Friday, December 23, 2011

Rendering Lard

We’re spending this Christmas with my wife Sandee’s family in Alabama. So upon our arrival last night we, like most families during this time of year, began eating and talking and talking about eating. After some time I was introduced to a new delicacy—the microwaveable bag of fried pork skins.

The wonder of the microwaveable bag of pork skins is a story for another day, but it was those pork skins that started a conversation that held us captive for a good bit of the evening.

After I “popped” the bag of pork skins I walked around the family room and shook them out the bag into everyone’s hands. While doing this I made the mistake of casually asking Sandee’s dad (“Papa,” “Big Dave,” or simply “Mr. Hill,” depending on who you are) what part of the pig the pork skin came from.

As Mr. Hill sat in his recliner, he could have insulted me for asking such a dumb son-in-law question (they are pork skins after all), but instead he overlooked it and launched into a tale about pork processing at home from when he was a 9-year-old boy. The story won’t soon be forgotten.

As we were munching on the pork skins he began, “You see when you butcher a hog, you first dip it in scalding hot water so you can more easily scrape off the hair.” As we checked our pork skins for any remaining pig hair, he continued, “It’s amazing—I’ve seen hogs that were completely covered with black hair but by the time we’d scrape ‘em clean, they’d be as white as the palm of my hand here.”

“So that’s where you get those skins there,” he said. By this time I was the only one that was still reaching into the bag for a second handful of skins. Everyone else was wondering what happened to the black hair that had been scraped off the pig whose skin they were now digesting.

Mr. Hill went on: “My Daddy used to say, ‘we’d cook everything but the oink,’ and we sure did. We’d bake the tongue, scrape inside the head to get the head cheese or pressed meat as we called it, and then sometimes we’d even bake the pig’s ears. The worst thing though would be making chittlin’s from the intestines. We’d boil them and would they ever stink! We’d turn them inside out as we cleaned them. Finally we’d fry ‘em up and I'm tellin' you, they tasted good! Pickled the feet too,” he said.

At this point Sandee took the conversation to a place no one really wanted to go. “Who was the first person,” she asked, “who thought of the idea of cleaning a pig’s intestines so they could boil, fry, and then eat them? What sort of person thinks of such a thing?”

No one really had an answer for that question, and few wanted to think about it long enough to conjure one up. But even if they did, Sandee followed it up with another: “Why,” she said, “did you all bake the tongue when everything else was fried?” Papa didn’t seem to know the answer to this question either but stated that the baked tongue was sliced in a very thin fashion to achieve maximum palatability.

“One other thing, we used to do,” Mr. Hill said, “was to make lard. You know just below the skin is all that pig fat—the lard. We’d scrape all that lard off then put it in a big 15 gallon iron pot. We’d heat it under a big fire until it’d liquefy and then the ‘cracklin’s’ would come to the top. We'd skim those off and that’s what we used to make cracklin’ cornbread and cracklin’ biscuits,” he said. “Then all that lard would sort of be strained and then we’d pour it into buckets to store for later use. We called that process Rendering Lard.”

Sandee suggested Rendering Lard would be a great name for our next diet. I thought it a more proper name for our son Davis’s next rock band.

Mr. Hill saved the best part of his memories for last, however, as he described to us the process of actually killing the pig. “We’d have this little chute that Granddaddy and me would force the pig in to,” he said. “Now Daddy hated killing the pig anyway but one time we had an especially large hog to slaughter—must’ve weighed 600 pounds—and Daddy was especially nervous about it,” he said.

Papa continued: “So how he’d do it is to get above the hog, straddle it sort of, then take a sledge hammer and knock it in the head. Well this one time—on this 600 pound hog—just as he was comin’ down on pig’s head with the sledge, the hog reared back so daddy wasn’t able to get him with a good blow. Boy that pig got mad! He chased Daddy around that pen until Daddy pulled his pistol and shot him. The bad thing about that though is he didn’t catch him clean with the shot so the hog squealed and got madder and ran around after him some more. Daddy emptied the pistol on him but the hog still wasn’t dead. Finally though he ran around in circles until he all of a sudden dropped. Hogs are mean. They aren’t docile like some people think.” I didn't have tangible evidence to refute this last statement, but wondered if we shouldn't study a control group of pigs who were not shot at and beat on with a sledge hammer before passing judgment on that particular hog for his contrary personality.

Now that story might not have been about a Red Ryder BB gun, or a snowstorm, or someone coming back home for Christmas after World War II, but I think it’s one of the greatest Christmas stories I’ve ever heard. I'm glad my kids got to hear it first hand. Someday I hope I'll be able to tell one that is half as good.

But since I can’t, I think I’ll just go render some lard.


  1. Oh, lordie - this one brought back some memories. Yes, I remember hog killing time, too (although my grandpa said we'd use everything but the stink). And being young enough that I thought it was incredibly cool to 'help' my Gran with the lard. I think the pots are still down at the house somewhere. Well, 'pots' is a bit of an understatement. Those suckers were huge cast-iron cauldrons. They'd have been right at home with a witch stirring something disgusting in them at Halloween.

    Of course, now that I'm thinking about that, I'm gonna have to go write up a little story of my own. I don't think it will match Big Dave's saga, but yes, it must be told. By the way, if you haven't heard of souse meat, I bet Dave could enlighten you...

  2. Replies
    1. I guess we were too refined in Minnesota. Our hog butchering meant bringing the hog to town to be slaughter. A women in DC had me smell her meal of chittlins. After a weak response of "interesing", I went to next room to try avoid retching. My dad talked about goose lard sandwiches which I am happy to say that I know nothing about. Anyway your article is interesting and come have been a contest winner.