LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — It’s hog killing time on Blair Branch if anyone living there still raises hogs and I’m betting that John Wayne Blair already has one or two in his smoke house and probably another one fixing to meet its demise this weekend. Brother Keeter told me he helped John Wayne butcher one last year that was so big they had to use a bulldozer to drag it from the pen down to the scalding ramp and the hams were so big they had to use a wheelbarrow to get each one to the house.
When I was growing up, the weekends before and after Thanksgiving were set aside for hog killing all up and down the holler. And sometimes the mines would shut down on a weekday so the work hands could take time off to kill their hogs.
And not just anybody knows how to butcher a hog. Dad always tried to get Arlie Adams to oversee ours because Mom liked the cuts he made, but he also got Arthur Adams or Buford Caudill from time to time because Arlie was kept pretty busy. All three of these men were in great demand at hog killing time and they were generally paid with cuts of meat.
As were all the other folks who helped out because butchering a hog is not a one-person job. Scalding and scraping the hair off the carcass alone can keep four people busy for an hour or two. Water had to be packed from the well to fill two or three No. 2 washtubs. One of these was placed on rocks over a wood and coal fire and brought to a boil for scalding purposes. Other tubs contained cold rinse water and they had to be refilled every few minutes.
Packing the meat from the slaughter site to wherever it was going to be stored meant heavy lifting. And it didn’t take long to raise a blister in the notch between your thumb and forefinger hand-sawing a back bone into pork chops.
During the weeks before and after the holiday you couldn’t walk the two miles out of Blair Branch without smelling fresh bacon and taters frying at every step mingled with the sweet aroma of cornbread or biscuits ready to come out of an oven. It’s no wonder why I keep having strokes. I heard someone tell Dad one time that eating all that pork was going to kill him. And Dad said, “Well, you have to live on something before you can die.” Dad figured death by pork was way better than starvation.
We called the building where we stored our winter and spring supply of pork, “the smoke house” but no meat was ever actually smoked in it during my life time.
There was evidence by way of a lingering odor of hickory smoke that Pap (my grandpa, Mose Adams) had used it for the stated purpose, but all we ever did was salt the meat down and leave it to cure on wide benches or suspended from the rafters with stout cords.
Salt pork would keep for many months in that old building but, by warm weather, it was usually gone. Mom would keep chunks of side meat and jowls refrigerated to season green beans all summer because we didn’t believe that beans were fit to eat if you didn’t cook a big chunk of fat back with them. Ditto for cushaw and mustard greens and even taters tasted way better if they were cooked with a piece of back bone or a neck bone.
Even at the risk of suffering another stroke, I’d love to have a little pan full of good fresh striped bacon trimmed off the hams and shoulders and served up with a pone of hot cornbread. Maybe if someone will get a copy of the paper to John Wayne Blair he’ll send me some the next time Keeter comes down from the mountains to check on me.