(editor’s note: While St. Helena appears to be a steady, simple place there are strong currents roiling beneath the Spanish moss which drips like inverted ghosts from the live oaks and other trees. Fearlessly, and with a vigor indicating his love for both food and his son, Dad dove into a multi-party negotiation which on the surface dealt with money and a location where the hog could be shot but underneath was required to handle greed, desire, betrayal and the highly charged conditions surrounding not only a hog, or three actually as there was a joint project, but also the fluidity of a romantic entanglement becoming untangled. Dad did it. The rails were greased well enough for all to proceed. To recount for new readers, my friend Joan had the idea to cook in the yard, out the yard. We looked for a sheep, a goat or a pig. Dad, being a natural at procurement, took the challenge firmly and found, among multiple opportunities, a hog. When life looked like easy street, there was danger in the hog yard (backyard, really) – marital turbulence, relationships in transition. Through greed, lust, alcohol and the artifacts of previous violence and the ever hanging threat of future violence, Dad showed yet again he is eaten up with strong DGAF. The scene was set; our meal, roasting below (sorry to give away ending) was becoming ever more of a reality.)
There was an awful racket in the yard just before my eyes were about to close. Coyotes – they make some funny sounds and each group screams and hollers like aliens from different parts of space. This group sounded like roosters; distressingly, it was roosters – the time for coyotes had passed and the roosters were trying to keep the whole world awake. At least there were a few hours to sleep; the alarm was set for 9am. At 5:36 my eyes closed; ah, the relief after driving all night and then shooting a few moon pictures at Lands End – there is an almost narcotic euphoria when one’s exhausted eyes have finally been given permission to close. Ah the relief, the euphoria and it lasted a whole two minutes.
Dreams of Sleep
The phone rang. Dad wanted to make sure I was there. I damn well was there and was also about to enjoy some sleep like normal people do at 5:38am. OK, stand by for instructions, he said. They’ll be there in a few minutes. He’s gotta go to work. Safer if he goes with you, and a whole bunch of other things that seemed like malicious fabrications designed to annoy for the sake of Dad’s sense of humor. Unfortunately, and maybe for the first time in his life, Dad was serious.
The deal was $125, paid to S, with complicity and agreement from Ruby. S and Ruby were one unit. Then for humor Dad told H, of the other party, that he had given her $400. Ha ha, Dad’s got a funny sense of humor.
Ruby and S
There is a false stereotype that early mornings are a peaceful, beautiful times of day; if the morning was either, I was incapable of experiencing it … until Ruby emerged from the truck. OMG – what beautiful hair. Not in a year of guessing and predicting would that have ever been expected. I wanted her picture. Badly. That was my only thought – no longer was the carcass of a swine important – the reward of abundant stress, stressful diplomacy and diplomatic negotiations had already paid off. While not functioning at full speed, my mind functioned as fast as it could searching all corners of my brain for the correct words, the correctly respectful approach that would allow the camera to do its work. A grumpiness thicker than Asheville fog was gone; desire for the image immediately replaced the sour mood. But how? But How?
Ruby got out of the truck and saw the camera immediately. The moment of truth – what to say? What to say? ‘Hey Baby, I love your purple hair and want to make your picture,’ didn’t roll around right and before a more suitable tact could be crafted she spoke first and more beautiful music had never hit ears on the island.
The first words out of her mouth were, ‘You got to take my picture with the donkey!’
Her Picture, with the Donkey
You bet I have. And I did. S and Ruby were great. We laughed. And shot pictures. Ruby loves donkeys and Roosevelt, the donkey, seemed to love Ruby.
After the daybreak fun and games of picture making, we settled into a deep conversation about how to approach the next situation. An aroma of gin infused the air. The ultimate plan was to take the tractor over to the hog so that it could be loaded into the bucket but it would take a lot longer to drive the tractor rather than the car. I decided to follow them in the car with the gun; I could shoot the hog and then return with the bucket to drive it back.
