Updated May 17, 2010.
Hog meat was an important part of the Knotts Island diet from the earliest settlement days until about World War II. In the early days hogs and other livestock roamed the Island and adjacent marshes wherever the food chain led them. People fenced in farms, yards and garden plots to keep out the livestock and any other wild animals that could cause damage to gardens and plants. The marsh lands surrounding Knotts Island and the Outer Banks were an important food source for hogs and other livestock and were available to the public to use at will.
Most people had pig pens near their homes and fed the hogs just enough to keep them returning home from their daily forage for food. Everybody had a different hog call so that only their pigs responded to their call. These calls might be a high pitched "sooie", a low pitched "wark", or a simple "here pig here". Sometimes the hogs would disappear in the marsh for the summer months but return in the fall. The sows had litters of six to twelve pigs twice per year- one in the winter and another in the summer.
Often the summer litter was born on the marsh and the survivors stayed on the marsh when the mother sow came home. Although the mortality rate was high, enough marsh-born survivors remained to build up a sizable population of wild feral hogs. Some of the wild boars grew tusks up to six inches long and they had quite a reputation for chasing hunters, trappers and others at high speed across the marshes. With wild hogs attacking, some people ran so fast with the boar in hot pursuit that they reputedly crossed float marshes without getting their boot soles wet. Others stood still, petrified by the approaching boar's foaming at the mouth and slashing down bull rushes like a man with a scythe. A book could be written about the Knotts Island wild hogs. With the shortage of meat during World War II, the wild hogs were trapped to extinction. Lemmie Jones was the most prolific trapper at that time.
The raising of hogs on the open marshes, with freedom to roam over the whole Island, continued until the advent of the automobile in the 1900 teens or early 20's. At this time special fences were built to interconnect the back fences of the farms and gardens to keep the livestock away from the roads and the main high land part of the Island. For example, a community fence extended along the western side of the Island from the North End in what is now VA, Beach to the foot of the Marsh Road Causeway, and another extended from the foot of the Marsh Road to the beginning of the Mackay Island Road . Other fences were built along the western side of the south end of the Island and on the eastern side to confine livestock to the marshes.. There were a number of fence days per year when all community fence participants and their kids traveled the fence line and did repair work.
With the purchase of the marshes and small islands by wealthy hunters from the North, friction developed between the local populace and the new land owners. The livestock, especially hogs, damaged hunting blinds, canals, roads and other structures erected by the new club owners. The result was a verbal and written legal restriction on livestock using the marshes. Because of tradition and the importance of hogs and cattle to the survival of the local populace, the restrictions were ignored. As a result Mr. Knapp. among others, constructed a fence along his property line at the marsh border restricting livestock foraging to essentially just pine woods. Needless to say the fence kept getting cut allowing the livestock to roam at will over all the marsh land.. Mr. Knapp reacted by hiring guards with guns to shoot any livestock entering onto his property. Because of the importance of hogs and cattle to the local people, a range war almost started with heated arguments and acts of violence threatened from both sides. Finally, Mr. Knapp backed down and allowed the livestock to roam as usual over the marshes. To protect the legal title to his land, he charged $1.00 per year for grazing privileges. There were other instances of friction regarding grazing and foraging rights on other large holdings of property.With the completion of a good road to the Island in 1938 followed by electricity and refrigeration in 1946, the dependence of the people on cured pork, fish and beef for survival came to an end. The super markets replaced the pork barrel. so that in a few years raising hogs for survival stopped.
FINISHING HOGS FOR SLAUGHTER
The hogs raised on the marshes of Knotts Island were a special breed that knew how to survive on their own. They would reach a weight of about 100 pounds in one year and maybe 200 pounds in two years. (This compares to 200 pounds in six months these days) Because they were range hogs, there was little fat which resulted in meat that would be the envy of today's fat conscious dietitians. Everyone had their farm plots fenced, and they turned the hogs loose in the fields in the fall after harvesting was complete to fatten on the gleanings from the corn, sweet potatoes and soy beans which were planted between the corn rows especially for the hogs and also to improve the soil. Soy beans had no other market in those days. The typical hog might gain 15 to 25 pounds in a couple of months foraging in the fields.
The hogs were penned just before Christmas and fed a special diet of corn to "harden" the fat and "sweeten" the meat. No one butchered hogs without putting them through this finishing process because meat from hogs directly from the marsh was not considered as tasty or as healthy and nourishing as corn fed hogs. The one exception was for hogs raised on the Outer Banks that fattened in the fall on acorns from the live oaks- they were at the top of the prime meat list.
