Monday, March 05, 2007

Food of the Gods & Pirates & Hillbillies

Well, now, there wouldn't be a reason to keep and slaughter a pig if you couldn't keep the pork, would there? I hear through my patriarch friend that the Mexicans 'round here actually eat the whole hog right when they kill it, rather than preserving it, which I assume to be attributable to the fact that they would not ever have salting weather in Mexico. But I don't know first hand.

What I do know is that 'round here, we salt pork to preserve it. Any processed or preserved meat that you buy commercially is going to have nitrites in it, and those are poisonous, as if there weren't a hundred other reasons to raise your own meat. And there are companies that will gladly sell you all you need to poison your own meat, injecting it with these same useless chemicals.

What you need is non-iodized salt. A little sugar if you like. And the right weather. And like just about everything else, it is a pretty forgiving process. We killed our first pig in March and it was really too warm to salt but we did it anyway, being rather generous with the salt since we were neophytes. It was good. Last year (2005 actually) we were able to kill and salt in December. We used a lot less salt. And it was good. This is the first year we've added sugar to the mix. We haven't eaten it yet, but it smells wonderful.

salting barrel
Originally uploaded by Contrary Goddess.

One of the reasons I really wanted to post this is that people think that in order to salt preserve your meat, you've got to have a smoke house. We didn't have one. Maybe we will one day, but we don't now. What you need is some place cool that rats (and cats) can't get to with enough room to lay out the pieces of the carcass while they absorb the salt. The weather supplies the cool. What we came up with to supply the place was this barrel. It is a BIG barrel, not the size we generally use to store grains and bulk supplies in.

We drilled holes and cut staves. This year we couldn't find all the cut staves so added a few limb pieces at the last minute.

bottom layers
Originally uploaded by Contrary Goddess.

It has three layers. Each of the bottom "shelves" will hold one ham and one shoulder. All you do is trim them up fairly neat and salt all surfaces. We push it in around the bone end a bit. From there it is a race between the bacteria and the salt to get through the meat to the bone. Good cool weather slows the bacteria, but you don't want it to be too freezing (say, not below 20 degrees). This year we added a sprinkle of sugar to all layers for the hams, shoulders and middlin's (bacon).

Different recipes and different instructions will give different amounts and salted at different points in the aging process. We've never actually measured. We salt the day we put it up, of course, and usually two or three days later, and maybe a week after that. And maybe one more time. Each time we salt it, we turn the pieces over. I check the barrel every so often by opening it up and giving it a good sniff. In about three weeks, you can assume it is cured and freeze it. You generally want to freeze it before the weather gets warm for the year -- although our ancestors cured it out hard and kept it hanging all year.

top layer
Originally uploaded by Contrary Goddess.

The two folded pieces are the middlin's. We got the jowls from two pigs, and there is also the fat back (really belly) in this layer in the barrel. If you had enough room, the pieces wouldn't be touching or folded, but we haven't found that it hurts them any.

The ribs of the pig we ate fresh, the day we slaughtered. We cut up the tenderloin and froze that, and the backbone is fresh in pieces in the freezer. I love backbone. When we process through the salt pork, we will cut some into steaks, some into roasts, and some into scraps. We'll boil the bones into broth. The middlin's are especially prized. Maybe next year we'll raise a hog for the extra middlin's and make sausage too.

If you don't use nitrites, the color of the meat will be brown. And it will turn pinkish when you cook it, interestingly enough. This pig was nicely fat. He weighed about 350# and had, in his whole life, eaten probably 350# of commercial pig feed which is mostly corn with some chicken feathers added for protein. Plus our scraps, excess milk and acorns and things like that.

Anyway, that's how we do it. I cannot describe how much we enjoy it. I mean, I love the pig, taking care of him, all that. And I love eating him. And there is an immeasurable depth of respect in that. And it is indescribably delicious.


the Contrary Goddess said...

oh yeah, forgot to mention that I pickled the feet this year. Don't know if we like them or not but we'll see. And we ate the liver during that first week after the kill, just slice it and saute lightly. I'd always heard pig liver wasn't any good but it smelled so good I fried it up anyway and it was a hit. Love liver. And then that's another thing about doing your own meat, you only get so many ribs, so much liver. If you do a beef, there are only so many steaks. And then you eat something else. It is like eating whatever makes in the garden. Good things, one and all.

El said...

I LOVE how forgiving the curing process is. All those little microbes and all that salt kind of working together and also at cross purposes with each other.

My dad had a smokehouse for his fish. He caught salmon and lake trout on Lk Michigan. It was also a fun process (and good eating).

There are so many things we enjoy that are 1. mostly reliant on what we can't physically see and 2. have a large area of wiggle room. Think yogurt, think bread, think gardening, think curing your ham. And cheese. So much to learn, so much to appreciate.

Thanks for showing us the process, CG.

the Contrary Goddess said...

Thank you so much for getting it el! I'm always struck with the wiggle room, as you call it, of all those things. Cooking is a huge one. There is no ONE way to do it -- and that is why my recipes are so non-specific! Each cheese turns out a little differently. There is no McDonaldization of real food -- and that is a good thing.