Tension, tension in paradise. How could an island home have ever looked better? The early sun scattered through the trees above the yellow house. But there was tension which could not have been helped by Dad’s funny little joke. H wanted $20 each for three men who had gathered to clean the hog; around the side H got $14 to load the whole dead animal in the bucket. There was some shuffle about $50 for this, and other things confusing. Gin still filled the gentle sea island breezes; sharp, large knives were laid about and a washtub was set to boil. Miraculously correct words were uttered. The deal was set. S and Ruby disappeared, vanished and there was nothing left but business.
My thought was to shoot the hog right then. All apprehension about taking this life was absent; the concern now was that somehow minds would change; concern was focused on ensuring our food for Saturday rather than on feelings of sentiment. We held council. As a bleary eyed white boy with North Carolina plates, they did not extend much confidence in my skills. That changed slightly when they heard that Sporty Roach had raised me and that I had grown up in Wallace and Capers – on St. Helena the areas of the island are called by their old plantation names. Roach was the nickname of Namon; they had known him. He was a big figure in their eyes just as he is in mine – a legend of the creeks and of the baseball diamond and the proprietor of the Chicken Shack, a deadly dangerous club tucked into the Capers area where I had freely roamed from the time of my first steps. Even from beyond, Namon opened doors and gave a sense, correct or not, of protection. On a scale of one to ten with one being no ‘pass’ at all, my status seemed to climb up to about 2.5. Better, acceptable even. Thank you Namon.
S, Helpful at Daybreak
The plan hatched. The hog had received another quarter hour to live. I drove the car back and got the tractor. How surreal – the almost cool air from atop the Massey, the anticipation of killing, the concern for a change of heart. H guided the tractor in and the bucket was lowered. Scrounging through all dark and dusty corners of my life, only two shotgun shells could be found and they were ancient rusted things that looked like survivors of many years of fruitless pursuit in wet places. Would one fire? Note: a 12 gauge is not ideal for the work – while completely effective, the trauma leaves the head a useless bloody mess.
One of the men said to another, ‘I guess he ain’t gonna eat the head if he shoots it with that.’ He was right. The traditional way of killing and butchering a hog is to use it all; that was not the intention of the day. I’d butchered dozens of wild hogs – the down and dirty way – by stripping off the shoulders, the hams and the loins before reaching inside to pull out the tenderloins and heart. That was my bleary eyed plan. No removal of the hair as the skin would be discarded. No hog’s head cheese.
So the moment came. H brought a stingy amount of corn and dropped it in the driest, cleanest part of the pen. I asked if it would hurt the other two hogs’ feelings if we shot their sibling in front of them; H said it is how they did it and he assured it would not hurt their feelings at all. With coaching reminiscent of a covey of drunk and excited baseball fans, the gun took its time settling into the right place to a chorus of, ‘right between his eyes, shoot him right between his eyes.’ And just like that the shot was fired. The hog collapsed into post death spasms and with agility the gun was replaced with a camera.
H jumped across the fence and grabbed the writhing body. The camera was pushed behind as I was called to help lift the still violently shaking but dead animal out of the pen. The throat was cut and remaining motion stopped as the final blood exited through the throat wound and through the head.
Shooting more pictures, my whole being was focused on the images, and trying to get them correct.
And just like that, it was over. The next day’s meal was now still, except for dripping blood, in the bucket. Retrieving the Browning pump, my trusted partner of many excursions stretching decades, it seemed odd how little the other two hogs seemed to care – inches from a coagulating puddle of blood and brains they were cleaning up the last kernels of corn. One looked suspiciously at me and made a noise before returning to the now almost gone bait. The men offered to clean it which would have been fine except for the devotion I felt to you, dear reader, which inclined efforts to doing it myself, alone, to show how easy and practical the process is. (for the sake of drama, I am trying to add embellishments to the process – truthfully, there is little to it and anyone can do this work easily; please accept the dramatic telling for its low brow intent while remembering that making food out of a live hog is actually quite easy – easier that creating drama surrounding the killing)
A funny feeling settled. I really, really wanted to party with those guys. I wanted to stop right there and start on the gin and on cooking and on making tight portraits of their fine faces. A rain check was the best that could be given – work was at hand and my hands were not steady.
