By Toni W. Riley
The time-honored, handed-down process of curing hams and making sausage is a tradition in many farm families, and it was no different in mine. In the late 50s and 60s, “putting up” pork was a yearly event and still is today. I have strong recollections of killing hogs on our farm in Pendleton County, and I certainly wasn’t traumatized by the process. It was just a part of farm life, and it put meat on the table for the entire year.
Traditionally, we killed hogs over the long Thanksgiving weekend when my mother, who was a schoolteacher, was home. I would watch a little of the Thanksgiving parades, but that day was devoted to preparing the meat.
The first priority was the temperature. It had to be cold — but not too cold — and maintain that temperature for several days. This was to ensure the meat would have natural refrigeration and cure properly.
Processing the meat took three to four days. As the saying goes, “We used almost everything but the squeal.” The pork carcasses were blocked out into the shoulder, the side and the ham. These big cuts were then trimmed into smaller cuts, including bacon, shoulder, pork chops and tenderloin. The trimmings were used for sausage, and, with the fat, we made lard. I ate my share of “cracklin’s,” also known as pork rinds, and my mother’s mincemeat was amazing.
My father was a meat connoisseur. He meticulously trimmed the meat into cuts and took tremendous pride in curing the hams and making sausage.
There was this unofficial contest for the best country ham at the annual Wilson family reunion. Several of the cousins cured hams and brought their pride to the overflowing buffet table. “Jim’s ham” was nearly always the crowd favorite, based on how empty the platter became during the meal.
Over the years, I watched as my dad skillfully trimmed the hams with a well-worn knife that he sharpened to perfection with a handheld whetstone.
The meat was laid out on a wide shelf that extended the length of our smokehouse. He would move the cuts to a table and expertly trim them down. From time to time, he would talk about how “Pop” did it. Pop was his father, who died several years before I was born.
As I grew up, my father let me try my hand at trimming. The hams were off limits for many years, but I could trim out the shoulders, the bacon and ribs from the side.
Curing and preserving meat is generational as well as cultural. The only difference from country to country is the spices. It was interesting that my mother’s Campbell family emigrated from Scotland in 1868 and provided the recipe for the sugar cure we used on the hams, bacon and shoulders. The sausage recipe came from my paternal grandmother’s family the Lowe’s, who can be traced back to Virginia and North Carolina, and ultimately England and France.
Sausage was an important staple in our family meal plan. I can remember my dad actually cutting up a shoulder when he didn’t think he had enough sausage. The battle was between my mother and father as to how “hot” the sausage would be. My dad liked it hot; my mother not so much.
As my parents weighed the tubs of trimmings, my dad would measure out the spices, and, as the recipe notes, he would double the measurements for everything.
The game was, that while my dad wasn’t looking, my mom would sneak some unseasoned meat in with the seasoned meat to try to dilute some of the heat. It was a yearly ritual, and we never knew who actually won until the sausage was cooked. My dad had to finally give in and make a batch of mild just for my younger sister, who simply refused to eat the hot sausage. Packages marked “Gail” were included with the regular.
Once the sausage was seasoned, it was ground. We had a hand-cranked meat grinder, and I remember as a little girl dropping the seasoned meat into the grinder while an adult cranked.
I had to drop slowly, and the pieces had to be small enough to not choke the grinder. This was a slow, monotonous process for a child, and what was probably 75 pounds of sausage meat appeared to be several tons to a little girl. I got tired, but was expected to keep going.
A few years later, we got a motorized grinder, which sped up the process, but it was still a tiresome job. Eventually, we took the meat to a commercial butcher and had it ground there. Hallelujah!
A unique part of our sausage preparation was the way we preserved it. Here in the Pennyrile, most people packed the sausage in bags and either froze or smoked it. We canned the sausage.
After it was ground, my mother, grandmother and I would pat the sausage into patties, and my mother would fry them until they were almost done. She then packed the patties into quart jars, poured in some grease and processed the jars in her large pressure canner, according to the Ball Blue Book recommendation.
Breakfast was traditionally biscuits and sausage, and of course, this was where the heat level of the sausage was revealed. If mother was successful, then the sausage was mild, but if she wasn’t, then have a glass of milk handy.
At some point probably in the late 60s, two important things happened in the preserving of the sausage. My parents bought a second freezer, and my dad purchased an attachment to the motorized meat grinder that would stuff sausage.
My mother would sew quite a few little sacks of muslin cloth that we would stuff with the sausage that was ground by the butcher. This eliminated the need to stand over a hot stove and pressure canner for hours.
Today, processing pork is still an important tradition and way of life. Neighbors give sacks of their own or locally made sausage as gifts. There are Facebook posts of smokehouses full of meat, and 4-H students sell sausage to fund next year’s hog project. Christian County 4-H oversees a country ham project where 4-Hers learn how to cure a country ham. My own daughters learned to cure a ham from the project, much the same way their grandfather did.
I still have my dad’s trimming knife, sharpened to a thin, narrow blade from years of use, to provide my family with beautifully cured hams and great tasting sausage — even if I need a glass of milk handy to cool the heat.
Campbell family sugar cure
100 pounds of meat
3 pounds coarse dry salt
1 pound brown sugar
1 pound black pepper
1 ½ ounces of saltpetre
Mix together well and rub into meat, making sure to work mixture into ends and around bones. Pat some into surfaces when laid on the bench.
Alice Wilson’s sausage
24 pounds of meat, cut into small pieces
1 scant cup salt (about 2/3 measuring cup)
4 tablespoons sage
3 tablespoons black pepper
2 tablespoons red pepper
Allie always used a teacup to measure salt, using a scant cup. This recipe is mild. As you will remember, Daddy always about doubled everything except salt.