Take pork products. You can go to the supermarket of your choice and to the meat department and get specific packaged products — bacon, ham, pork sausage or specialized items — in pretty standard lots. In the 1940s and 50s, that wasn’t as easy to do. And, up until the late 50s and early 60s, it is likely that you had access in rural areas and small towns to someone who actually processed their own meat products — chicken, beef and pork.
Farm families in those times were probably like my grandmother and her parents, my great-grandparents, who killed a hog, processed it entirely and stored it in a “smokehouse” where it was cured and gained its seasoning from the type of wood (usually hickory) used to smoke the meat.
The time for hog-killing was signaled by the arrival of the winter’s first norther, as we Texans call the season’s cold fronts. Everything was pre-arranged to start with that cooling event. Of course, the common sense reasoning was that the all-day job of slaughtering the hog, cutting it up and sorting it by types of cuts (ham, bacon, loin, hock, feet, snout), required cool enough weather that processing time was sufficient so as not have spoilage.
Then you hung the meat from rafters and hooks or placed it on shelves in the smokehouse (depending on the cut of meat) for curing.
OBVIOUSLY, this whole process of hog-killing and meat-processing is not for the faint of heart nor the weak of stomach. Nor is it a job for two or three people since the size of a hog to be slaughtered and processed usually will weigh between 500 and 1,000 pounds (rarely the larger size). Probably the average pig would be 600-700 pounds.
So, if the family doing the “hog-killing” on that day is small, it is likely and traditional that extended family and/or neighbors join in the all-day procedure. Usually, the reward (other than a lunch provided by the host family and supper if the job is large and long) is a package of meat from the slaughter of the day.
Occasionally, more than one hog was slaughtered and processed but that was rare.
And, while there is deliberate speed and focused attention required, it is also a time for a bit of visiting and socializing. Those women not involved in the processing usually help the host wife with the workers’ meals for the day.
Since all these experienced farmers were involved in several hog-killings a year, each had their own kit of tools, the most important being a knife or a set of knives suitable for the complete processing of the hog carcass. And, believe me, little of the hog was wasted or considered unusable.
NATURALLY, rural families watched weather signs. There was no television and radio was actually pretty rare in rural homes in the 1940s and 50s. Rural families of that day and time read weather signs pretty well, but also relied on a couple of other things: the Cardui calendar, which had general weather trends for any given period, and the Old Farmer’s Almanac, also filled with general daily patterns for each area of the country.
While those provided some assistance and guidance, it was better if someone in the family had a better “feel” for weather. You needed a day or two to summon all the help since your family was earlier designated as the initial hog-killing event of the season. All your family, friends and neighbors were “at-the-ready.”
Perhaps no one but a writer or a sociologist would refer to this process this way, but a rural, neighbor-involved, hog-killing was communal life and cooperation at its American best.
Willis Webb is a retired community newspaper editor-publisher of more than 50 years experience. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.