A school bus passed and dozens of kids looked down in the bucket and saw the gun and the results of its bloody handiwork. A sense of pride nearly overtook me; Joan, we had our meat – we had it secure. Despite the NC plates on the car and the color of my skin, we were the ones on the island at that moment with a trophy of food. Thank you Beautiful Maker for the moment and for Your bounty of the day.
Now what? Excitement had worn off and the reality of the work settled in. What a beautiful beast – except for the fact it was covered in pig shit and mud and hard thick hair. Channeling Joan, and the other spirits of past and future meals, the decision was made to not simply strip the quarters, loins and heart but instead to skin the whole thing and to then split the back so that two halves, two beautiful halves, could be presented to our party which was scheduled to begin in 28 hours.
But how? How to make it happen? Scrounging through tools, a saw was found – check. On top of a doghouse was about 25 feet of old rope discarded from a shrimpboat. We were in business.
The hog was cleaned. Details, quasi instructions really, are below.
Done, Done. And about that time Dad pulls up. Perfect timing – the work was finished. We laughed as the two halves were lowered into a huge cooler. Still covered in blood, we drove to get the meat iced; unless you have about four days free, don’t get in the car with Dad. When he says, ‘I’ll bring you right back after lunch’ don’t believe him. We rode to get ice and we rode to get goat food and we rode to see people and we rode some more. Thrilling as it was, my eyes were heavy and humor thin. Finally we got back to the house and I stripped naked and washed in hot water with soap before drifting off – there were 58 minutes available before the oyster tide.
Pushing forward, oysters were collected. A reunion was had and miraculously the meat and oysters were delivered to Joan’s door. The rest is history, as they say. A party was had – oh boy, was a party had!
While there was a great crew at Joan’s, all day my mind drifted to the world so different from the mountains, to the new acquaintances and future friends on the island. My mind drifted to the vapor of gin and to the smell of leaves burning in the yard in an attempt to dissuade gnats. I dream of having a party at H’s house, and of drinking gin with that crew.
The feeling that we should have just bought meat never came up – it would have been easier, and probably cheaper. What is the point of it all? Are we here to connect to Wall-mart by IV, to be dripped an opium of plastic and industrial crap? It is a decision – how do we wish to live? Exhausted by days’ end, I felt a gratitude that extended to new friends and to family both alive and passed, and to a Maker that has already provided countless blessings and the offer of realizing those blessings through work and skills learned.
This gratitude makes me think warmly of you and the never ending question allowed us by Bad Rooster, the blog. What can we kill in your back yard?
Joan, Making things Delicious
Cleaning the Hog
With a sharp kitchen knife in one hand and a sharpening stone in the other, business began. Pig skin is tough and hog hair is hard – the combo is hard on a knife edge. As with any hairy animal, the trick is to cut from the inside out – this keeps the edge sharp much better and also creates far fewer loose hairs that stick to wet meat. On the hind legs is a thick tendon that is used to hang the animal. Just above where this tendon connects near the feet a tiny incision is made and then the knife is turned so the sharp edge faces away from the leg. With the edge pointed outward, a ring is made around the leg. Then a slice is made between the bone and tendon (careful here – it is a ton easier if the tendon is not cut).
Once both legs were ringed, the rope was secured with bowline knots which formed a loop which was wrapped around the bucket. Although I’d never done it that way before, it worked like a charm and the body was lifted into the air to a perfect position for comfortable work – a finer working situation could hardly be imagined – thank you again Dad for the idea.
Pigs are dirty; before opening one up it is good to wash it.
Cleaned, or at least with a large amount of the pen soil washed away, it is time to take its clothes off. The front legs are ringed at the lower joint and from the inside a cut just skin deep is made from each of the four rings to the center of the belly. A skin deep cut is then made from the throat to almost the anus. Care must be taken on the belly – at this point only the skin is cut and if a deeper cut is made the intestine or stomach is sliced and an otherwise pleasant job becomes nasty. One thing that is different about cleaning a hog versus cleaning a deer is that the feces of a hog is much nastier than that of an herbivore like a deer. It is like human shit and it nasty – therefore extra care is warranted. I cut a patch around the anus, leaving the vent surrounded by about an inch of skin. Once the preliminary cuts are made, the skin is removed – just work it off always keeping in mind to create the most pleasant looking finished product as possible – there is art involved. Some areas of skin can be pulled off, others need the help of a somewhat dull knife to assist the skin – the perfect blade is sharp enough to cut soft fat, which is between the skin and hide, but not so sharp that it easily cuts the hide.