HOG KILLING PREPARATION
Hog killing required considerable planning and preparation. Neighbors were contacted to plan for a day when they were free to help. The farmer's almanac was consulted to pick a cold day. Butchering hogs on a warm day ran a risk of meat spoilage. Usually hog killings were planned for January or February which offered the best chance of cold weather. Since people depended on the smoke house for nourishment for the whole year; meat spoilage was a major catastrophe which literally threatened the survival of a family.
Sharp knives were a must for hog killing. The knives were often homemade from old saws or files and then tempered to the right hardness to hold an edge throughout a day of use on the hogs. The knives were sharpened on a grindstone which was often peddled by a willing grandson. These knives were not only used to stab and bleed pigs, but to shave off hair, to dress the carcass and to carve the meat into cuts such as fat back, hams and so forth.
A container was needed for scalding the hog carcass preparatory to removing the hair. This container was often a large cast iron kettle with three legs set on bricks. Sometimes gasoline barrels, with the top cut out and the barrel set in a slanted pit on bricks or stone at about sixty degrees from vertical, were used . These kettles or barrels were filled with water the day before the scheduled hog killing day and the wood was placed in position for quick lighting early in the morning of the hog killing.
A large amount of wood was needed to heat the water in the kettle or barrel to the boiling point and to keep it hot for several hours. Pine pitch lightwood was often used because it was easily ignited and burned for long periods at a high temperature. Knotts Island was blessed with large supplies of lightwood pine stumps and logs from old cuts of virgin timber. This lightwood was gathered and stacked next to the scalding barrel.
Several oak whiskey barrels had to be available for curing the meat or salting or brining various cuts prior to further processing. These barrels were secured from the Jones General Store which sometimes had to provide Coke barrels rather than whiskey- not popular because residue of coke sometimes flavored the meat. Whiskey might have also flavored the meat but that was never admitted because whiskey was not considered acceptable to either Baptists and Methodists.
Up to a couple of hundred pounds of salt was needed to brine the fat back cuts and to dry salt the hams, jowls and bacon. The salt was ordered from the general store a few weeks before the scheduled hog killing day. Lye was needed to make soap and various Herb's including bay leaves were needed for the lard. Sausage seasoning, including copious amounts of sage and cayenne pepper was gathered for the sausage. A large number of tubs were needed to handle and process the intestines, hearts, livers, pancreas (sweet breads), lungs and possibly other organs. The wife usually had to plan to feed a large number of people with a gourmet meal of fresh pork, liver, heart and other meats at lunch time on the day of the hog killing.
Slaked lime and fresh pine boughs were collected to season the boiling water to make the hair slip off easily when the hog carcass was scalded. A ridge pole was constructed using a 16 to 20 foot black gum pole mounted at a height of about 5 feet between two forked vertical black gum logs set deeply in the ground. The ridge pole was needed to hang the hog carcasses for cleaning, dressing and cooling before carving the meat. Gambols were made from black gum pieces about one inch in diameter and 2 feet long sharpened to points on each end. The gambols were required to insert through the back leg tendons for hanging the hog carcass on the ridge pole. Smaller sticks were made available to hold the hog carcass open while cooling.
The smoke house had to be thoroughly cleaned and temporary shelves or tables constructed for placing the cut up meat prior to further processing. "S" shaped hooks were fashioned from heavy wire for inserting into the meat prior to hanging it from nails in the rafters of the smokehouse. Smoke wood was gathered for curing bacon, hams, jowls and sausage. Hickory was popular but not plentiful on Knotts Island. My grandfather preferred apple wood or peach wood decayed to the point of feeling like cork.
The women, including neighbor helpers, also had to plan for the day of hog killing. They needed sharp knives and large amounts of water stored in tubs- the water was pumped a day ahead from a hand pump. Reeds were often gathered and trimmed for use in turning intestines inside out for cleaning and skinning preparatory to making chitterlings or sausage casings. These long reeds were later used in the smokehouse across joists to loop sausage links over for smoking Table space had to be available for cubing fat for lard and soap, or gathering gristle pieces and head parts for use in souse meat. A hot stove was needed all day long for a supply of hot water and for processing the many parts of the hogs into finished food. Sausage grinders and stuffers were often borrowed from neighbors if not already available. Other preparations were required for making soap, trying lard, making sausage, cooking souse meat and processing chitterlings.
