Wakeman’s Annual Hog Butchering: Tradition as a Well-Oiled Machine
A brief note…this post was written last Tuesday; forgive the opening present tense…
Today is a day of cooking pork. The house smells of it…the lard rendering in the cast iron pan in the oven occasionally echoing a crackle, the pork back bones slow roasting so we can pick the meat and marrow off diligently and smear it on toast with robust, whole grain French mustard, the pot of pork bones on the stove slowly simmering with ginger, onion, soybean paste and chili peppers, forming the base of the traditional Korean soup, Gamjatang. Speaking of traditional, all this pork spreading its tantalizing fumes of fat throughout our kitchen is a direct product of tradition at its best. Now I must admit to being one who swings to the opposite side of the pendulum when it comes to appreciating tradition, succeeding more at recognizing how “tradition” might serve to stifle new growth, new ideas, the sharing and creating of culture, and the like. At times, I have even thought of myself as “traditionless…” which is clearly a misnomer—that would be like calling oneself “cultureless…” which is simply not possible. It is possible to live within what one might consider to be an invisible culture, so accepted in its assumptions and values that it takes on the misrepresentation of the definition “normal.” To be “normal” would be to be of “my culture,” and as proceeds the thought, to be outside of this (invisible) culture would therefore be abnormal. But clearly, any way we slice it, we are not cultureless. And neither are most any of us traditionless. And it is in all this pork cooking and a visit to a neighboring farm last Saturday that reminded me of the beauties of the local traditions that I am slowly learning of, consuming as excitedly as I once consumed the international traditions of places I have traveled to. My home here has become my own foreign playground for exploration of traditions!
An aspect of tradition that I have always been keenly drawn to, along with the majority of the population of the earth, is food. The act of cooking, of tasting, of learning about life and living life through food has always fascinated me, increasingly so. When I was a child, we were deeply encouraged to explore our gastronomical sensibilities. At age 10, when I caught pneumonia, I ate little and refused to drink the horrid, chalky green liquid grandma called my medicine. With a little urging from my father and a hefty bribe of being able to eat a whole ¼ pound of prosciutto all for myself, I promptly took my medicine, ate the prosciutto, and vomited it all back up. But the point is, since you are sidetracked by the vomiting, that I could be bribed—not with candy, but with prosciutto. On my 8th birthday in Rhode Island, when my parents still ran their little dream pizza and seafood restaurant in Shannock near the shore, I was asked what I wanted. I want to have all my friends over to make their own pizzas, with any toppings they might desire. And I proceeded with my culinary plans, encouraging friends to pile as many handfuls of mozzarella or Pecorino Romano or spicy sausage or basil leaves atop the freshly-risen crust…all to have my mother pull the line of cheese out of my throat after indulging in my overloaded first bite. Are we seeing a theme here? No, not with choking on food, but the extreme fascination and love of the way food is made, tastes and operates in culture! My sister and brother undoubtedly have their own mischievous adventure stories with food, such as when Jewells and I spent weeks dotting from train station to train station in little towns in India, weighing what food we would sample and risk potential illness to satiate our lusting taste buds and what food we would politely but with deep-seated personal regret, decline. And certainly living in New York City is a foodluster’s playground. Between the access to affordable cuisine from around the world and access to essentially the United Nations of grocery stores, a person could eat or make anything their mouth-heart might desire.
Moving to the Shenandoah Valley has had its blessings and its curses, as does anything else. And it has certainly demanded some sacrifice in terms of access. But it has provided a new kind of access all its own. Farm. Fresh. Food. Everyone knows the story—farm-to-table, “clean” food, “green” food; we’ve all digested the cultural headlines a thousand times now (and we should be proud that we have!). To this end, Jason and I have traded in our metro card down to Chinatown or over to the Lower East Side or to the Flatiron district for dinner…we have traded that freedom to access certain kinds of food for access to another kind…for a flock of crazy birds, a freezer full of our own beef, and a garden full of tomatoes. And I’ve also gained access to a local food culture that is simply delightful.
