Read Saving Your Bacon of Dishes & Beverages of the Old South , free online book, by Martha McCulloch Williams, on ReadCentral.com.

Plenty in the smokehouse was the cornerstone of the old time southern cookery. Hence hog-killing was a festival as joyous as Christmas and little less sacred. There was keen rivalry amongst plantations as to which should show the finest pen of fattening hogs. Though the plantation force was commonly amply sufficient for the work of slaughter, owners indulged their slaves by asking help of each other of course returning the favor at need.

A far cry from a cook book, common or garden variety. Here, it is worth its space, as explaining in a measure what follows. Namely full direction for choosing your fatted pig, cutting him up, and making the most of the ultimate results. Choose carcasses between a hundred and seventy-five and a hundred and fifty pounds in weight, of a fresh pinky white hue, free of cuts, scratches, or bruises, the skin scraped clean, and firm, not slimy, to touch, the fat firm and white, the lean a lively purplish pink. Two inches of clear fat over the backbone, and the thick of the ribs should be the limit. Anything more is wasteful unless there is a great need of lard in the kitchen. The pig should be chilled throughout, but not frozen freezing injures flavor and texture somewhat, besides preventing the proper quick striking in of salt.

Curing space permitting, it is wise to cut up several pigs at once. The trouble is hardly increased, and the results, especially in saving, very much greater. The head will have been at least half severed in slaughtering. With a very sharp butcher knife, after the pig is laid on the chopping block, cut deeply through the skin, all round, then with a blow or two of the axe sever the head. Next cut through the skin deeply, either side of the back bone. The cuts should be evenly parallel, and about two inches apart. Now turn the pig on his back, part the legs and with the meat axe chop through the ribs, and joints. After chopping, cut the backbone free with the knife, trim off the strip of fat for the lard pile, chop the backbone itself into pieces three to four inches long, until the chine is reached the part betwixt the shoulder blades with the high spinal processes. Leave the chine intact for smoking, along with the jowls and sausage.

Pull out the leaf-fat it grows around and over the kidneys. Also pull out the spare ribs, leaving only one or two in the shoulders. This done, chop off feet, then with the knife cut hams and shoulders free from the sides. Trim after cutting out, saving all trimmings for sausage. Save every bit of pure fat for lard. Also cut away the clear fat at the top of the sides, devoting it to the same use. Make clean cuts on the joints this means a knife often whetted. Trim the hams rather flat, and shape the hip bone neatly. The commercial fashion of cutting away all the upper half of hams is fatal to perfect flavor. Trim shoulders close, unless they are destined to be made into sausage in that case put them with the other scraps. Sides can either be cut into strips four to five inches wide the long way, after the manner of commercial “breakfast bacon,” or left whole throughout their streaky part, cutting away solid fat along the top for lard. Separate the heads at the jaw, leaving the tongue attached to the jowl, and taking care not to cut it. Cut off the snout two inches above the tip, then lay the upper part of the head, skin down, crack the inner bone with the axe, press the broken bones apart, and take out the brains. Jowls are to be salted and smoked heads are best either simply corned for boiling with cabbage, peas, beans, etc., or made in conjunction with the feet into headcheese, whose south country name is souse.

Use regular pickling salt coarse-grained and lively. Spread it an inch thick upon clean wood a broad shelf, box bottom, or something similar. Rub the meat well over with salt, and then lay it neatly, skin-side down, upon the salt layer, spread more salt on top, and put on another layer of meat. Put sides together, likewise hams and shoulders. Pack as close as possible and fill all crevices with salt. Salt alone will save your bacon, but a teacup of moist sugar well mixed through a water-bucket of salt improves the flavor. Use this on sides, jowls and chines. The joints, hams and shoulders, especially if the shoulders are close-cut, need a trifle more sugar in the salt, also a trifle of saltpeter say an ounce in fine powder to three gallons of salt. Rub the skin-sides over with plain salt, and lay upon the salt-covered shelf the same as sides. Then take a handful of the mixture and rub it in hard around the bone, then cover the whole cut surface half an inch thick, spread on dry salt for another layer of hams or shoulders, and repeat. Salt the chines lightly their surface, cut all over, takes up too much salt if permitted. There should be holes or cracks in the bottom to let the dissolved salt drip away; it is best also to have it a foot at least above the floor.