At about 4:00 A.M. on the anointed day, a fire was started under the scalding kettle to be ready for use by about daybreak. All of the equipment needed for the day was gathered and placed where it would be needed later.
The wife prepared a large breakfast and copious amounts of coffee and yaupon tea (made from the yaupon bush) for consumption throughout the day. When the helper neighbors arrived just before daybreak everyone enjoyed a hearty breakfast and set off for the tasks at hand.
The two wheel horse cart was taken out of the shed and two or three men grasped the shafts, shouldered the back band and pulled it to the pig pens- usually several hundred feet or even yards from the barnyard where butchering took place. Men pulled the cart rather than a horse because fresh blood often made the horses skittish and nervous. At the pig pens, a couple of men would climb into the pen and stun a pig by shooting it in the forehead with a small 22 caliber rifle or tapping it on the head with the blunt end of an ax. After stunning, the hog was stabbed in the heart and with an experienced twist of the knife the jugular vein was severed for rapid bleeding. Bleeding was necessary to obtain quality meat. Some people preferred to slit the throat without stunning and let the hog run around the pen until it bled to death- they claimed the bleeding process was more complete and the meat was superior. The same process was repeated until 3 or 4 hogs were killed. My folks usually killed 10 to 12 hogs which made this process repeat 3 or 4 times during the morning.
The carcasses were thrown into the cart which was pulled to the kettle containing the boiling water. A low platform was placed in front of the kettle from which the carcasses were placed and then transferred into the kettle one at a time. The water temperature had to be exactly right- about 190 degrees- to prevent setting the hog hair. The water temperature test was done with an experienced finger dipping into the water and adjusting the fire until the temperature was just right. The hog carcass was then put into the kettle hind end first and slowly rotated back and forth until the hair slipped easily from the carcass. The carcass was then removed to the platform where three or four men set to work with scrapers and knives to remove the hair very rapidly before cooling set the hair. This process was repeated for the head end of the carcass. If the hair set because the water was too hot or too cold, or the carcass was not cleaned rapidly enough, the carcass had to be cleaned by shaving with knives. This shaving was a tedious process and often elicited remarks such as, " He who eats the most meat will get the most hair" because complete hair removal by shaving was almost impossible.
After the hair was removed, the carcass was gamboled through the tendons of the hind leg and hung from the ridge pole. Sometimes a large hog would require a hole dug to allow the head to hand free. The carcass was next cleaned thoroughly with water and brushes. The hog was then dressed by first lightly slitting the carcass down the belly from top to bottom. The anus was cut around and then with the left hand placed backward into the stomach cavity, the spread fingers served as a guide to cut open the cavity all the way down through the breast cavity. When the left hand was removed the intestines and stomach fell into a tub and were removed to the kitchen for further processing. Next the heart, lungs, bladder, liver, pancreas and kidneys were removed and saved for cooking or further processing, or some of these parts were discarded depending upon taste. (Some kids drained the bladder and inflated it with air after which it was dried and used as a toy balloon.) The carcass was then thoroughly washed and left to cool on the ridge pole until late afternoon.
The number of hogs butchered varied between families from a single hog to 12 or 15 hogs. In my family we usually butchered 10 to 12 hogs depending upon size. The butchering process was repeated as required until all of the hogs were hanging from the ridge pole. The butchering was usually complete by noon.
Lunch was a highlight of the day and consisted of fresh liver, heart, sweetbreads, corn bread, collards, potatoes and sweet potato pie. The meal was often capped off with a glass of homemade concord grape wine or hard apple cider. Everyone would sit around with host provided cigars and gossip for an hour or so while the carcasses were cooling on the ridge pole. After lunch it was back to the next phase of hog killing.
CARVING THE MEAT
After lunch, the carcasses were removed one at a time for carving into the various cuts of meat used for curing or further processing. Many people on Knotts Island used a sled drawn by mules or horses for quick transfer of various items from place to place around the farm. These sleds were about 6 or 7 feet long and about 4 feet wide which made an ideal low table for carving hogs.
The hogs were transferred to the carving table one by one and placed down upon the back. The meat cutter first severed the legs and feet, then the head with a sharp knife. The feet were sent to the kitchen for later processing into pickled pigs feet. The head was further cut into the top half and the bottom half. The top half was split again down the middle of the forehead and the brains were removed for delicious dishes (including breakfast brain omelet's) over the next day or two. The top half was then set aside for later processing and the lower half, the jowl, was set aside for curing. The thick layers of fat on either side of the backbone were removed by hand stripping and set aside for later processing into lard.
