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Hog Killing Time–Comments and Commentary on a Southern Plantation Tradition

I’ve invited my friend Dontavius Williams of Historic Brattonsville in McConnells, South Carolina to join me in reaching and teaching on the matter of hog killing time.  Now most Southerners had hog killing time, and for the most part, it was done pretty much the same way.  What makes these traditions differ from place to place is the meaning and investment each Southern culture has added to the tradition.  Acadian people in Louisiana had the boucherie (the butchering) which could occur any time but mostly at times requiring a fresh supply of charcuterie.  Appalachian people usually did their hog killing between Thanksgiving and Christmas before mountain snows made each hill and holler its own island.  In the Deep South, hog killing time may not occur until the very dead of winter, usually between Christmastime and February.  In the days before refrigeration was common, an extended cold snap was a necessary element for the fall and winter killing time.

Warning: this post contains graphic images of butchered hogs which may offend some readers.  My apologies but the task of this post is to educate people about the rudiments of the traditional Southern hog butchering, gross details and all.  MWT

The Kinda Hog Your Forefathers Raised
The Kinda Hog Your Forefathers Raised: Note the Tusks

Hog killing was a very intricate ritual no matter where in the South you lived.  I’m speaking of this in past-tense because it is no longer performed as a communal rite of subsistence and necessity.  You can still attend an occasional boucherie or hog killing here and there, but it’s not the same as the days when one farm and then the next would shift operations from place to place, with a small feast for all those gathered to do the work of slaughtering, bleeding, singeing or boiling to remove the hair, scraping the hog, hanging it up by the flap of flesh behind the feet, making the cut from the bung to throat, catching and cleaning the guts, tending the head, and then finally processing the meat and lard into distinct portions–the hams, the bacon and belly, leaf lard for baking, shoulders, side meat, feet, headcheese, sausage, and the bits that could either be preserved or left behind–the chittlins or chitterlings (the small intestine), spareribs, the chine–the backbone, feet, neckbone, tail, and brains.  Some people made blood pudding, and others eschewed that and let it seep into the ground.  Anything left over was given to the dogs that surely gathered for the leavings.

Beginning to Butcher
Beginning to Butcher

Invariably there would be tables set up where–usually women, would process the fresh pork, which they would chop or grind with pieces of fat into sausages.  Others would be engaged in rendering crackling which miraculously appear from the cooking down of fresh lard.  Backbone stews, fresh cooked neckbones, pigs ears and junk pot stews of leftover bits and pieces and fresh roasted spareribs were part of a normal hog killing meal.  Rounded out with hot cornbread, wheat bread, cabbage or kraut, greens, potatoes, sweet potatoes, applesauce or fried apples and other seasonal dishes, the little feast rewarded the families gathered to help cull the hogs.  Sometimes it was several hogs, other times it was one very large hog, and  during slavery on the largest plantations, dozens of hogs and in some cases one hundred or more would be killed and put up.

Dividing Up the Carcass
Dividing Up the Carcass


Ham and Bacon
Ham and Bacon

From Asia came the pig, from Eurasia came the methods of curing and smoking its meat.  These American hogs were raised on a new larder of corn, pecans, peanuts, hickory nuts, peaches and wild fruits, tubers and roots.  From Native America, Africa and Europe came ways to prepare the pork, and from the South came the greatest expression of pork consumption in American culture where these three massive cultural elements came together in the dawn of American history.

Rubbing the Cure In
Rubbing the Cure In

Fresh pork was a luxury for most Southern people.  Most meat was cured with a salt based blend usually but not always including salt, saltpeter, sugar, and pepper.  Regardless of what flavor these ingredients may have imparted their inclusion was first and foremost, practical.  Meat went through several rubbings of salt and saltpeter, which helped to dry the meat, and stave off rot.  A rotten ham or other cut was improperly salted, and it was essential to get salt into every crevice.  The meat then sat in boxes of salt for six to eight weeks and was then rubbed with pepper and other things like hickory ash, etc, to keep off flies which invariably infested the area in meathouses.  Red pepper helped keep out skipper fly larvae. For several days the hams or bacon would me smoked using hickory, oak, applewood, sassafras, corncobs or whatever else was available usually giving priority to consistency.  In other words, you picked a source of smoke and stuck with it for a given set of meat.  Apple, peach, pecan or other fruit and nut woods were typically from broken branches and fallen trees which were gathered by young people in anticipation of the smoking process.  Later on, hams and bacon would be bagged after smoking to prevent further infestation.  Yes, the meat would get moldy on the outside but you had to scrape it off, and soak the meat overnight to rid it of 2/3 of its saltiness.

