In Floyd County, KY, People Turn To Traditions Of Processing Meat At Home
Over the past several months, people have turned to traditional skills and practices as one way of coping with the challenges created by the Coronavirus pandemic. Many have baked bread or started a garden, while others have returned to community traditions of raising and butchering animals at home.
In a special report as part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Project, Nicole Musgrave spoke with several people in Floyd County, Kentucky who have used the pandemic as an opportunity to teach others how to process meat at home.
We Need To Get Us Some Hogs
In eastern Kentucky and throughout the rural South, it was once common for families to butcher a hog every winter, an annual tradition known as “hog killing day.” Forty-five-year-old Frank Martin grew up in Langley, Kentucky in a family that raised and butchered their own hogs. He lives on the same property today, and he remembered the feeling of waking up as a child on hog killing day: “The excitement of waking up that morning knowing that all your uncles were going to be coming over and your family members, everybody’s going to get together...The comparison to going to somewhere that you've never been and you're so excited about it, and you get there and it's as beautiful as you thought it would be. That's kind of the same feeling come that morning,” Martin recalled.
It had been thirty years since Martin felt that excitement of hog killing day. But this past spring, just after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, he decided to process a hog with his two sons. At the time, news outlets were beginning to report that meat packing plants across the country were closing due to Coronavirus outbreaks among workers. “I was talking with one of my friends at work and he's like, ‘You know, they're talking like there might be a meat shortage.’ And he's like, ‘We need to get us some hogs,’” Martin said.
While the initial conversation was prompted by reports about potential disruptions to the supply of meat, that was not Martin’s primary reason for butchering a hog. With his two sons home from school because of the pandemic, Martin saw it as an opportunity to pass on the skills and the memories associated with home hog killings. “I want these boys to be exposed to this. I want to teach them that this is how their grandfathers got their meat….And that's one of the things we did this for is to show the boys that you can be independent and self-reliant in uncertain times, especially,” Martin said.
For Martin’s oldest son, Max, helping his dad gave him a new appreciation for how meat gets to the table. “Just knowing where your ham comes from. You know that it comes from a pig. But I guess you don’t really know until you do it. How much work goes into it,” Max said.
With the help he had from his sons, Martin was able to pack his freezer full with vacuum-sealed meat. And he was not alone. Martin has noticed that friends around Floyd County have a revived interest in processing their own meat. “I've seen a lot of people looking for chickens this year. Lot of people asking if anybody has any hogs. So obviously this pandemic has created a circumstance where people's looking to do more of those traditional things,” Martin said.
I Wish I’d Paid Attention
About six miles down the road in Hueysville, Kentucky, thirty-four-year-old Misty Shepherd also knows a lot about the hog killing tradition. As an adult, she has continued her family’s practice of processing meat at home. She butchers a hog every three to five years. For Shepherd, knowing how an animal was raised and worked up gives insight into how healthy the meat is. The way a hog looks is also important. “The color, the fat content. How it wiggles when it's moving….The eyes and the skin color. Make sure it's not pale, it's got to be pretty. It takes a lot. I mean, years of experience to be able to walk up and just say ‘that's a good hog,’” Shepherd said.
When looking for a good hog, Shepherd typically buys locally from people she knows in eastern Kentucky. But this year was different. With so many meatpacking plants closed, farmers were left overstocked and looking to sell their animals for cheap. “Right now where this virus is going on, these farmers are having to kill their hogs because they can't sell them, and they have new litters coming on. So these hogs actually come from out of state that we got,” Shepherd said.
With the prospect of higher prices and bare shelves in supermarket meat aisles, Shepherd noticed others in the community taking advantage of discounted livestock. But this created another challenge to the local food supply. “A lot of friends and people are buying hogs and buying cows, and the slaughterhouses that did stay open in this area, that did take the precautions, are already booked So now they have this hog and they can't get it killed, they can't get it worked up and they have no place to put it. So it's a huge burden on them,” Shepherd said.
People reached out to Shepherd for advice on what to do with the animals they had purchased. A lot of her friends had the same regret and often said the same thing: “‘I wish I'd paid attention. I wish I’d have paid more attention growing up, watching them do this’...They remember certain parts of working up a hog or a beef or something like that, but they don't remember all the process,” Shepherd said.
But Shepherd does remember all the process, including one of the final steps to butchering a hog—rendering the lard.
Watching a Caterpillar Change Into a Butterfly
Standing at her kitchen counter, Shepherd took a slab of hog fat and cut it up into small pieces. The pieces then went into a large aluminum pot to cook over low heat, where they transformed from slick pink to crispy brown. As the fat cooked, it hissed and popped, releasing a golden liquid.
This process of rendering lard produces two products: liquid lard and solid cracklings. Shepherd uses lard for cooking, baking and canning; to make soaps and salves; and as a wood conditioner. She saves the cracklings to add to cornbread. “You can see it kind of looks a little bit like fried chicken crumbs. I don’t like to render it out so much that your cracklings are completely hard,” Shepherd said.
Once the fat finished cooking, Shepherd strained the cracklings from the lard. She then poured the lard into a glass Mason jar, where it would sit on the counter for several days, turning from a golden liquid into a white solid. “It’s a lost art...You go to the store and you can buy processed lard out of containers, but you never see it change form. You never see it go from this slick, white-pink, to a dark gold liquid and then turn back into a solid, beautiful white color in a jar. So to see something change form is kind of like watching a caterpillar change into a butterfly,” Shepherd said.
Now, Shepherd shares this artful process with others in a Facebook group she started in April. In the group, she posts tutorials that explain traditional skills, like how to butcher a hog and render the lard. For Shepherd, these are things she would be doing regardless, but because of the pandemic, she has had extra time. “I was out of work and I had time and I was doing this stuff anyways. And I’m like, ok I can post some of what I do,” Shepherd said.
Shepherd has a lot of skills to remain self-sufficient, and the pandemic has created an opportunity for her to teach them to others, the way she learned from her family growing up. She now has close to 500 members in her Facebook group. Shepherd not only shares how-to videos and recipes, she also sells items she makes, like soaps, salves and balms made from hog lard.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.