The carcass was then split down the backbone with an ax into two halves. The loin along the backbone was removed in one piece for delectable roasts or chops over the next few days. The hams and shoulders were removed and carved into pieces similar to today's supermarket cuts except the hocks were much larger. The hams were almost always set aside for curing while some of the shoulders were given to neighbors for fresh meat, and some shoulders were cut up for sausage while others were cured into "picnics". Some of the bellies were carved into bacon slabs for curing while others were cut into smaller pieces for salt pork. The thicker parts along the backbone were cut into sections for salt pork. The sections of salt pork from the lower spine were especially desired with children often fighting for the pig tail after it was cooked with collards.. This carving process was repeated for each hog until all hogs were cut up and the pieces were stacked on tables in the smokehouse. Since carving could not start until late afternoon after the meat had chilled, this task often went on until well after dark. After all the neighbor husbands and wives departed, the family was left in a quiet house stuffed with pig parts from stem to stern both inside and out.
Because of the bony structure of hogs heads, they were not cured into salt or smoked pork. Hogs heads were processed by a number of methods into various types of food. Soaking in brine can keep heads for a short time (a month or two) so that they can be boiled with collard or other greens and eaten. The ears and nose were considered especially tasty and chewy. Many of the hogs heads were boiled and processed into souse meat with the ears and nose providing the gelatin necessary to bind the meat into rounds which after chilling sliced into beautiful cuts of meat. Souse meat was especially good with hot vinegar and greens. It would keep at room temperature for quite some time to be enjoyed on a daily basis.
CHITTERLINGS a.k.a. CHITLINS
Upon removal of the hogs intestines they were removed immediately to the kitchen. There they were sloshed in tubs of water and upended into other tubs for emptying and preliminary cleaning. They were washed several times in this manner before they were slid over long sticks (often reeds) inside out. The insides were washed thoroughly again and then the intestines were skinned with a knife. Some intestines were selected for sausage casings and set aside in a salt water solution for later use. Some small intestines were plaited in groups of three into sections for later cooking. The stomach or "maw" was cleaned and left as is for further cooking.
A couple of days after the hog killing the chitlin were cooked by boiling. The odor from cooking chitlins is indescribable and unpleasant. Cooking requires several hours with various seasoning depending upon preference. After cooking, some were given away, some were kept and some were sold- there was a large and ready market in Norfolk for chitlins. Chitlins were eaten with all meals with some folks considering fried chitlins for breakfast an especially tasty treat. Others took them on the Bay for lunch and everybody enjoyed them as a side dish with supper.
Lean meat from loins and shoulders was mixed with proper amounts of fat to form the basic contents of sausage. The sausage was ground with a hand cranked meat grinder (only a few were on the Island and borrowing was quite common). The ground mixture was mixed thoroughly with sage, red pepper, salt, black pepper and maybe other spices and then stuffed into chitlin casings with a hand stuffer, Sausage stuffers were also often borrowed since they were not generally owned by everyone. The sausages were twisted off into links of lengths as desired. Much of the sausage was eaten over a fairly short period before spoilage, but some was smoked along with the hams and bacon and some folks canned both sausage links and sausage patties. I have never been able to buy sausage comparable to the ones my Grandmother made- I wish I had her exact recipe.
LARD AND CRACKLINSThe pure white slabs of fat from the inside back of the carcass were processed into lard, usually by the wife. The slabs of fat were first cubed into about one inch squares with sharp knives. The scalding kettle was thoroughly cleaned and heated hot before the fat cubes were added. Bay tree leaves were usually added for seasoning and blanching (I was told) and the fat was boiled until only liquid remained with the cooked cubes floating on top. These cubes were skimmed and saved in a tin lidded bucket as cracklins for use in baking. The fat was then bailed out into 5-gallon tins for use as lard during the coming year.
Cracklin were one of the very best delicacies from the hog killing. Cracklin biscuits (cracklins were used for shortening) were especially delicious with the little cracklins looking like raisins scattered throughout the biscuits. Cracklin cornbread was another unbeatable dish for any meal. Some cooks were quite ingenious in coming up with new cracklin recipes.
