Butchering Day on the Farm

Smoked Meats

Robert Wood


David Miller, who demonstrates butchering at the Goschenhoppen Folk Festival, has made a small, square, wooden smoke house with which he demonstrates the craft of smoking various meat preparations. When it’s going, smoke pours from every joint and crack and sometimes a helpful visitor will say something like, “He mister, your out-house is on fire.”


Pig butchering was done in the fall and winter when the weather provided refrigeration.  Winter’s freeze held pork fresh for quite some time, but the problem was to preserve some of the meat for the warmer spring months. There were all sorts of methods. Pork could be preserved for a few months just by immersing it in a heavy brine solution. But it was reported to be not particularly good, and no matter how much it was later washed and soaked in clear water, salt-pork was said to be always too salty. Some was cooked and put up in crocks with a layer of lard sealing out the air. In the 20th century, meat was canned in glass jars like vegetables; but by far the most common method of preservation was the curing and smoking of hams, shoulders, bacon, sausage, and bolognas in the “smoke house.” Sometimes a separate structure but often any part of the summer kitchen that could be sealed off, the smoke house was found somewhere on every farm or house that butchered. I’ve seen a staircase in a summer kitchen that was sealed off and used to smoke also at one site the enclosed area above a bake over dome was so used—anywhere that had a floor on which a fire could be built, almost no smoke outlet, and could be sealed off could be used for smoking meat.


According to David Miller, most meat smoking done today is called “hot smoking” which is a fairly light smoking of about a day and requires the product to be refrigerated. However, the smoking done in the old days was “cold smoking” done in a smokehouse kept below 120 degrees (or the fat would melt and drain out of the meat) in smoke so dense that you literally couldn’t see your hand extended at arms length. Meat was smoked day and night for two weeks. The smoldering fire was tended frequently and if the smoke started to thin a few handfuls of wet sawdust were thrown on the fire. This smoked meat was shelf stable for two years. Nancy Roan has written in the Goschenhoppen Region that “Nothing can compare with the smell of the smokehouse, even in the summer time long after the hams and bacons have been removed, the charred interior, black as an Amish man’s hat retains the most tantalizing aroma of smoked meat.”


Smoked meat was left hanging in the smokehouse, if it had a sturdy door and lock, or it was kept in a barn granary which would also have a heavy locked door. Sausage, bologna and other meats were frequently hung in the attic. In old houses the grease marks from fat dripping out can still be seen on the attic floor boards. Before the smoked meat was used, the ham rind or about a quarter inch of any exposed meat that held any fly larva or bacteria was trimmed off and given to the dog.


According to Miller, meats just couldn’t be popped into the smoke house; they had to be cured first. They could be dry cured with salt and seasonings rubbed in, but the most common way was to pickle them in brine solutions in a barrel that was held just above freezing. The curing liquid included salt, salt peter, and flavorings like sugar or molasses. To test the brine, an egg or potato was used; if it floated the brine was strong enough to cure the meat. First into the barrel went the hams, then shoulders, then bacon on top. A board with a rock on top kept the meat submerged. It stayed in there for fifteen days after which it was taken out, placed on a board and the curing liquid changed. The meat was repacked and left to soak for another fifteen days. After this it was taken out and suspended in the smoke for two weeks.


It was said they used everything from the pig except the squeal. Even the tail became a play thing for children, and one reporter notes that it made an excellent Christmas gift for a person you didn’t particularly like. Of the offal, the butcher collected organ meats to be used in scrapple: heart, liver, and kidneys. Also the small intestine was used as the casing for sausage. It was carefully collected in a coil and taken to the manure pile to be cut into three or four foot lengths and emptied. Farm women then ran plenty of water through the intestine before placing it on a clean board and using the blunt back of a knife scraped the inner lining out. Then it was turned inside out and washed and scraped some more. These casings were stuffed with ground pork seasoned with spices and flavorings like coriander, sweet marjoram, salt and pepper and became sausage. Nancy Roan notes that when she was a girl and they butchered, a small pattie of the sausage mix was sometimes taken to the kitchen and fried before stuffing to check of the flavorings were right. In the colonial era the sausage stuffer was a sort of giant syringe with a wooden plunger, but in more modern times various crank driven machines did the job.


Many times if a family had two or three pigs to butcher they would space them out with one in the fall, one in the winter and the fattest one last in the spring so as to have lard over the summer. Toward the end of the butchering process the pig fat would be collected and cut up into small cubes. Heated in a pot, the fat turned to liquid which when cooled became lard after the cracklings were screened out. Lard was the year round shortening for baking, the “oil” for frying, and used in any number of ways in the kitchen.


No article on old time butchering would be complete without mention of the Pennsylvania Dutch favorite—fried scrapple—eaten plain, eaten with apple butter, eaten on bread as a sandwich, eaten for breakfast or anytime. To make scrapple the heart, kidneys, tongue, liver (some omit the liver) scraps, bones and whatever else are thoroughly cleaned and cooked, chopped or ground and brought to a boil in a big kettle.  Many variations of seasoning dictated by the family’s taste can then be added to the pot. (Even in one case grass seed accidentally added by a butcher who mistook it for coriander. It was customary to keep the visiting butcher a bit lubricated with alcohol). Some just added salt and pepper. Others used combinations of sage, sweet marjoram, coriander even bay leaves. After this was boiled sufficiently, cornmeal and buckwheat flour were added to the boil to thicken the mix. When sufficient thickening had been judged to have been added by the experienced feel of the cook and the stirrer, (often a broomstick) stood upright by itself in the mix, the contents were ladled out into pans to cool and thicken. This was later sliced into quarter inch slices and fried.


If some beef was to be had along with the pork, bologna or summer sausage could be made too. Similar to pork sausage, the bologna was stuffed into a special muslin bag and brine soaked for a short time before it joined the hams and bacon in the smoke house. Hung in a dry dark place this would keep into the summer, hence the name “summer sausage.”