Cover the meat thus in bulk, but not too close, and leave standing a fortnight. The cooler and airier the place it stands in the better freezing even is not objectionable when the salt begins striking in. But with freezing weather the meat must lie longer in salt. Overhaul it after the first fortnight that is to say break up the bulk, shake away bloody salt, sweep the bottom clean, and put on fresh salt. But use very little saltpeter on the joints this time on pain of making them too hard as to their lean. Its use is to give firmness and a handsome clear red color an overdose of it produces a faintly undesirable flavor. Some famous ham makers, at this second salting, rub the cut sides over lightly with very good molasses, and sprinkle on ground black pepper, before adding new salt. Others rub in a teaspoonful of sugar mixed with pounded red pepper around the bone. But very excellent hams can be made without such excess of painstaking.

Let the meat lie two to four weeks after overhauling, according to the weather. Take up, wipe all over with coarse clean cloth, furnish each piece with a loop of stout twine at least four inches long, and so run through the flesh, tearing out is impossible. Run through the hock of hams, the upper tip of shoulders, the thickest part of sides, the pointed tip of jowls. Jowls may not need to lie so long as bigger pieces, especially if part of their fat has gone to lard. Chines can be hung up in three weeks, and cured with a very light smoking, along with the bags of sausage.

Hang hams highest, shoulders next, then sides, jowls, etc. Leave to drip forty-eight hours unless the weather turns suddenly warm, damp and muggy in that case start the smoking after a few hours. Smoke from green hickory, sound and bright, is needed for the finest flavor. Lay small logs so they will hug together as they burn, kindle fire along the whole length of them, then smother it with damp, small chips, trash, bark and so on, but take care to have everything sound. Rotten wood, or that which is water-logged or mildewed, makes rank, ill-smelling smoke. Take greater care that the logs never blaze up, also that the meat is high enough to escape fire-heating. Once it gets hot from the fire all your trouble will have been for naught though it will not be tainted it will have the same taste and smell the degree marking the extent of the heating.

Old southern smokehouses had for the most part earthen floors, trenched to make the smoke fires safe. Some had puncheon floors, with an earthen hearth in the middle, whereupon was placed a furnace of loose brick that could be kicked over at need, smothering an outbreaking fire. Still others had big cast iron kettles sunk in a sort of well in the floor with a handy water bucket for quenching fires. Whatever the floor, eternal vigilance was the price of safe bacon you looked at the smokehouse fires first thing in the morning and last at night. They were put out at sundown, but had a knack of burning again from some hidden seed of live coal. Morning smoke could not well be too thick, provided it smelled right keen and clean, reminiscent of sylvan fragrance a thick, acrid smoke that set you sneezing and coughing, was “most tolerable and not to be endured.” It was not well to leave the smoke too thick at night somehow the chill then condensed it. A thin, blue, hot-scented but cool, vapor was the thing to strive for then. There were folk who suggested furnaces with smoke pipes leading in ever so much safer they said, withal much less trouble. Why! even the smoke from a cooking stove might be made to answer. But these progressives were heard coldly the old timers knew in right of tradition and experience, the need of well ventilated smoke.

It gave this present chronicler a feeling of getting home again, to walk through the curing rooms of perhaps the most famous bacon makers in the world, and find them practicing the wisdom of her childhood. Namely using hickory smoke not delivered from furnace pipes but welling up, up, in beautiful wreathy spirals, to reach row on row of hams and flitches and to be told, by a kind person who did not know she already knew, that their curing was patterned on the old English model curing in the smoke of great-throated stone hall chimneys. Yes they had tried pipes furnaces likewise but they gave too much heat, did not distribute smoke evenly, besides being almost impossible of regulation. Hence the smoldering hickory that was like a breath from a far past.