I am not expert in cleaning pigs feet except I know they were first boiled and then processed usually by the wife. Before cooking, the toe nails and the soles were removed. After boiling the feet were split and cut as necessary to fit into jars for pickling- some folks used large urns for pickling using a wooden cover weighted with a brick to keep the feet immersed. The pickling process involved vinegar and salt plus spices as desired by each family recipe. Pigs feet would keep indefinitely unrefrigerated and were a key part of the hog killing.
The fat trimmed from various cuts of meat was saved and cubed for making soap. Any lean parts attached to the fat pieces was trimmed off and discarded leaving chunks of fat. The kettle was heated hot again and the fat was thrown in and cooked until the liquid fat was separated from any meat texture. The remnants were skimmed off the top and discarded. Lye and whatever other ingredients needed for soap making was added and stirred into the fat liquid. Often various Herb's were added to add fragrance to the finished soap.
The fat was then poured into large containers such as dish pans or wash tubs to a depth of about two inches and allowed to cool overnight. The next day the cooled soap was sliced into bars and stored away for washing, housecleaning or whatever uses soap was used for. Homemade soap was not a preferred hand and face cleaner because it did not generate rich lather. It did do a good job of cleaning clothes and was comparable to Octagon soap.
The cut pieces of fat pork were placed in a brine solution the next day after the hog killing. The brine was made in a pork barrel (whiskey barrel) and was a solution of primarily salt and water although some folks added other ingredients such as vinegar and sugar. Salt was added until an egg would just float in the brine.
The meat was then placed piece by piece into the brine until the barrel was about three quarters full and the brine was two or three inches over the meat. Short boards weighted down with bricks were placed on top to keep the meat from floating out of the brine solution. After a few weeks of curing the meat would keep indefinitely without refrigeration and could be used as needed for frying, cooking greens or baked beans.
An alternate method of curing fat back was a dry salt method which I am not familiar with.
The smokehouse was a separate building located far enough from the home to prevent fire if the smokehouse ignited while smoking meat. The buildings ranged from about 6 X 8 feet up to maybe 10 X 16 feet. The building sides were about 8 feet high, and it always had a tall "A" shaped roof to provide for cool smoking of meat and to provide a large amount of rafter space for hanging meat. The sides and roof were reasonably air tight to confine smoke during the meat curing process. Knotts Island was known for its unlocked doors, but the smokehouse was too important to survival to leave unlocked; hence, a lock was required.
Hams, shoulders, bacon slabs and sausage were cured by smoking. The cuts of meat were individually rubbed with salt and placed in a barrel between layers of salt. The dry salted cuts of meat were removed from the barrels after about ten days, brushed off and inspected carefully to make sure the salt had penetrated to all parts of the meat. Wire hooks would be inserted into the pieces of meat and then each piece was hung from nails in the rafters of the smoke house. The sausage would be looped over a long reed pole mounted across the joists of the smokehouse. After the meat was all hung, the smoking process was ready to begin. (Some folks brined their meat prior to smoking. Personally, I'm not familiar with this process).
An old wash tub with a couple of inches of dirt in the bottom often served as the basic fire pit for smoking. This fire box was placed on the floor of the smoke house under the meat and fueled with the desired smoke wood- everyone had their own choices. My grandfather always used water soaked apple wood or peach wood. The fire was kept going each day and required careful attention from anyone in the household who had time to watch for flare ups which might cause burning of the smoke house. The smoking process required about two weeks and the meat was inspected frequently to check on the curing process and to sprinkle on pepper, molasses or other concoctions desired by each family. Sometimes borax was sprinkled on to keep flies away from the cured meat.
Once cured the meat would keep unrefrigerated for up to years. Sometimes a green or gray mold would grow on the outside but the inside would always be perfectly cured ham.
These are some of my memories of a hog killing on Knotts Island.
Without any refrigeration, January and February were good months for a
bountiful supply of fresh ribs, shoulders, souse meat and chitlins from
the neighbors. The event depended upon a community spirit between all
the neighbors with each helping the other throughout the hog killing
period. If someone had bad luck and lost his meat by spoilage, the
neighbors would usually help out throughout the year. Cured pork was
the main diet for most people. It was supplemented with ducks, fish,
chicken, turtles, rabbit, possums, crabs, fruits, cornbread, greens and
other local foods. Occasionally, someone would butcher a cow and peddle
the meat door to door which provided an appetizing break in the diet.
Brined and smoked fish is the basis of another story of food curing
practiced by many Knotts Island people.