Gene Logsdon proposed that people ought to have to grow one row of green beans before they are allowed to buy food. I understand why. People ought to preserve food, AND UNDERSTAND THE PROCESS. Why does cabbage make kraut, what makes it bubble, what causes it to stop, what has happened to the cabbage in the meantime? Stuff like that.

And at the same time we need to understand the process, we need to not think it is so mechanical, so cause and effect. There is a lot of magic involved.

And here is to a summer that brings us enough fish to salt and can and smoke them! Yeah! (I hate lake trout -- assuming what they've stocked here might have come from up there -- but maybe they'd be ok smoked.) And those boney fish do well canned because then you can eat all those bones.

Fathairybastard said...

Took part in a pig roast a few years back. Friends of mine set up a square of cinder blocks on a cement floor under a big old shed or tabernacle (built in the 20s). Coles from a fire were put in each corner, and the pig, splayed out flat between two wire box springs, was roasted for about 10 hours. Amazingly good. Meat melted off the bone. Can't wait to do that again.

Fathairybastard said...

Stayed up all night with the guy who was keeping the coles going. Fun. My job was to keep him awake.

the Contrary Goddess said...

I've always wanted to "do" a pig roast. Like you, I attended one. Day one: Dig a pit & drink beer. Day two: put rocks in pit & drink beer. Day three: light fire & drink beer. Day four: keep fire going and drink beer. Day five: put pig in pit, cover with hot rocks and dirt, & drink beer. Day six: eat.

I'm sure killing the pig was in there somewhere (they didn't invite me to that), and it was wrapped in gauze as I remember. Which might well not be correctly. Too much beer. Geez, I was all of 18.

laura said...

what? no birth story??

Danielle said...

We're thinking of curing our hams this spring—I grew up with Virginia ham, so that's what I like.

Sounds like you didn't use any saltpeter in your cure—is that right? Just salt and sugar? I'd prefer to do without nitrates, but the recipes I've found call for them.

I have fond memories of neighborhood pig roasts when I was little—they meant freedom for us kids to run wild and stay up late.

the Contrary Goddess said...

I did the birth stories the first year blogging I think la. Look there ifn you're in'ersted.

We don't use any saltpeter. An actual "Virginia Ham" is fattened on peanuts. Remember, "you can eat the ates but not the ites", so if you had to use nitrates, well, at least they are not poison directly. But you don't actually need anything commercial to do it with.

If you are going to cure a ham, you'd better get on it before you run out of weather.

El said...

We had a pigroast for the day after our wedding (we made our wedding last a whole weekend because really, why go all the way to Minnesota just to come back in a day?). I heard it was quite yums. It was a neighbor's pig, too, lovingly coddled like your boy, though he was comparatively a wee thing (born in spring and put on the fire that September).

I completely forgot about cooking. You are so right. It's also why I can never repeat a recipe! I do try hard, though, to take the variables out of breadbaking, as it is always nice to have consistently high loaves.

Dramaw said...

I went to a pig roast my senior year in high school with a friend. We drove from Richmond to Northfield Minnestoa to visit her sick sister and while we were there, there was a "senior kegger" which included a pig roast. There was probably more drinking than eating going on but I do remember eating some of the meat and liking it. Those were there days. Senior keggers = underage drinking...bad. Where were the cops back in those days!

the Contrary Goddess said...

well, we butchered a shoulder tonight to put in the freezer. It was molded, which doesn't hurt anything. Smelled wonderful but nothing like anything commercial. And tastes heavenly. Very mild, not very salty at all. Served with biscuits and gravy. We'll be trying to do a big joint about every day until we get it all in the freezer.

And of course thoughts go to, when are we getting another pig?

Danielle said...

Alright, so here's a really dumb question, if I had extra fridge space, is there any reason I can't cure in there, which is what I was envisioning?

the Contrary Goddess said...

probably not. We've "hung" meat in an extra fridge when forced to slaughter in the summer. Biggest problems to curing in the fridge would be lack of air movement and it not being dry enough. But that isn't a dumb question and the truth is, if that's what you can do, try it, see what your experience is, and share it because there isn't just one way to do these things. There ARE ways that work better than others, but there is more than one way to skin a cat as they say.

javaseeker said...

Oh my gawd, CG. I'm jealous---got any extra?!

the Contrary Goddess said...

you're welcome to come by for dinner sometime java!

Danielle said...

So, now that I'm in the middle of it, I'm re-reading your post. You freeze after you've salted rather than hanging it?

How long do you keep it in the freezer? Everything I keep reading about the bacon says it only keeps 1-3 months in the freezer once it's been salt-cured. That doesn't seem very long to me, so I'm wondering what your experience is.

the Contrary Goddess said...

My experience is that once it is salt cured, it keeps. The freezing just keeps it hydrated and from molding on the outside.

If we didn't have freezers, I guess we'd salt more heavily, dehydrate more, and hang. But we have freezers.

We took some ham to my in-laws, one of whom likes only salt cured ham and one of whom likes only what we call yankee ham and they BOTH liked our ham and couldn't agree about what it tasted like. However, it doesn't really taste salted. And I thought we'd been generous with the salt this year.

The first year we salted a pig, it definitely did taste like salt.