About this time some neighbors arrived. In the still chilly breeze they built a small fire; I had stripped all clothes except for boots and breeches and the fire felt so good; it added a cheerful aspect to the work. Speedy and Reggie, I am so happy we have gotten to know each other and I look forward to a lifetime of closeness.
Now comes a part that requires care. It is time to liberate the insides. There are two parts that need great attention – they are not difficult but they do require attention and careful knife work. The belly muscle must be cut; just inside of the muscle and pressurized by gravity are the organs we commonly call guts. Carefully nip a hole at the top of the belly which is the part closest to the ass. I’m sure each person has a different technique but at this point I insert two fingers of the left hand into this small cut which are used to guide the knife while holding the intestines away from the edge. There are two layers of membrane which can be felt – one is muscle and the other is like a netting. The netting is not so strong and it can be allowed to hold the guts while the belly muscle is cut down to the sternum, the boney rib cage. You don’t want to cut the guts, especially on a hog.
Now it is time to remove the guts. They are not fragile. Open the hole wider, by breaking the netting with a hand – this will expose the guts. On a deer they easily, too easily sometimes, fall out; a hogs are more secured by tissue. Work the guts out; some work will be required of a knife but again, be careful. When the guts begin to drop the bladder will become visible. The bladder, what we always called the piss sack, is the other critical place where one wants to be exceedingly careful. If you are inclined to sweat with nerves, this is your place to feel very scared and uncomfortable – the whole thing can go tits up fast if the bladder is ruptured and piss get all over the meat. I stick the middle finger of the left hand behind the top of the sack and close the fingers into a fist which seals the top, dry part of the sack between the middle finger and the two fingers above and below; holding that tight, it is time to cut the sack out – a simple nick above the top finger does it and the sack is free and in one’s hand – the sack is then typically thrown at a child or other unsuspecting person nearby – veterans of the process generally scatter like quail in flight when this process is ongoing.
Ease the guts out. Help them out gently – they will fall over the sternum and will stay self contained. The intestine connects to the anus. Reach in as far as possible and push the feces down – it’s easy because the gut is slick; clear the final eight or ten inches of feces, stripping the contents down. Then tie a cord or string around the gut to keep anything from coming out and cut the gut.
Inside the chest the diaphragm will be all that is holding things in. Carefully reach in with a guarded knife and cut the diaphragm close to the ribs – this may have to be done more by feel than sight – and the whole package will want to drop. There are two things that should be recovered – the liver and the heart. The heart is muscle – nothing gross at all – and is good food. The liver is eaten also – but not by me. The guts should be dropped into a bucket for disposal. Just like that, it’s almost done. The final thing is to remove the anus – help it pull through the pelvis with a knife – it will come out nice and easy.
Wash your hands. Have a smoke. Relax a moment. Good work has been done.
I prefer to go sawless most of the time – it is a trick my Grandfather taught and each time I break a carcass down by splitting joints it feels like taking communion with him. Sometimes, as with this hog, a saw must be used to split the whole into halves. A deer’s joints gain incredible strength through design which makes them trickier to separate with a knife; a hog gains strength due to bulk and the joints are much easier to handle sawless. Remove the feet by splitting the lower joints with a knife – the end product is nicer and there are no sharp, cut bones. A saw does not cut meat well therefore with a knife cut down to the bone along the center of the chest; likewise mark the cut line down the back. Ring the neck as close to the head as possible down to the bone – the head should twist off pretty easily once the tissue is cut; a little help with the knife may be needed.
The final thing is to saw the chest and back bone from top (ass end) to the neck. Now there are two halves ready to the pit. You are in business.