Notwithstanding, the chronicler is of opinion that folk who would like to try their hands at bacon making may do it with a fair hope without building regular smoke houses. To such she would say, get a stout hogshead a sugar hogshead preferable nail on a board roof to shed water, then set it upon a stout frame at least seven feet above ground. Nail inside it stout cleats, to hold the cross bars for the meat. Hang the meat upon them but not until the hogshead is in place. Cut a hole in the bottom as big as the top of a large barrel. Working through this hole, arrange the meat, then put below a headless barrel, the top resting against the hogshead-heading, the bottom upon supports of gas pipe, iron, or even piled bricks. Between the supports set an iron vessel build your hickory smoke-fires in it, smothering them carefully, and letting the smoke, with a sufficiency of air, well up, through barrel, hogshead, etc. Or one might even rig up a smoking hogshead in an attic, providing the chimney were tall enough to cool smoke properly and lead smoke out to it through a length of drain pipe.

These are but suggestions the contriving mind will doubtless invent other and better ones. Smoking must go on for five weeks at least. Six will be better, slacking toward the end. But two may be made to answer by the use of what is called “liquid smoke” whose other name is crude pyroligneous acid. A product of wood distillation, it has been proved harmless in use, but use is nevertheless forbidden to commercial makers. The meat, after breaking bulk, is dipped in it three times at fairly brief intervals, hung up, drained, and smoked. From the liquid smoke it will have acquired as much acid saving-grace, as from four weeks of old fashioned smoking.

A smokehouse needs to be kept dark, dry, and cool, also well ventilated. Use fine screen wire over all openings, and make windows very small, with coarse, sleazy crash in the sash rather than glass inside the screens. Darkness prevents or discourages the maggot-fly. To discourage him still further cover the cut sides of hams and shoulders before hanging up with molasses made very thick with ground black pepper. They will not absolutely require canvassing and dipping in whitewash after if the peppering is thorough. But to be on the safe side canvas and dip. Make the whitewash with a foundation of thick paste and be sure it covers every thread of the canvas. Hams perfectly cured and canvassed keep indefinitely in the right sort of smokehouse but there is not much gain in flavor after they are three years old.

In rendering lard try out leaf fat to itself it yields the very finest. Cut out the kidneys carefully, and remove any bit of lean, then pull off the thin inner skin, and cut up the leaves into bits about two inches wide and four long. Wash these quickly in tepid water, drain on a sieve, and put over a slow fire in an iron vessel rather thick bottomed. Add a little cold water a cupful to a gallon of cut up fat, and let cook gently until the lumps of fat color faintly. Increase heat till there is a mild bubbling keep the bubbling steady, stirring often to make sure no lump of fat sticks to the pot and scorches, until all the lumps are crisp brown cracklings. Bright brown, not dark if dark the lard will be slightly colored. Scorching taints and ruins the whole mass. Strain through a sieve into a clean tin vessel, newly scalded and wiped dry. Put the cracklings into a bag of stout crash, and press hard between two clean boards, till no more fat runs from them. A jelly press comes in handy, but is not essential. If weak, clear lye, made of green wood ashes, is put in with the fat instead of water at the beginning, the fat-yield will be greater, and the bulk of cracklings less, also more nearly disintegrated.

Other fat is tried out in the same way, taking care to remove all skin and cut away streaks of lean. Bits with much lean in them had better go to the sausage mill the right proportion there is two pounds of fat to three and a half of lean. Mix well in grinding, and remove all strings, gristle, etc. Seasoning is so much a matter of taste, do it very lightly at first then fry a tiny cake, test it, and add whatever it seems to lack or need. Be rather sparing of salt eaters can put it in but can not take it out, and excess of it makes even new sausage taste old. A good combination of flavors, one approved by experience, is a cupful of powdered and sifted sage, an ounce of black pepper newly ground, and very fine, a tablespoonful of powdered red pepper, a teaspoonful of cayenne, a pinch of thyme in fine powder, a dozen cloves, as many grains of alspice, beaten fine, a teaspoonful of moist sugar, and a blade of mace in fine powder. Omit the mace, cloves, etc. if the flavor repels. Mix all well together, then work evenly through the meat. This seasoning should suffice for five pounds of ground meat lightly salted. More can be used by those who like high and pronounced flavors.