Now, not many people would call attending an old-fashioned hog butchering delightful, and I respect that fully. Butchering, in its essence of the act is never delightful. Reverent, maybe, but not delightful. Last Saturday, I was able to join a good ol’ fashioned hog butchering. Every November, the Wakeman family holds a hog butchering where a group of people (mostly men) get together to help one another butcher their hog or hogs to go in the freezer for the year. Billy Wakeman, now 84, was a butcher in his day travelling from farm to farm with a wagon to butcher people’s animals on site. Billy heads up the day’s efforts while men half his age run circles around him, consulting him here and there, and his wife Geneva in the kitchen keeping hot coffee, a hot pot of beans, and pies flowing to the picnic table outside. It is the numerous men’s jobs to do the actual butchering, while it is Geneva’s job to work inside, cleaning each bladder by hand with a small, sharp knife in order that they might be stuffed with meat and hung for six months or more to cure as Summer Sausage.
There must have been 20 men or more, some young boys following their fathers around to learn the customs. That’s just the thing—the whole day’s efforts were a well-oiled machine because of the customs. Everyone knew their part to play. One man knew he was good with the saw to open the rib cage, another knew exactly how hot to stoke the fire underneath the huge black cast iron kettles of water, prepped to rinse down the hog, the cutting tables, and ultimately to boil huge chunks of meat in. A pig is cut just so because of custom. Sausage is mixed just so because that’s the tradition. Sure, there were stories swapped of “my granddaddy used to do his sausage this way,” or “my grandmother made the best pon hoss because she added this spice…” but again and again, it came down to the tradition of that’s the way we do things ‘round here. We cut the pig just so. We scrub the pig just so. We like these cuts. We render the lard just so. Often, as I mentioned, I am quick to see the side of tradition that tends to limit, and so I become a cherry picker of traditions, sampling and tasting through the traditions of a bouquet of cultures. But last Saturday, at Billy and Geneva Wakeman’s annual hog butchering, I also basked in a moment of so appreciating the way that the culture of generations gave birth to a well-oiled machine. From the first sliver of sun pressing over the mountains and the steam of breath that rose from the men that gathered with the family pigs that would serve as a good portion of their protein for the next year, each person knew their place. There was no arguing, no deciding who went where, no discussion over how to hold the knife or where to bring the tractor or how to start the fire. Men moved calmly and steadily to their station, cleaning, scraping, cutting, mixing spices and feeding meat into the grinder to make sausage. And it was tradition that set Geneva inside cleaning bladders, scraping them swiftly with a worn, old knife probably as old as she, preparing them to be first soaked in salt water to “pull out all the impurities,” then stuffed with sausage meat and hung in the meat house for 6 months to cure. And I was grateful for how invited into such a tradition I was. “Photograph this!” a man would say to me and point to his skillful cutting. Another would explain a process, and another would explain why his spices were the best. “Here, taste this,” one man approached me with a slab of fresh liver out of the pot. “Want a pickle or some mustard?” It was delicious, I might add. Although there is a huge jury still out on the health value of liver, and the opponents are as stanchly established as are those tooting its extremely high iron value, if I judged on taste alone, I would have to say it’s an amazing thing and we should all eat it, savoring its tremendous iron levels and its tradition of being a historical health food. That said, this liver was a far cry from the stuff packaged in stores from oversized feed-lot cattle that turns mushy and chalky when cooked. This was intense flavor and consistency that stood its ground. I digress… But I also happened to be in the right place at the right time when one of the men cutting up the prime meats of his hog decided he didn’t need to keep his backbone (usually kept attached to the ribs). “Can I have that?” I asked without getting too close as to seem in the way of the quickly moving knives and small saw. “Sure! Get yourself a bag, and I’ll cut it up for you!” I’ll just say we didn’t let a drop of it go to waste, as mentioned, but after slow-roasting it, smeared the soft, sweet meat onto toast with mustard. Must have been some of the best pork I’ve ever had.
Joining the annual Wakeman Hog Butchering was an education and an honor, and I’ve already been invited back—a couple of people asked why we didn’t have our own hog to bring to be butchered. Don’t worry, I’ve already asked Jason that question. And let’s just say we haven’t ruled it out… I suppose we are building our own traditions, even if we make Korean Gamjatang soup from the bones instead of scrapple…