Appalachian Hog-Killing Tradition

Published on October 16, 2015
Written by Ray Access

Seldom practiced today, it was an annual rite.

Back in the heritage days of yore, when family homesteaders worked the land in small, tight-knit communities, they held community hog-killing days. These Appalachian events were held between Thanksgiving and Christmas when the weather turned cold. Hog killing provided meat for the winter and served to bring the community together once more before snow made travel difficult, even to the next holler.

Prior to the invention of refrigeration, the cold weather helped preserve meat. But that wasn’t enough: the meat was meticulously cured and then smoked. Everyone helped out during a hog killing. Even the children had chores to do. And although it hasn’t continued into the present, hog killing days became an Appalachian family tradition.

Going Whole Hog

Appalachian settlers embraced the hog for a number of reasons, mainly economical. The hogs born in the spring are ready for slaughter by late autumn, so a family only needs to maintain the breeding stock through the winter. Hogs eat much of the same food as people eat: corn, nuts, wild fruit and root plants, for example. So they don’t require a special crop or expensive meal.

A fully-grown hog can weigh up to 300 pounds, and the settlers used every ounce, from the bones to the blood. At the end of the day, there were hams, pork chops, bacon, lard, sausages, headcheese, chitterlings (more commonly known as chitlins, which are the pig’s intestines), blood pudding, spareribs and more. It helped feed the family for a full year.

A Community Event

A hog-killing day always started with slaughtering the animal. Then it’s bled and boiled so the hair can be removed, usually by scraping the skin with a dull knife. When it’s cut open, everyone pitches in to gut and clean the carcass.

Now picture a whole community coming together for hog-killing day! It’s a messy day that ends with tasty morsels for everyone. In fact, at a community hog killing, everyone leaves with fresh meat or cans of sausage as payment for all their hard work.

A Cure to All Ills

To cure the meat, every square inch has to be rubbed with salt and other spices. Every family had their only secret formula. Some ingredients included red pepper, saltpeter, black pepper, even sugar when it was available. Depending on the family’s unique heritage — Irish, English, Italian, Polish — their cures often featured the spices of their homeland, which influenced their blends.

Once fully coated, the meat is stored in boxes of salt for up to two months. Then it’s smoked for several days. Only then can it be stored, either in a smokehouse or at a packinghouse. In the old days, every family had a smokehouse.

A Family Tradition

Properly prepared, the meat often lasts a whole year without rotting. It was a family treat to pull a months-old ham from storage for dinner. Mother had to scrape off the layer of salt and then soak the meat overnight in fresh water to reduce its overwhelming salty taste. But paired with sweet potatoes, fresh greens and steaming biscuits, it made a mouth-watering meal that warmed the whole family, no matter how cold it was outside.

Unfortunately, hog-killing day is one of those traditions that Appalachian families have left behind. Today’s food abundance and larger communities have made such traditions obsolete. Families are mostly better off today, but they’ve also lost something important: the camaraderie of community and the knowledge of where their food came from.