Scrape feet very clean, and take off hoofs by either dipping in scalding hot lye, or hot wet wood ashes. Wash very clean after scraping, throw in cold water, soak an hour, then put in a clean pot with plenty of cold water, and boil gently until very tender. If boiling for souse cook till the meat and gristle fall from the bones. If for frying, take up the feet as soon as they are tender, keeping them in shape. Boil heads the same way, taking out eyes, cutting off ears and cleaning them carefully inside. Pick the meat from the bones, mix it with the feet also picked up, work seasoning well through it salt, black and red pepper, herbs if approved, likewise a trifle of onion juice, then pack in deep molds, pour over a little of the boiling liquor barely enough to moisten and set to cool uncovered.

Let the boiling liquor stand until cold, covered only with a cloth. Skim off the oil hog’s foot oil is a fine dressing for any sort of leather then dip off carefully the jelly underneath. Do not disturb the sediment take only the clear jelly. Melted, clarified with white of egg, seasoned with wine, lemon juice, or grape juice, and sufficiently sugared, the result puts all gélatines of commerce clean out of court. Indeed any receipt for gelatine desserts can be used with the hog’s foot jelly. A small salvage perhaps but worth while.

Everybody knows brains can be fried just as all know they can be addled. We of the old south pickled ours. Go and do likewise if you want an experience. Begin by scalding the brains putting them on in cold water very slightly salted, then letting them barely strike a boil. Skim out, drop in cold water, take off the skin, keeping the lobes as whole as possible, lay in a porcelain kettle, spice liberally with black and red pepper, cloves, nutmeg and allspice, cover with strong vinegar, bring to a boil, cook five minutes, then put in a jar, cool uncovered, tie down and let stand a week before using. Thus treated brains will keep for six weeks, provided they are kept cool.

We also pickled our souse cutting it in thin slices, and laying them in strong vinegar an hour before serving. Another way was to melt the souse into a sort of rich hash beaten eggs were occasionally added, and the result served on hot toast. At a pinch it answered for the foundation of a meat pie, putting in with it in layers, sliced hard boiled eggs, sliced cucumber pickle, plenty of seasoning, a good lump of butter, and a little water. The pie was baked quickly and made a very good supper dish if unexpected company overran the supply of sausage or chicken for frying.

But fried hog’s feet were nearly the best of hog killing. After boiling tender, the feet were split lengthwise in half, rolled in sifted cornmeal, salted and peppered, and fried crisp in plenty of boiling hot fat. Served with hot biscuit, and stewed sun-dried peaches, along with strong coffee, brown and fragrant, they made a supper or breakfast one could rejoice in.

Backbone stewed, and served with sweet potatoes, hot corn bread, and sparkling cider, was certainly not to be despised. The stewing was gentle, the seasoning well blended enough salt but not too much, red and black pepper, and the merest dash of pepper vinegar. Many cooks left the vinegar to be added in the plates. There was little water at the beginning, and next to none at the end the kettle was kept well covered, and not allowed to boil over. Backbone pie held its own with chicken pie indeed there were those who preferred it. It was made the same way in a skillet or deep pan lined with rich crust, then filled with cooked meat, adding strips of bacon, and bits of butter rolled in flour, as well as strips of crust. Then the stewing liquor went into the crevices there might also be a few very tiny crisp brown sausages cakes no bigger than a lady’s watch. Over all came a thick, rich crust, with a cross-cut in the middle, and corners turned deftly back. When the crust was brown the pie was done.

No doubt we were foolish but somehow the regular “cases” made our sausages unappetizing if we put it into them for keeping. Further the “Tom Thumbs” were in great request for chitterlings I never saw them served to white folks but have smelled their savoriness in the cabins. That is, however, beside the mark. We saved our sausage against the spring scarcity in several ways. One was to fry it in quantity, pack the cakes as fried in crocks, pour over them the gravy, and when the jar was almost full, cover the top an inch deep with melted lard. Kept cool and dark the cakes came out as good as they went in. Still there were palates that craved smoked sausage. To satisfy them, some folk tied up the meat in links of clean corn husks, and hung them at the side where the smoke barely touched them. Another way was to make small bags of stout unbleached muslin, fill, tie close, dip the bag in melted grease, cool and smoke. The dipping was not really essential still it kept the sausage a little fresher. Latterly I have been wondering if paraffin had been known then whether or not it would have served better than grease.