Tidewater Virginia Smokehouse
Tidewater Virginia Smokehouse


Ham and Bacon Hanging in the Smokehouse
Ham and Bacon Hanging in the Smokehouse

Chittlin’ Time By:  Dontavius Williams

Brattonsville Pics by Pamela Williams:

“There is perhaps no animal which the western farmer possesses, reared with so little trouble and expense, and which, at the same time, adds so largely to his comforts, as the hog.” These words penned by William Oliver were posted to Facebook by an interpreter friend of mine last week and caught my eye; as we were having Hog Butchering Day at our site last Saturday.  Although Oliver was speaking of his experiences in Illinois when he penned these words in 1843, they still hold true today here in the Southeast.

Sorting the Chitterlings

Pork was and still is one of the main sources of meat to the people of York County, SC. Two weeks ago, at Historic Brattonsville<>, we held a living history program centered onthe ALMIGHTY PIG. It was or Hog Butchering Day event.  I did not really take part in too much of the planning of this event; however, I was in on a couple conversations about how we would go about the day.  Of course, living in 2013 we are somewhat disconnected as a society from HOW the food gets from the Farm to the Table.  With that said, there was a bit of push back from some community members and even staff who did not want to have the hog actually slaughtered on site.  Needless to say, when the word was passed down from the big guy in charge, we did not actually kill the pig on site.  Honestly, I was a little disappointed because I was looking forward to the experience again. I remember, as a child when we would kill hogs, the entire community would come together and help with the process.  As a reward for all of our hard work, we would each go home with a pound of sausage.

Chitlin Two

Saturday was nothing short of the same experience for me.  We had volunteer interpreters who came out and cut up the pig and preserved its pieces with salt which we will later smoke to add flavor and even more shelf life to it.  Volunteers also made lye soap and lard from the fat of the pig.  Everything with the exception of the oink was used on this day.

Cleaning the Casing

Some cooking took place as well.  I helped to make chitterlings (affectionately known as “chitlins”) in the slave cabin.  The camaraderie that was formed around the table was inexplicable; with that understood, there is something special to be said about standing around a table cleaning the innards of a pig with a group of friends. I had never taken part in the cleaning and cooking of chitlins; but Saturday was agreat learning experience for me.  You may be wondering, what the heck is a chitlin.  Well, let me help you… chitlins (chitterlings) are the intestines of the pig.  “GROSS” you may be thinking… not at all.  J  Chitlins have an acquired taste.  Most people can’t get past the idea of the smell of them or the texture.  But once you get the “guts” to try them, if you like them, they will change your life forever.

Brattonsville Butchering
Brattonsville Butchering

Visitors young and old came up and asked questions, some repulsed by the idea, but many more intrigued and tempted to taste the finished product.  Although the chitlins started out being one of the most repulsive things I had ever touched, they ended up being one of the most delicious dishes I have ever tasted.  It’s funny how the “trash” of the pig can be used by people to create some of the most delectable dishes.

After my Hog Butchering Day experience, I walked away with a better understanding and deeper appreciation for the pig.  I was raised not to waste anything and this living history event reminded me of my teachings I received as a child.  I can’t wait until our next event like this.  Hope you can make it too!  DW



4 comments on “Hog Killing Time–Comments and Commentary on a Southern Plantation Tradition

  1. Great post, once again. 🙂 Thank you for this glimpse into our past, and applying it to our present. 🙂


  2. Sule Greg Wilson

    I got here searching for bkgnd data on a hap’nin’ fm Slavery Times I use in storytelling; this was perfect. Thanks so much!


  3. Pingback: BBQ News: 02/10 – 02/16 : TMBBQ

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