debate.
PIG BUTCHERING 101
Ideal butcher weight is around 220 pounds—a weight the pig will reach six months after its born, although the subject hog at Primrose Farm weighed in at a very hearty 600+ pounds. For all intensive purposes, the weight of the pig does not necessarily affect the quality of the pork. The 220 pound guideline developed more out of practicality than anything else. For starters, any larger than 220 pounds, and the pig can become too large for a single butcher to handle. Secondly, the pig reaches this weight approximately six months after birth, accounting for the time between the spring birth of the piglets to the November butchering time.
Butchering on an Illinois farm in the 1930s typically occurred in late November and early December on days during which the temperature did not get below freezing or above 40°F. After scalding and removing of the “awful” (the intestines, organs, etc.) the pig hangs overnight. If it freezes in the night, the meat can be difficult to cut. If the meat gets too warm, cutting a clean, even slice through the flesh can be equally difficult. Seeing as how this temperature range occurs at the end of November through the early parts of December, hog butchering quickly became associated with Christmas and, no doubt, contributes to American’s idea of ham as a traditional yuletide meal.
To actually kill the hog, the butcher marks an X on the back of the hog’s head, behind the eyes and in the middle of the two ears. Shooting the pig just to the right (or left) of the X will immediately kill the pig’s brain. The hog is immediately hung upside-down, held by a pully system attached to a wooden bar that is forced into the heel tendons of the pig for support. As she hangs upside down, the heart continues to pump for a few minutes, draining the blood from the animal. This process is called bleeding the animal and is important to prevent the blood from coagulating in the meat, thereby producing cleaner pork. Some farmers (the wives, really) collected the blood to make blood sausage. With a pig the size of the one at Primrose Farm, there was significantly more blood than could ever be consumed in its short shelf-life
After five minutes or less of bleeding, the pig is ready to be scalded. Scalding is the process of removing the hair and the first layer of skin. A large vat of hot water (not boiling, but in the words of Kirk at Primrose, “hot coffee temperature”) is used to dip the pig. After each dipping, a dull knife is used to scrape the hair from the carcass. In the 1930s, this hair was often collected and used for toothbrushes and other similar household items on the farm. The first layer of the skin is also scraped from the carcass, revealing the white under-layer. Due to the large size of the pig at Primrose, scalding took a great deal longer than it would on a typical butcher-size pig.
After the scalding and scraping, the next step is to remove the head. There is nothing high-tech or fancy about this part, as it simply involves a sharp knife and a bit of “umph”. Cutting from the base of the neck around to the front, the butcher twists the neck until the bone breaks. using an ax on the bone can help created a cleaner break. The head is immediately put in a bucket and will be further disassembled for it’s various parts. One of the easiest food items to make from the head is headcheese, which is literally boiling the entire head in a pot. Once boiled, the natural collagen from the head acts as a gelatin to mold everything together. Alternatively, the butcher could set aside the jowls for jowl-bacon, as well as the tongue as another source of meat. The eyes are not used, and if boiled as part of the head, simply rise to the top of the pot and dissolve.
With the head removed, the butcher can now open the carcass to remove the insides, also called the “awful”. A sharp knife is used to cut a shallow trail from the tail all the way down to the breastbone. The butcher then takes an ax to break through the pelvic bone before cutting all the way through the skin down to the neck. With the pelvis broken, the ends of the intestines can be tied close and slowly removed from the inside. As the intestines are removed, the other organs will follow; everything is collected in a large pail and saved for various uses. Most notably, the intestines are painstakingly made into sausage casing—a process that involves turning the entire intestine inside out cleaning off the lard as you go.
At this point, the farmer could continue with the job of cutting the actual meat of the carcass or simply sell the carcass to a third party who could continue the job. If selling the carcass, the butcher leaves both kidneys intact, as this allows the third party to verify the animal was diseased in anyway.
At Primrose Farm, the butchering event took place over two days, the first being the scalding and cleaning portion, the second day being the meat-cutting day. I chose not to attend the second day, mostly to avoid becoming a vegetarian from too much “exposure to reality”. Maybe next year I’ll have more guts (pun intended). In the meantime, you can hop on over to this article (black and white images included) to learn all about the meat-cutting process.
*Additional articles on the history of pork can be found here and here.
Editor’s Note (added January 24, 2012): To learn more about the history and process of pig butchering, check out this article on NPR about artisan butcher, Andrew Plotsky. Be sure to watch the video for an up-close-and-personal encounter!